Using Headings to Organize Your Writing

When you're writing a nonfiction book or article, organization is crucial. And I don't mean having a tidy desk or an alphabetized file of your notes (although those certainly help). If you want your readers to understand your ideas, a logical, easy-to-follow structure is essential. Headings are the one of the most useful tools for accomplishing that.

How Headings Help
Headings—such as the one above—help your readers in several ways. Like a road sign that lets you know you're entering a new town, a heading signals a shift in topic. It provides a "breather," letting readers pause for a moment to digest the points you've just made. Headings also identify main ideas so that readers can quickly scan for the information they're looking for.

What some writers may overlook is how much headings can aid the writing process. The act of composing a heading forces you to distill a kettleful of related thoughts into a single main idea. Seeing a series of headings on paper or on your screen can help you organize your thoughts as you write. And after you've finished a draft, taking another look at the headings can help you evaluate the overall structure of your piece.
 
Which Comes First?
One approach to writing a piece is to start with the headings. You might create a hierarchical outline, draw a mind map, or simply make a quick list of phrases describing your main ideas. Once that's done, you can use your headings as a framework and fill in the text around them.

The alternative is to jump in and start drafting text first. If you're a fan of freewriting, this might be the method for you. After you've finished a stream-of-consciousness first draft, review it to find your main ideas, then add headings to label them.

Either method can work; it's largely a matter of preference. I often use a combination of approaches: I start with a tentative outline, then add, change, and delete headings as I write and polish my draft.


Try Temporary Headings
Even if you don't think headings are appropriate for the style of your piece, consider inserting temporary headings that are for your eyes alone. If you've written a disorganized first draft, for instance, you might go back and add a label to each paragraph or passage—nothing fancy, just a word or two to identify its topic. (I often use lowercase or brackets to remind myself that these headings are just for me.)

Once you've added your temporary headings, evaluate the grouping and sequence of your ideas. You'll probably spot places where you repeated yourself, related points that should be grouped together, and paragraphs that don't follow a logical sequence. Move text around until the flow is right. When you're satisfied with the piece, you can either delete the temporary labels or replace them with more finely crafted headings for your readers.


Headings in Microsoft Word
Microsoft Word offers built-in heading styles, as well as the capability to create your own. At first glance, you might think these styles are just a shortcut for formatting headings consistently. But their real power comes when you use them in conjunction with Outline view. If you're not already familiar with these features, check them out in Word Help or your favorite how-to guide.

Related Posts
In future blog posts, I'll talk more about using Microsoft Word for outlining. I’ll also share a checklist for evaluating your manuscript’s headings and organization, including issues like the number of heading levels, the relation of headings to text content, and the wording of headings. Stay tuned!
 

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