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Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

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Help Your Readers--and Yourself--With Headings

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When I was a kid, my dad used to let the lawn grow long between mows. Then, when he eventually cut it, he did not follow the typical practice of mowing rows. Instead, he mowed the lawn into a path I could follow, zigzagging around the yard. Sometimes it included humor: the mown grass stopping at the cherry tree and then picking up again a few feet away. I was supposed to climb the tree and then jump. Sometimes it hinted at danger, the maze skirting so close to the edge of the yard that the pricker bushes brushed my skin. With the path, I knew what my dad was telling me, what I was supposed to do, and where I should go. It was not only fun but comforting.  

That relationship between my dad and me is what you want between yourself and your readers. In a paper, you are telling readers what to think with analysis; you are guiding them with structure; you are keeping them interested with logical connections and an engaging voice. One way to cement that relationship of direction and comfort is to use headings.

Use headings to create a clear path for readers

Headings are effective tools, both for writers and for readers. For writers, they serve as an outline for the topics being covered. This outline keeps writers on track, which produces stronger, more focused papers. For readers, headings save time. Readers do not have much time (as you know from reading articles!), and to get a quick overview of a paper, they might simply scan the headings. Therefore, it is important to ensure that headings accurately reflect the content and tell a story from beginning to end. To start using headings when crafting your next paper, keep these points in mind:

Most course papers should only include Level 1 headings. 

Because course papers are relatively short, you will likely only use one level of heading—the main level—for all of your topics. Remember that headings of the same level are of equal status or importance. Here is an example list of headings for a paper on diabetes:

Title of the Paper
Causes of Diabetes
Effects of Diabetes 
Successful Health Interventions
Conclusion

Note that while your introduction paragraph should come between your paper’s title and your first heading, there is no “Introduction” heading for this sample paper. In APA style, you do not need an Introduction heading. If the introduction text falls directly below the title of your paper, the reader understands that the text is your introduction. Also, the title—because it is not a heading—remains in plain text, rather than bold.

If you break down those major topics into subtopics, you can go into Level 2 headings.


Title of the Paper
Causes of Diabetes
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes
Gestational Diabetes

Effects of Diabetes
Kidney Disease
Blindness
Amputation
Successful Health Interventions
Medication
Exercise and Nutrition
Conclusion

Note that these headings tell a logical story. The writer moves readers from the problem (causes and effects of diabetes) to the potential solution (health interventions).

A word of caution: Be careful about overusing headings. 

Sometimes writers get a bit zealous and introduce a new heading with each paragraph. These super-short sections actually produce the opposite effect: giving the reader whiplash because the topics are changing so quickly. If you find that you use a lot of headings, return to the list of your original topics. A less important topic does not need its own heading, and the content can be combined with another section to be smoother.

In the end, your paper may indeed be a maze through a complicated and multifaceted topic. However, through careful creation and placement of headings, you can comfort the reader with a clear, organized path.


author

Hillary Wentworth
, a writing instructor and coordinator of undergraduate writing initiatives, has worked in the Walden Writing Center since 2010. She enjoys roller-skating, solving crossword puzzles, and basking in the summer sun. She lives in Minneapolis.


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WriteCast Episode 13: 60 Minutes or 60 Seconds: Maximizing Your Time With Writing Resources

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What can you possibly accomplish in 5 minutes to help strengthen your writing? More than you might think! What if you had 15, or 30, or 60 minutes? In this month's WriteCast episode, Nik and Brittany suggest different Writing Center resources you can use if you have 60, 30, 15, or only 5 minutes to spare. Stream or download the episode below, and share your thoughts in the comments! 




author

WriteCast
is hosted by writing instructors Nikolas Nadeau and Brittany Kallman Arneson and produced by writing instructor Anne Shiell. Check out the podcast archive for more episodes.


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Using Scholarly Resources in Your Writing

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Chances are you have encountered an assignment where the professor asked you to find and use scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles. Scholarly resources are publications by researchers based on their studies. Peer-reviewed journal articles are one particular kind of scholarly resource, and these articles are often the most important kinds of publications to cite for academic writing.
Jeremy Renner, velociraptor (from Wikipedia)
Why it's important to evaluate your sources. Image from themetapicture.com.

Start the Semester Right With 10 Back to School Writing Tips

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Back to school excitement is in the air! Are you starting a new program or returning to classes? We’ve put together these 10 tips for helping you get your semester or term off to a strong start.

Happy start of the semester from the Writing Center!

Apply Yourself: Using Writing Center Feedback to Develop Your Writing Skills

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If you have ever had a paper review appointment with the Writing Center, odds are your writing instructor has included a comment like this: Please apply my feedback throughout your draft, not only to the pages I reviewed today. This language is reflected on our website as well: In our 30-minute appointments, “we rarely can read through an entire draft, although the majority of our comments will be applicable to the remainder of the draft” (“Following Appointment Policies,” para. 1). We even go so far as to ask students to apply feedback from one paper to another:
Each paper you attach [to a Writing Center appointment] should reflect the advice you received in your previous review(s). If you are not applying feedback from one review to the next, no matter what we have reviewed (i.e., different papers or the same section of a paper), we reserve the right to mark your appointment as missed and return the paper without a review. (“Feedback and Revisions,” para. 1)
Clearly, we feel strongly about this policy – but what exactly do we mean by applying feedback? Why is it so important? And how can you, as Walden students, ensure that you are doing it?

practical strategies for applying feedback to your writing

Our emphasis on applying feedback stems from our mission as a center. Our goal is not to help students improve individual assignments, but rather to help students develop writing skills. In other words, we do not proofread or “fix” papers (hear Brittany and Nik debunk this and other writing center myths in our latest WriteCast episode); instead, we offer instruction to help you become a more confident writer and self-editor, no matter what assignment you are working on.

When we ask you to apply our feedback, then, we are basically asking you to demonstrate that you are learning from our instruction. Because we focus on skill development, it is important that we see students practice those skills from one paper—or section of a paper—to another.

Skillful application of feedback helps you to make the most of your Writing Center appointments and grow as a writer. But how do you do it? Here are a few practical strategies:
  • Critically read your writing instructor’s comments. In other words, don’t just revise your individual assignment and call it a day. Instead, take the time to analyze the feedback and your own writing: Do you understand every comment? (If not, be sure to ask!) Do you recognize the issue that prompted the comment? Do you see any other places in your paper—whether or not your writing instructor commented on them—where this issue crops up again?
  • Revise your paper issue by issue. For example, if your writing instructor comments on topic sentences, review the paragraphs throughout your entire paper to identify all the places where you should add or revise topic sentences. This approach is a bit time consuming, but it is one of the best ways to understand your writing patterns and practice a particular skill.
  • Document your common errors and concerns. Some students keep journals of common grammar mistakes, while others use post-it notes with reminders like “Don’t forget a thesis statement!” Whatever your strategy, having some sort of concrete acknowledgment of your most pressing writing concerns will help you to recognize and work on those issues in future assignments. If you need help identifying these top areas of concern, ask your faculty member or writing instructor for help.
  • When scheduling a new paper review appointment, leave a note for your writing instructor identifying your writing concerns. Are you working on paragraph cohesion? Clear introductions? Passive voice? Verb tenses? Be as specific as possible so that your writing instructor can focus his or her feedback to best help you meet your goals.

We understand how challenging writing can be, and we do not expect students to master a writing skill after an appointment or two. We do, however, ask students to strive to become reflective and self-aware writers, to recognize their writing patterns and develop their skills from one assignment to the next. Give these tips a try to take ownership of your writing and develop skills to carry with you throughout your Walden program and beyond.



author

Kayla Skarbakka
 is a writing instructor and coordinator of international writing instruction and support at the Walden Writing Center. She recently moved to the Seattle area, where she has a lot to learn about seafood, composting, volcanoes, and surviving gloomy weather.
 
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