How to write descriptive headings

By on December 1st, 2015 in Clear writing, Structure, Web
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Descriptive headings help your readers find and understand your information quickly. Here are two ways to write them.

Descriptive labels signpost your main topics

Label headings are usually just one or two words. Descriptive labels are a bit longer and give more information.

Let’s say I’m writing about walnut farming and my first heading is the label ‘Overview’. I could easily help readers by adding key topic words to the label. So instead of ‘Overview’, I could write ‘Overview of walnut farming’.

It’s not much effort but it makes a big difference. Readers, scanners, and skimmers can quickly tell what the following information is about. They might read it, they might not, but at least they’ve made an informed choice.

Image, walnut orchard.

A walnut orchard — so pretty. Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture / CC BY

Descriptive headings summarise your main messages

People often don’t read all of our carefully crafted words, especially online. If you want your readers to get your main messages, even when they’re not reading every word, then your headings give you a valuable opportunity.

Let’s pretend I’m writing an online article about walnut farming for people with lifestyle blocks who are thinking about trying nut farming. I want them to get an overview of what’s involved, so I’ll be keeping the ‘Overview of nut farming’ heading, but adding a bunch of descriptive subheadings. Here’s my draft subheadings with my main messages.

Walnuts are one of the highest value crops per hectare

Walnut trees take 15 years to establish

Walnuts need a warm, dry climate and irrigation

You can double crop with pasture or berries

Harvest time is labour intensive

Mature walnut trees can be harvested for their high-value timber

Even if my paragraphs didn’t get read or were skimmed, readers would get my main points from the headings. Tempted to try walnut farming anyone?

Image, delicious walnut dish.

Walnuts are delicious and very nutritious. Image by Wicked Sushi / CC BY-ND

Descriptive headings work anywhere

Descriptive headings and subheadings work anywhere — in emails, reports, online, or in brochures. Use them and your readers will thank you for showing them the way and making it easier to ‘get’ your messages.

Find out more

Descriptive headings can also help you to plan your writing. See: How to plan and structure your writing with descriptive headings.

8 responses to “How to write descriptive headings”

  1. sandra folk says:

    I agree that using two part headings, which act like sign posts along the way when trying to find one’s way when traveling are an excellent way to help readers navigate a document so they are able to understand what is it written. However, I think if the the author is able to effectively hone in on the ideas he/she wishes to explicate for the reader, the headings could be made shorter and grab the reader’s attention more readily.

    • lesleyhanes says:

      Paul’s two-part heading was a solution to the constraints of a template that had pre-set headings which weren’t descriptive. A workaround rather than how he would do them if he could. I agree that if you can encapsulate your message or ideas succinctly in a heading then it is a good thing to do. I guess a lot depends on the context, audience, and medium, and layout options.

  2. Maryland, USA says:

    Many proposal writers and managers won’t use descriptive titles for headings at Levels 1, 2, and 3; they slavishly parrot the dull, vague headings from the Request for Proposal. But when I can–that is, when “they” let me”–I use a two-part heading: Part 1 dull, Part 2 descriptive. I also use a one-part or two-part descriptive caption for every figure and table.

    • lesleyhanes says:

      Hi. That’s a great solution to the problem of preset headings that aren’t descriptive. Well done. I wonder if they’d let you make part 2 part of the template?

      • paul613 says:

        Yes, my boss loves the two-part captions; part 2 is built into our template; Its actual name, as seen in the Styles pane, is
        Caption Part 2 (¶¶ Action)

        The ¶¶ reminds writers to click Style Separator (¶¶ in the Quick Action Toolbar) to make Part 2 continue in-line with Part 1 (“Caption”). Styled a bit lighter than Part 1, Part 2 won’t appear in the List of Exhibits, so writers can write it as long as they dare..

        We seldom use Part 2, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

        • lesleyhanes says:

          Wow. That’s not only a clever workaround for the limitations of a template, but an excellent use of styles too. I’m sure these are solutions many people could adopt, so thanks for sharing.

      • paul613 says:

        Ah, Leslie, I see now that you were speaking of two-part headings, not two-part captions. I won’t be allowed to program two-part headings of different styles.into the template. I should clarify: I’ll write Heading 1 as two part, in the same phrase–something like, Approach: Do More With Less.

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