Three Secrets to Writing Strong Headings -->

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Three Secrets to Writing Strong Headings

In an earlier blog post, I explained how headings, which APA recommends for organizing ideas, can help guide readers through your paper. The thing is, it is not just enough to have headings; you need to have good ones. In this post, I will take you through some problem examples that I have seen as a Writing Center instructor and explain three secrets for revising headings to be more successful.

Three Secrets to Writing Strong Headings via the Walden University Writing Center Blog

Problem #1: Generic

Example headings:


Remember that a reader will often scan through your paper to pre-read it and get an idea of the content, the length, and the flow. If readers encounter generic headings, they will not know the specific story you are telling, may become confused, or may lose interest. Generic headings are those that are so vague they could apply to any paper—not necessarily yours. The first way readers know what your paper is about is the title; the second way is the abstract (if your paper has one); the third is the headings. They are important not just for guiding readers through your work but also luring them in in the first place.

Secret #1: Be specific

So, if I were to revise the above headings for a paper on government health care, I might write

History of the Affordable Care Act
Patient Education
Advocacy Strategies

Do you see how these specific headings tell a clearer story?

Problem #2: Long

Example headings:

Identify three qualities of transformational leadership, according to this week’s resources.

Analyze how a chosen public figure has demonstrated those three qualities. Be specific and give examples to justify your position.

Examine the advantages and disadvantages of transformational leadership. Is it a viable style for business?

Sometimes I see students using the full assignment instructions or questions as headings, as shown above. This is a good practice as you are writing your first draft because the instructions can serve as a de facto outline. By following the instructions, you ensure that you are addressing all required components of the assignment. Unless your instructor prefers that you use these instructions or questions as headings, though, revise them for the final draft. In most cases, headings should be brief phrases, rather than full sentences.

Another problem with using the assignment instructions is that they often contain command-type language or “you,” so they come across as ordering the reader around.

Secret #2: Be brief

Long, detailed, commanding sentences can be revised to phrases such as these: 

Transformational Leadership Qualities
Obama as a Transformational Leader
Advantages and Disadvantages of Transformational Leadership

With this revision, notice how I have retained key words and the key point of each assignment instruction, but I have done so in a way that is more concise and specific to the public figure I have chosen. To get ideas for headings, highlight the important words and phrases of the assignment.

#Writingtip from @WUWritingCenter: To get heading ideas, highlight the important words and phrases of the assignment.

Problem #3: Disconnected

Take a look at this example heading and paragraph:

Testing’s Impact on Teachers

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted in 2002 to increase accountability and achievement in U.S. public schools. Each school is tasked with showing adequate yearly progress through its students’ assessment scores (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). According to recent scores, overall student achievement appears to be improving in reading and mathematics (Jackson & Mayhall, 2014). However, because NCLB focuses on those subjects, teachers cannot spend time on other important areas like science, history, and the arts. Furthermore, the continuity of teachers’ lessons is derailed by the frequent testing. In order to truly impact learning, teachers need to focus on differentiation rather than teaching to the test.

When I read the heading, I expect to learn about teachers and testing. However, the first sentence is about the No Child Left Behind Act. If I approach this paper without any clear knowledge of how that act relates to testing—which might be true of some readers—I won’t immediately make the connection between the heading and paragraph.

Secret #3: Clearly represent the content

To fix the disconnect issue with the example above, we could add one sentence to the start of the paragraph to create a bridge. Remember that the heading does not replace a topic sentence; the heading is a supplement.

The connection between testing, teachers, and NCLB would be clearer if I added this as a topic sentence: Regular student testing has a strong—and sometimes negative—presence in a teacher’s classroom, largely due to the No Child Left Behind Act.

Now that you know problems to avoid and secrets to follow for writing strong headings, take a look at the Writing Center’s page on heading levels for information about formatting headings in APA style. 

This month on the blog, we're focusing on topics related to APA style. Check out our latest podcast episode, "Make APA Style Work for You: How to Navigate Grey Areas" and last week's post on precision and anthropomorphism, and stay tuned for a post about citations next week. As always, we welcome your thoughts and questions below in the comments section! If you liked this post, please share it, tweet it, and join the discussion!


Hillary Wentworth, a writing instructor and the 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. Hi Hillary,
    Thanks for your three secret tips for writing headings.I will use these strategies in my subsequent writings.

    1. You're welcome! We're glad you found these tips helpful.