The earliest memory I have of writing is producing a very long and serious essay on Hamlet. I managed to write eight pages. The teacher wanted 2000 words – minimum. So, we all churned out hundreds and hundreds of words. Did anyone read it? Probably not.
Maybe you wrote something like it too. Do you remember what it looked like? Think back. Long, heavy, dense paragraphs, all written in long-hand. Easy to read? My essays (maybe yours were better) never used a single heading. Large slabs of text. Starting with the introduction (Hamlet was the son of…) it galloped headlong towards the end (…which is why he died!).
In academic writing, particularly ‘creative writing’, you can get away with such things. What’s important is that you get your feelings and thoughts down on paper.
Business writing is very different.
Unlike academic writing, in the business world you have a very attentive audience, some of whom have paid money to buy your products! They expect you to tell them how it works, which only seems reasonable.
A lot of my time is spent editing other people’s work. One of the quickest ways to get started, or at least get into the document, is to introduce strong headings. These add shape and confidence to the document. Suddenly it has structure. A framework begins to emerge.
Why Write Headings?
Knowing how to write clear, informative headings will make a great difference to your documents. Headings are like sign-posts. They tell the reader where to go. They call out and say, “This paragraph is about Writing Blogs” while the next says, “this paragraph is about Business Blogging.” Without them the document is reduced to a rant. It goes on and on without direction. You, the reader, can’t find anything. Looking at the document makes you negative. Not a good start!
Usability.gov touches on this point, “Once the information is chunked appropriately, write headings that are descriptive of the information. On the Web, page headings become links out of context on a previous page – like the table of contents of a printed booklet. Therefore, headings should clearly explain to users what page they are about to link to.”
Short informative headings help readers focus. They summarize text into ‘bite-size’ sentences. As the name implies a heading is the ‘head’ of the text you’re about to introduce.
Writing Effective Headings
Try to distill your headings into snappy 3-5 word sentences. Use positive language. Get to the point. Avoid using jargon, puns, archaic words, complex phrases, and other such affectations.
To write an effective heading:
Examine the section you want to summarize.
Identify the key topic. Every section (and paragraph) should have one key topic. Don’t mix ideas. You’ll confuse the reader and probably yourself in the process.
Write a single sentence that describes the section. Keep it very simple.
Revise the sentences and add an action verb. For example, note the difference between Printing Duplex Reports, Saving XML Files To Shared Networks, Creating and Archiving Backups instead of Reports, Files, and Backups. While the former is informative and descriptive, the latter is dry and curt.
Emphasize actions with nouns. Write Printing Digital Forms rather than Printing.
Are Headlines Important?
Research from Eyetrack III shows that readers scan documents rather than read word by word, , especially when reading online. In general, readers start with the first heading (or summary) and then, if interested, scan the other headings on the page. If their interest is piqued, they’ll go back and read more text.
Eyetrack III add that “People typically scan down a list of headlines, and often don’t view entire headlines. If the first words engage them, they seem likely to read on. On average, a headline has less than a second of a site visitor’s attention.”
It’s not just the headlines that they scan, rather it’s the first few words in the headline that matter.
“For headlines — especially longer ones — it would appear that the first couple of words need to be real attention-grabbers if you want to capture eyes.”
Content is judged literally in the blink of an eye.