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4.4 Headings: Appear frequently enough to help readers scan and find specific information easily

See 4.4 of the Checklist »

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Headings help readers to scan and find specific information easily and quickly. This does not necessarily mean that the more headings you use, the easier the document will be to read. The skill is finding the right balance between providing useful, informative headings and maintaining the flow of the document.

Frequency of headings

Headings are signposts for readers that reveal the structure and subject matter of the document. They need to be substantive, because headings without substance are not signposts—they just waste space. However, headings that announce every topic, subtopic, mini topic, and micro topic are exhausting to scan.

Avoid generic headings

Whatever appears under the first heading is obviously the introduction, so avoid a generic label and make the heading descriptive:

Example 1

cross.gif 1 Introduction
tick.gif 1 Proposal summary
tick.gif 1 Purpose of the meeting
tick.gif 1 Overview of legislative principles

Frequency of headings in legislation

The content and size of the legislation will be a key factor in determining the level of headings selected and the number of headings required.

For instance, in the following example, the subject is too narrow to include Part and subpart headings. The document is too short even to require cross-headings to guide the reader through the subject matter. If cross-headings were added, they would each have a single provision beneath them, which would duplicate the provision headings and, therefore, would be redundant.

Example 2—Subject matter and size will help to determine headings

cross.gif Fisheries (Prohibition on Taking Sharks) Regulations 2019
  1 Title
    Part 1
Preliminary provisions
  2 Commencement
  3 Interpretation
    Part 2
  4 Prohibition on taking specified sharks
    Part 3
  5 Permit for taking specified sharks
    Part 4
Record keeping
  6 Record keeping
tick.gif Fisheries (Prohibition on Taking Sharks) Regulations 2019
  1 Title
  2 Commencement
  3 Interpretation
  4 Prohibition on taking specified sharks
  5 Permit for taking specified sharks
  6 Record keeping

Frequency of headings in other documents

In documents other than legislation (for example, a memo to SMT, a recommendation, an application, or a discussion document), the headings must convey your “argument” or the document’s proposal to the reader based on the subject of your document. The headings are there to help tell the “story” in brief (to outline the subject matter), not to explain the structure of your document.

Example 3—Headings outline the subject matter

tick.gif Flimsy claims for legalese and false criticisms of plain language:
A 30-year collection
  1 Exaggerations about traditional legal language and legal drafting
  2 Plain language as elitist, prescriptive, moralistic, and inflexible
  3 Constricted views of plain language
  4 Other distortions and misconceptions

Too many heading levels in other documents

Writers often use too many heading levels. This leads to attempts to make them visibly distinct, usually with combinations of bold or italic, underlining, point size, capital letters, first line indents, and font.

Writing an outline can be a good starting point for your headings, but simplify it further.

Try to limit yourself to 3 heading levels. Heading hierarchies that use too many levels create both structural and typographic problems. With legislation, PCO’s drafting software has resolved the issue for you. Word provides options for headings for non-legislative documents (but take care, Word’s extensive heading-hierarchy options can lead to complexity). See 4.6 of the Checklist: Headings have a clear and consistent hierarchy.

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