Creating Effective Internal Headings for Academic and Scientific Documents
The headings in a scholarly document are usually considered to be primarily structural aspects of the text, so many academics and scientists will deem them less important than the research content such headings help to organise and present. However, internal headings are not only structural; they are also essential elements of the content presented. By introducing and defining for readers the material that follows, each heading becomes a part of the overall argument of an academic or scientific document, and not a minor part. The headings within a book or paper may constitute very few of the words used to construct the text, but those few words are highly visual and meaningful. Since an excellent system of internal headings can markedly enhance the presentation of advanced research and therefore reader comprehension, the following tips may prove helpful when you are creating headings for your scholarly documents.
• Scholarly publishers, particularly academic and scientific journals, often indicate their structural requirements as guidance for authors who are preparing manuscripts for submission. Some of these instructions are incredibly detailed, while others leave most of the structural decisions to the authors themselves. Whatever the requirements are, they must be followed with precision and consistency, though some individuality is usually possible even within strict guidelines. Remember that an acquisitions editor can quickly scan the headings in your manuscript to determine if you have observed the guidelines, and just as quickly reject your text if you have not.
• The internal headings in a scholarly manuscript should present, clarify and enhance the author’s main argument and its progression. Keep this fact in mind when you are designing your headings, consider the readers your document may attract and reflect on what they might need to follow your argument and understand the material. Many readers will scan a paper or look over a book’s table of contents to determine whether the research is of interest or not, and acquisitions editors will be among them, so be sure that your system of headings does justice to your work.
• Make each heading as interesting and relevant as possible, even if you are working within rigid publisher requirements for structure and headings. Yes, the section may need to be called Methods or Results, but there is usually some leeway to add a colon and a little more detail relating specifically to your research, or to include such information in subheadings that divide the larger section into stages or readily digestible bites for readers. Good headings are catchy, clear, informative and concise, a challenging balance to strike, but very effective indeed when successful.
• Remember that headings for tables, figures (where they are generally called captions) and appendices are also extremely important for informing your readers about the purpose and content of such elements. Using a precise title and, if relevant, a number whenever you refer to the material presented in a table, figure or appendix will keep your reader moving through the information in the order you intend.
• Headings, subheadings and the lower levels of headings within them are usually distinguished by the size and font of the heading text and the spacing around it; sometimes the colour of the text is also an organisational factor. These may be set by the publisher, so do check the guidelines, or you may be able to design them yourself. Either way, it is essential to observe the distinctions between heading levels and the similarities within each level with precision and consistency throughout a document if you are to create an effective structure that will guide your readers through the story of your research.
• Proofread your headings with care. They tend to be bold and obvious, yet headings are often the site of errors. Watch for typing mistakes, clarity and formatting. Refine your wording to achieve a perfect polish, and remember that abbreviations and specialised terminology are best avoided in headings, especially if they have not yet been defined or explained in the main text.
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