One of the most important elements of a book is its format. That includes its paragraph lengths, chapter lengths, and, the primary focus of this article, appropriate headings. Books that are well-formatted offer a seamless and smooth experience for the reader. We will explore further below what is a heading in a book, how to craft a good one, and why it is important.
What is a heading?
Headings in books are a few words or short phrases that introduce the following written passage. For example, the heading of this paragraph is ‘What is a heading?‘ Simple, straightforward. By reading the heading, you naturally expected a definition to follow. In general, main headings are followed by an introduction to the text’s key points.
Why are headings important?
Headings in fiction vs. non-fiction
Fiction books are formatted chapter by chapter, so headings in this type of book are often found at the beginning of a chapter (known as chapter headings) and do not appear again until the following chapter.
Non-fiction books may have several headings and subheadings within a chapter. These headings help split up the text so that the reader can focus on the main message the author wants to convey. A basic example is a school textbook.
Some fiction books include headings within the chapters, but this is often a stylistic choice. For example, an author may write a story in episodes, whereby several separate stories or timelines feature within the same chapter. In such cases, headings help the reader transition from one narrative to another.
What is a subheading?
A subheading serves the same purpose as a heading—it informs the reader of what to expect next. The difference between headings and subheadings is that the main heading applies to the overall text, while a subheading dives deeper into specifics. They subdivide the text into smaller ‘chunks‘ or ‘bits‘. Subheadings are often used to support the main point or argument with relevant facts or research or to offer a more in-depth explanation of a point.
For example, we used the heading ‘What is a heading?‘ earlier. Underneath that main heading is the subheading ‘What is a subheading?‘. The subheading is smaller than the main heading, known as a lower-level heading. Under a subheading, the text is still relevant to the main heading but explores the subject further.
Types of headings and subheadings
You can use different types of heading to introduce a section of text. The context of your texts determines which type of heading to use. In general, headings fall under one of three categories: question headings, topic headings, and statement headings.
- Question headings, as the name suggests, ask the reader a question (What is SEO?).
- Topic headings are typically one or two words in length and simply refer to the topics explored underneath (Keyword Research).
- Statement headings are typically longer than the other two. They include nouns and verbs and are often seen in newspapers and articles (Keywords Widen Your Reach).
What are heading levels?
Heading levels separate types of headings by importance. A higher-level heading, typically one or two words in length, covers the overall topic. Lower-level headings generally are longer, whereby the author has the freedom to use more words to describe the succeeding text.
Heading levels descend by importance. H1 is bigger and more general than H2, and H2 is bigger and more general than H3.
H2 expands on the points introduced under H1. H3 expands on the points made under H2. As such, headings must be used in order—do not follow an H1 with an H3 or an H2 with an H4.
How many headings should I use?
The number of headings and subheadings you use depends entirely on your text. In general, a heading or subheading should be applied to text sections that branch out from the main point and can be read and considered in a stand-alone manner.
How long should a heading be?
The best headings are concise. They use only a few words but pack enough of a punch that the reader knows what to expect in the text that follows. Headings call attention to a section of the text and, as such, should be impactful. Keeping your headings concise ensures that they make an optimal impact on the reader.
Conversely, headings that are too long can deter a reader. Ideally, a heading should be one line. It should be short sentences of no more than ten words. It is rare to see a heading of more than one sentence or line.
In general, the main heading should be more encompassing of the message than the subheading. One or two-word main headings are typical and effective. On the other hand, subheadings offer more room for detail. For example, consider the headings you might find in a self-help book. A chapter on anxiety disorders might include the following main heading:
- Understanding Anxiety
By reading this heading, the reader can expect an explanation and exploration of anxiety in general. Beneath that main heading, you would likely see several subheadings, such as:
- How common are anxiety disorders?
- Tips for managing your anxiety
The subheadings follow the broader subject matter introduced by the main heading but take up their own space to help the reader bridge in and out of a relevant question or point.
What is the difference between a heading and a title?
Headings introduce the reader to the section of text that follows. A title found on the front cover of a book or at the beginning of a chapter (chapter title) introduces the entire book or chapter. In the context of essays or other types of academic writing, a title introduces the whole document.
How to write a heading
Writing headings that make an impact takes some skill and depends on your writing strategy. The writer’s task is to be as concise as possible while including keywords that introduce the rest of the text.
1. Keep it short
It is important to be concise with your headings and subheadings. Even though there is room for subheadings to be longer than main headings, they should still be short, from a few words to a sentence. Note that a five-word heading is a long heading, while a one-word subheading may be too short.
2. Make it relevant
Headings should always be relevant to the text that follows. It sounds simple, but it is important to remember. If a heading misleads the reader and finds themselves reading text that does not meet the expectations set by that heading, they may feel disappointed and frustrated and may even stop reading.
3. Use correct capitalization
Capitalization refers to the use of capital letters in a heading. Do not capitalize every letter in your heading. A completely capitalized heading looks unprofessional. In general, the first letter of each word in a book heading should be capitalized. Words that do not need to be capitalized are conjunctions, articles, and prepositions.
- Conjunctions: and, but, for, yet
- Articles: the, an, a
- Prepositions: of, at, on, by
Of course, if a heading or title begins with an article (the, an, a), then that article should be capitalized.
4. Don’t use too many headings
You do not need to use headings and subheadings for every new chapter. Use these structural tools to break up the text where appropriate. Over-use of headings can disrupt the flow of your text and risk losing the reader’s attention.
5. Use headings as a roadmap
Before a book is written, the author creates an outline. They list the main points they plan to discuss or explore in the text, and from that outline, headings emerge. The outline is a rough plan detailing the direction and message of the book. Headings are often first drafted in the outline and then refined in editing to make them more relevant and impactful.
Headings are a key part of a book’s structure. They give your book a professional feel and make it easy for the reader to scan through the book and get a sense of what is to be found within it. Headings are helpful to the reader, and they also benefit you as a writer. Headings help you separate your thoughts and ideas to make them easier to write about. Consider them the building blocks of your book.
The takeaway? Use headings to introduce a point and subheadings to expand that point. Keep them short, concise, and impactful, and do not overuse them.