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4.2 Headings: Clearly indicate specific topics or summarise main messages

See 4.2 of the Checklist

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Benefits of good headings

Good headings help readers find information quickly and understand it more easily.

Headings provide an outline, overview, or summary of the content of a document. When used liberally, they—

  • keep content organised
  • make it easy to navigate through the document
  • break up text for visual appeal.

Types of headings

Headings may be divided into 3 main types. You should consider all the options and select the type of heading that will best help the reader. Don’t choose one style and shoehorn the text to fit.


The heading describes the topic of the text that follows:

            Grant of licences


The heading summarises the main message of the text that follows:

            Minister may grant licences


The heading takes the form of a question that is answered in the text that follows:

            Who may grant licences?

Generally, the question form should not be used in legislation. Instead, the statement form of a question can be used, for example, “How notice of sanction may be given”, rather than “How may notice of sanction be given?” (Social Security Act 2018).

Headings in question form may irritate the reader if overdone. They can appear patronising, and are irritating to some users who are familiar with legislation. There is also a risk that important information may be missed if not covered by a question. Therefore, in legislation, use headings in the question form sparingly.

However, headings in question form can be useful for instructions and processes. For example, in training documents they may be useful if you know what your reader might ask. They are particularly useful in forms, where they create a sense of immediacy and can engage the reader in a dialogue.

Balanced headings

The purpose of a heading is to clearly indicate the specific topic or summarise the main message in the text that follows. The skill in writing good headings is to focus on the main message and achieve a balance between length, accuracy, and precision. The following will help you to achieve this balance.           

Keep headings short without being vague or inaccurate:

Example 1

cross.gif Minister’s powers
tick.gif Minister’s power to issue licences

Avoid unnecessary detail:

Example 2

cross.gif Do I have to file a newspaper notice of my activities before I begin operations?
tick.gif When to publish a public notice

Use language that is broadly consistent with the language of the text itself:

Example 3


What do I do if I suspect someone of fraud?

This document provides guidance on the procedures for dealing with instances of deception or suspected instances of deception.


What do I do if I suspect someone of fraud?

This document provides guidance on the procedures for dealing with instances or suspected instances of fraud.

Accurately indicate the main subject of the text. For example, if the text deals equally with A, B, and C, the heading should not refer to just A and B. In the following example, anyone scanning the table of contents for information on pelicans would miss this information:

Example 4


Keeping foxes and badgers as pets

This document provides guidance on the best way to care for foxes, badgers, and pelicans that are kept as pets


Keeping foxes, badgers, and pelicans as pets

This document provides guidance on the best way to care for foxes, badgers, and pelicans that are kept as pets.

Avoid over-precision that can result in lengthy headings:

Example 5

cross.gif Prohibitions in relation to radioactive waste or other radioactive matter and other waste dumped from any ship, aircraft, or offshore installation in coastal marine area
tick.gif Prohibitions relating to radioactive and other waste in coastal marine area

Avoid over-generalising or over-simplifying:

Example 6

cross.gif Corrupt use of official information

If the section deals with only one aspect of corrupt use (eg, treating certain persons as officials to whom other provisions of the Act dealing with corrupt use apply), a better heading would be:

Example 7

tick.gif Certain persons treated as officials in corruption proceedings



Thinking about headings is a useful way of testing whether the subject matter should be in more than 1 provision.


Concerns about redundancy in headings

Redundancy in headings is the concept that repeating the law in different words creates the potential for misinterpretation. For example, section headings that partially repeat the content or say it in a subtly different way may be inconsistent with it and therefore create interpretation issues. The same concerns arise about other non-substantive indications of meaning like examples and outlines.

The PCO doesn’t strictly apply a “rule” against redundancy. The PCO recognises that some redundancy in section headings may help readers to understand a provision more easily. However, there are limits to this approach. Headings (and other indications) can play only a supporting role. A drafter must always ensure that a heading is accurate, is consistent with the text, and is not likely to cause interpretation issues.

Varying tone in legislation headings

Headings can help you address the reader more directly. Using a different tone can help you to offer a fresh insight into what the provision means.

Headings can allow for a more direct, if less exact, form of language. This example from ACT’s Electoral Act 1992 uses the colloquial expression “advertorial” in the heading. The heading succinctly describes the subject matter of the section in language that many users would immediately understand. The section itself is a more formally worded rule:

Example 8

tick.gif 32 Advertorials
    A newspaper must not publish an election advertisement in a form intended to appear like an editorial or newspaper reportage.

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