3.2 Headings

Headings are standard features of technical documents that serve several important functions:

  • provide organizational overview of the document
  • show logical development of ideas
  • show hierarchical relationship of ideas (headings, sub-headings)
  • enable the reader to scan and read selectively
  • increase readability of the document by providing breaks and passive space

Effective headings use concrete, descriptive language to tell the reader what to expect from the content of each section. Avoid “functional” headings when writing technical reports. Functional headings are used in documents that have consistent structures, such as science lab reports, when each section must fulfill a particular function. For example,

  1. Introduction
  2. Materials
  3. Procedure/Methodology
  4. Data/Results
  5. Discussion/Conclusions
  6. References

Technical reports are usually not so strictly organized or predictable.  Readers will find it much more helpful if headings concretely describe the content of each section rather than the function. Using descriptive headings will also result in an easily usable document; that is, the reader will easily be able to find information.

Note the differences in the two Tables of Contents in Figure 3.2.1, each generated automatically from headings within their respective documents. Which one gives a clear idea of the content of the report?

the box on the left shows a table of contents using only function based headings (Introduction, Problem Definition, Proposed Solution, Benefits, Conclusion, Recommendation, References. Table 1. Figure 1. The box on the right contains a table of contents using descriptive headings and captions: Ski Lift Safety Issues, Deropement Problems in Tow Lifts, Propsed Rope Catcher Solution, Benefits of Implementation, Resolving the Safety Issues, Recommendation, References. Table 1. Cost breakdown for one tower installation. Figure 1. Proposed Retainment Device
Figure 3.2.1 Functional vs descriptive headings (Last, 2019). [Image description]

General Principles for Designing Headings

When designing the headings in your document, keep in mind these general principles:

  • Hierarchical Relationship of Ideas: Use font size, boldness, typography and color to indicate the relative importance of ideas and how they inter-connect. In general, first level headings are larger and bolder than second and subsequent level headings.
  • Consistency: If you use headings, every section must have a heading. Make sure your headings at each level are consistent in design (font, size, color, indentation, etc.) Use consistent, parallel phrasing as well. Use the STYLES function in Word to help design and maintain effective and consistent headings throughout your document.
  • Readability: Leave passive space above and below headings. Leave slightly more space above the heading than below it. As a general guideline, use two-to-four headings per page in short reports. Avoid overusing headings.
  • Specificity: Use descriptive headings that inform the reader of the content of each section. Avoid vague headings, and avoid using too many headings. Headings may be formatted using an alpha or numeric system, if there are many sub-sections. Use the alpha system when writing for business purposes; use the numeric system (with Arabic numerals: 1, 2, 3 . . .) if writing for technical purposes. The Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (OACETT), for example, requires that technical reports submitted for the certification process include numbered headings (n.d.). Also, see Seneca’s A Guide to Writing Formal Technical Reports (Potter, 2021) for additional guidance.

Review the following video to better understand how to integrate the different heading levels into an APA formatted document.

(Using Headings and Subheadings, 2015)

SUMMARY:  DO and DON’T rules when designing headings

DO the following:

  • Use a sans serif font for your headings.
  • Use descriptive (rather than functional) headings.
  • Make sure there is slightly more white space above a heading than below it.
  • A heading must have a block of text below it. Remember to include a lead-in sentence below the heading when it is followed by a list, a figure, or table.

DON’T do the following:

  • Do not “stack” headings. Avoid stacking one heading directly below another. A heading is like a chapter title; it must have at least a sentence of information below it.  Stacked headings can indicate inefficient organization of information.
  • Do not overuse headings. Keep in mind that every sentence does not require its own heading, nor does every paragraph.  Overuse of headings indicates an inefficient organization of ideas that needs revision.
  • Do not use a heading to introduce a table, figure, or list. You must have text below a heading that introduces and explains the figure or table.
  • Avoid creating “lone headings.” Ideally, a heading should have at least one, often several, paragraphs of text below it.  A heading defines a SECTION of the document. In the example below, there are 2 first-level headings, 2 second-level headings, and 2 third-level headings. Having only one heading at a level is like having only one item in a list. Try to avoid it.
  • Avoid creating “widows and orphans” by leaving a heading at the bottom of the page with no body text below it. Insert a hard page break before your heading to avoid this.
  • Don’t refer to a heading as “this” in the body text below it. Begin your sentence as if the heading were not there. Never start a new section with a pronoun that refers to a previous idea.

The examples below illustrate the use of heading sizes and font types, with numbered headings and without, to show the relationship of ideas within the report. The headings were created using the Styles option in MS Word.

Level One Headings

First level headings should be the largest, and should be bolded.

Level Two Headings

Second level headings should be slightly smaller or in some way distinguished from first level headings. You might consider indenting the heading and aligning the subsequent blocks of text.

Level Three Headings

Third level headings, if you use them should be further distinguished by smaller size, italicizing, and/or indenting them. And so on…

Using the Styles function in Word, as well as the Document Elements, allows you to auto-create a table of contents from the headings in your documents. These will automatically update as you revise your document and add sections, which will save you considerable time in the long run. Similarly, you can also create an automatic Table of Figures if you use the Caption function. Learning how to use these formatting tools will make your report writing much easier, and will allow you combine sections written by different team members easily and effectively. Use the tutorials in MS Word, or search for current online video tutorials showing how to use these tools.

1. Straw Bale Construction

Under this first level heading you will find text all about straw bale construction. It will go on for several lines. If there is a Section numbered “1”, there will also be a “2″ Section. Avoid lone headings.

1.1. Post and Beam with Straw Bale Infill

This section may align directly under the previous heading, or be indented.

This will not be a lone heading; this section will have more than one heading at this level (1.2 and maybe a 1.3).

1.1.1. Relevance

This third level heading is indented, and smaller or in italics to set it off from second level heading. Again, if you have a number 1.1.1 heading, you should have a number 1.1.2, etc.

1.1.2. Additional Third Level Heading

Text should be added below each heading. Avoid stacked headings.

1.2. Additional Second Level Heading

Text, text and text

2. Cinder Block Construction

More text… Make sure that you do not stack headings one on top of the other.

EXERCISE 3.2 Review questions

Answer the following review questions:

  1. As a guideline, how many headings should you use per page?
  2. What is an acceptable size range and font style for headings?
  3. What are “widows and orphans” in the context of document design?
  4. What are several purposes that headings can have in a document?
  5. What are “lone headings”? Should you use them?
  6. What are “stacked headings?”  Should you use them?
  7. What is the difference between a “functional” heading and a concrete or “descriptive” heading?
  8. True or False: You should have more white space above a heading than below it.
  9. True or False: A heading can be used to introduce a figure or a list.

Further practice: 

Review a document you have written, such as a research essay, and see if you can divide it into logical sections introduced by concrete, descriptive headings.

Review the Headings PowerPoint.


APA Assistant. (2015). Using headings and subheadings. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsMeXUyVaCg&list=RDLVJpVTo7bTnXU&index=5

Last, S. (2019). Technical Writing Essentials. BCcampus. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/

Microsoft. (n.d.). Add a heading. https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/add-a-heading-3eb8b917-56dc-4a17-891a-a026b2c790f2

Microsoft. (n.d.). Add, format, or delete captions in Word. https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/add-format-or-delete-captions-in-word-82fa82a4-f0f3-438f-a422-34bb5cef9c81

Potter, R. L. (n.d., 2017, 2021). A guide to writing formal technical reports: Content, style, format.
Original document by University of Victoria (n.d.). Engineering work term report guide: A guide to content, style and format requirements for University of Victoria engineering students writing co-op work term reports. (Updated by Suzan Last, October, 2017 and adapted by Robin L. Potter (2021). OER.

The Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (OACETT). (n.d.). I need to complete a technology report. OACETT. http://www.oacett.org/Membership/Certify/TR#Technology%20Report%20Guidelines

Image descriptions

Figure 3.2.1 image description:

Function-based headings:

  • Introduction
  • Problem Definition
  • Proposed Solution
  • Benefits
  • Conclusion
  • Recommendation
  • References
  • Table 1
  • Figure 1.

Descriptive headings:

  • Ski Lift Safety Issues
  • Deropement Problems in Tow Lifts
  • Proposed Rope Catcher Solution
  • Benefits of Implementation
  • Resolving the Safety Issues
  • Recommendation
  • References.
  • Table 1. Cost breakdown for one tower installation.
  • Figure 1. Proposed Retainment Device

[Return to Figure 3.2.1]



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Technical Writing Essentials Copyright © 2019 by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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