After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Subheads for Clarity, If not Beauty

Posted on August 30, 2013
Filed Under Communication, Technology, The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

Technical writing needs to be orderly, but to insure that it’s read and understood by busy people, it definitely shouldn’t be dense. Aside from writing reasonably short, orderly sentences, adding subheads when the focus changes a bit is a mechanical, but very helpful, way of keeping a reader with you. Subheads are perhaps a tech writer’s most valuable organizational tool.

imagesTom Johnson, on his excellent “I’d Rather Be Writing” technical writing blog, deals with the virtues of subheads at some depth. Tom took a poll on why “users can’t find answers in help material.”  And he found that “help is either too long so users can’t find the answer, or help is too short so users can’t find the answer.” So what’s needed is a mechanism to facilitate organizing and scanning a page. (Oh, there’s that “f” word again.) Subheads are the answer both to orderly writing and orderly page layout.

Use subheads, first, to organize material that belongs together and then to draw your reader’s eyes to your handiwork. You’ve made his or her day when it’s easy to follow what you’re presenting. Subheads along with reasonably clear writing are the answer.  They’re both attractive  typographically and  highly utilitarian. (Below a subhead, or instead of one, a “bullet” dot to set off key sentences or paragraphs can also be helpful.)

A maximum of four indented subheads on a page, as illustrated here, may actually be too many, unless your material is so complex that it requires them. Definitely avoid run-on subheads, as much as run-on writing. The idea is to be organized, not typographically lush. Typographical techniques aren’t a substitute for clear, well-organized writing, just helpmates in negotiating your terrain. The eye can be distracted by too many of them.

“Almost any Wikipedia page provides a great example of subheadings in action,” Tom notes. “There we have many paragraphs of content broken up by subheadings, with a built-in navigation embedded at the top. It’s a model that seems to work well on the web.” Subheads work well on paper, too, if they’re not overdone. Keep them always in mind as your technical writing unfolds. – Doug Bedell 


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