Help Your Readers--and Yourself--With Headings -->

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Help Your Readers--and Yourself--With Headings

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 | Walden University Writing Center Blog

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

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
Successful Health Interventions
Exercise and Nutrition

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.


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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  1. I am wondering if you can look through my dissertation proposal to tell me if my headings and titles are APA style?

    1. Thanks for your comment! While the Walden Writing Center no longer reviews proposals, we do have resources to help with APA-formatted headings and titles. Our program-specific templates ( provide examples, and you can find more information and examples in our headings resource ( Checking over headings and titles would also be a good peer review activity to do with a classmate! We hope this helps. Thanks for reading!