Good headings or short sentences: which writing habit improves readability more than any other? I think it must be one of them, I just can’t decide which. This blog post is for Microsoft Word users who are working on their headings.
Start with plenty of good headings
Let’s assume you’ve already been practising writing good headings by making the subject of every email a short, accurate, informative summary of everything you’ve said, even if it sometimes means sending two short emails instead of one long one.
Now you’re working in Word, on a longer document. Using plenty of good headings normally means that, as well as the document title, each page contains at least one heading for a section or sub-section. And each heading describes everything that follows until the next heading or the end of the document.
Improve structure by moving sections
To improve the document’s structure, all you need do is look at the headings, to see if the content is in the right order for the reader. If it isn’t, you needn’t unpick and rewrite: cut and paste a section and only a little editing will be needed to reflect the new order of ideas. Word’s heading styles and navigation pane make this work even easier.
Put the key message first
What does the reader need to know? What information would they read first, if it’s well signposted? Is that at the top? If not, why not?
Often, the most valuable information in the document is at the end. It might be the conclusion you reached after considering everything else discussed in the document. That’s the natural place to put the last thing you wrote. But, if it’s the answer to the reader’s question, won’t they want to read it first? And, if that’s what they want, why not give it to them?
At this point, lawyers often say they want the reader to see all their reasoning, so the reader will understand the various risks and nuances the lawyer has so carefully explained. But most readers are not that passive, especially when they are reading on screen. They know what they want, and they will skim and scan until they find it. When reading other people’s writing, the same lawyers who hope their clients will read everything leading up to their own advice normally go straight to the section headed Conclusion or Executive Summary, even if it’s at the end.
End with the call to action or next steps?
A reader who gets a message in the first screen of an email may not scroll down looking for a second point. So, if you need action from your reader, the safest place to ask for it is where it’s least likely to be overlooked – at the top, or at least in the first paragraph.
If the start of a document really does belong to other information, and you can be sure your reader will see the end, then the end is the next most prominent place to suggest the next steps.
Within the body of your document, the best order depends on the content and the reader’s needs. In giving information, try going from the most to least important, useful, or common. In instructions, first to last is best. In explaining reasoning, it’s normally better to give the conclusion before explaining the reasons, preferring because to therefore.
In this article, “most to least useful information” battled with “first to last instructions”. In the end, I chose to place heading styles (first instructions) before the navigation pane (more useful), because you can’t use the navigation pane until you have applied the styles.
Word styles for headings
There are several reasons to format headings using Word styles (or similar features of other programs):
- It takes only one click to format a heading.
- Format is consistent between documents and writers.
- Key words in headings will be more visible to search engines.
- The headings will appear correctly in software used by blind and partially sighted readers, improving access to your content.
- You can use the navigation pane.
It is easy to apply a heading style, like this:
- Click in a heading line.
- On the Home tab, in the Styles section of the ribbon, click your chosen level of heading.
Styles apply to paragraphs
A style applies to a whole paragraph – that is, everything between paragraph breaks. So you should end each heading with a paragraph break (Enter), not a line break (Shift-Enter). That will stop your heading style affecting the next line(s) of text. To adjust white space below a heading, don’t use line breaks: use the “Paragraph dialog box”: on the Home tab, in the Paragraph section of the ribbon, click on the little arrow at the bottom right.
What if I don’t like the styles I see in the Home tab?
If your chosen level of heading doesn’t appear in the styles shown on the Home tab, you can scroll down to see other styles, using the arrows at the right edge of the styles display.
Or, to choose a different set of styles, click on Change Styles (still in the Home tab, Styles section, to the right of the display of styles).
You can re-format any text, overriding its chosen style, without affecting other parts of the paragraph or other parts of the document that are in the same style.
You can also edit a style in one document, without affecting other documents. One way to do it is:
- Format some text as you want it.
- On the Home tab, in the Styles box, right-click on the style you want to change.
- Click on Update [style name] to Match Selection.
For example, if I want the top-level headings in my document to be in big red text, I can:
- Change the font of a heading to the big red text I want.
- On the Home tab, in the Styles section, right-click on Heading 1.
- Click on Update Heading 1 to Match Selection.
All the top-level headings in my document now match the one I edited.
Review and edit with the navigation pane
To review the content and order of the document’s sections, switch on the navigation pane:
- Click on the View tab.
- Towards the left of the ribbon, in the Show section, tick the Navigation Pane.
A window appears at the left side of the document, like the navigation pane of a web page. As with the web page, clicking on a heading in the navigation pane takes you to that section of the text. Whichever section of the document you’re working in will be highlighted in the navigation pane.
The navigation pane does more than its name suggests. You can use it to edit whole sections of the document:
- Move. Click and drag a heading in the navigation pane to move a section of text within the document (including all its sub-sections).
- Delete. Right-click and delete a heading in the navigation pane to delete the section in the document.
- Change level. Right-click and “promote” or “demote” a heading to change its level.
Other versions of Microsoft Word
These instructions and screenshots are for Word 2010 for PCs but you can find other versions, if you need them, by searching the internet for:
- Word [version] heading styles.
- Word [version] navigation pane.
- Apply styles to your document headings.
- Use the navigation pane to review and improve structure.
- Get the book Clarity for Lawyers, for more ways to improve document structure and signposting.