Sub Headings In An Essay

How should section and subsection headings be formatted in APA style?

A research paper written in APA style should be organized into sections and subsections using the five levels of APA headings. APA recommends using subheadings only when the paper has at least two subsections within a larger section. Notice how sections contain at least two smaller subsections in the example below:

Method

Design 

Participants. 

Demographics.

Characteristics.

Limitations

Starting with the first level of heading, the subsections of the paper should progressively use the next level(s) of heading without skipping any levels. Major sections of the paper's main body, including the Method, Results, and Discussion sections, should always be formatted with the first level of heading. However, keep in mind that the Introduction section, which is preceded by the full title of the paper, should be presented in plain type. Any subsections that fall under the major sections are formatted with the next level of heading.

Note that all paragraphs of the main body, including those that fall under subsections of a larger section, still maintain the pattern of indentation, use Times New Roman font, 12 pt., and are double-spaced. There are no extra lines or spaces between paragraphs and headings.

How are the five levels of APA-style headings formatted?

Format each of the five levels of APA-style headings as demonstrated in the example below. Note that while the example features headings titled "First Level," "Second Level," and so on, each heading in your paper should be named according to the section it describes. 

First level

The first level of heading is bolded and centered, and the first letter of each word in the heading is capitalized. The paragraph text should be typed on the following line and indented five spaces from the left.

Second level

The second level of heading is bolded and situated flush left, and the first letter of each word in the heading is capitalized. The paragraph text should be typed on the following line and indented five spaces from the left.

Third level

The third level of heading is bolded, indented five spaces from the left, and followed by a period. Capitalize only the first letter of the first word in the heading and of proper nouns. The first paragraph following this heading should be typed on the same line as the heading.

Fourth level

The fourth level of heading is bolded, italicized, indented five spaces from the left, and followed by a period. Capitalize only the first letter of the first word in the heading and of proper nouns. The first paragraph following this heading should be typed on the same line as the heading.

Fifth level

The fifth level of heading is italicized, indented five spaces from the left, and followed by a period. Capitalize only the first letter of the first word in the heading and of proper nouns. The first paragraph following this heading should be typed on the same line as the heading.

See also:

Key words: report writing, signposts, headings, heading levels, sub-headings, parallel structure, maximal & minimal capitalisation

Headings are standard for some written forms (e.g. report writing, case studies). However, lecturers can be divided about whether they allow/prefer you to use headings in your academic essays. Some lecturers prefer headings while others don’t want you to use headings. You will need to check your lecturer’s preference. If you do use headings, then use them wisely and correctly.

About using headings

Most students who have just completed secondary studies come to university with the firm belief that you should not use headings in essay writing. The use of headings in formal writing was once restricted to business style writing, such as report writing. However, in more recent times, headings are often used in formal academic writing such as books and journals. Also, texts on the Internet are easier to read on screen if they have headings.

Headings are signposts that focus the reader on the most important content in a piece of writing, and are usually connected to the set question. Provided that they are well structured, a few headings make longer pieces of writing easier to write and easier to read (for the marker). Look at headings systems in your unit reading material, and you will get a ‘feeling’ for their structure and suitability.

Exercise 1: Recognising the appropriate use of headings

It’s easy to see why you need a few rules to help you develop a good system of headings. Compare the following sets of headings then answer the questions that follow:

Heading set 1Heading set 2

INTRODUCTION

HEADING HIERARCHIES

(sub-headings for this section)
Division of headings and text
Heading levels
Isolated headings

EFFECTIVE WORDING FOR HEADINGS

(sub-headings for this section)
Length of headings
Informative wording
Parallel structure and content

CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION

What are the heading hierarchies?

(sub-headings for this section)
Division of headings and text
Heading levels
Isolated headings

Effective WORDING for HEADINGS

(sub-headings for this section)
Length of headings
Informative wording
How does using parallel structure and content help with writing headings?

CONCLUSION

Read this description of a well-structured set of headings:

  • The heading system is clear and logical
  • The sub-headings are all at the same level and in the same font style
  • The wording of the headings and sub-headings is alike
  • If you used this heading system, the reader would not be confused

This description applies to:

Heading set 1

Correct! When you see headings set out like this, it becomes obvious that you need to create a plan for your headings before you start. Heading set 1 follows the rules and is logical, whereas Heading set 2 breaks the rules and would send the reader on a ‘chase’ to work out what the writer means. So, take a couple of minutes to work out a consistent plan for using headings and apply it to all of your essays.

What to do

In general, you are expected to use headings correctly so that your writing is clear, and it is obvious that you have answered the set question. There are rules to help you to do this.

Click on the links to see more details and examples.

Design a system of graded headings

Graded heading system

BEFORE YOU START YOUR ESSAY, HAVE A CLEAR AND LOGICAL HEADING HIERARCHY.

Work out a system of headings that you can use with all of your essays. Headings should be graded at levels to show a clear order of importance (e.g. level 1 – most important; level 2 – next important and so on). You will mainly use one to three levels of headings in your essay, depending on the length of your assignment. For example, most 2000 word essays may only require 3-5 level 1 headings (i.e. a level 1 heading every 2-3 pages). Remember that the aim of using headings is to keep your reader on track. Too many headings and too many levels creates confusion.

When you design a heading system, show the relative importance of headings with the type size, position (e.g. centred or left justified), using boldface, underlining or capital letters. You can follow a recommended pattern or make up your own system—so long as it is clear and consistent. Example:
Level 1: CAPITALS, bold, 14pt, centred, space below
Level 2: Lowercase, bold, 12pt, left justified, space below
Level 3: Lowercase, italics, 12pt, left justified, no space below

Distribute information in logical sections

Information in logical sections

USE HEADINGS FOR SECTIONS IN YOUR DOCUMENT (NOT FOR EACH PARAGRAPH).

The key to working out your essay sections is to work from your question analysis. Consider the following question:

Many lecturers now approve of the use of headings in academic essays. Consider whether the benefits outweigh the problems for the writers and markers. Identify and discuss the key rules for using headings appropriately in academic essays. (2000 words)

Example of a heading plan for this question:

Level 1 headings
INTRODUCTION
BENEFITS OF USING HEADINGS
PROBLEMS WITH USING HEADINGS
RULES TO GUIDE HEADING USAGE
CONCLUSION

Level 2 headings (example from one section)
The heading RULES TO GUIDE HEADING USAGE
could have the following level 2 headings:

Heading hierarchies (3 paragraphs)

Effective wording of headings (2 paragraphs)

Only use sub-headings if there is a lot of information in a section.
Use three principles to word your headings

Effective wording of headings

WHEN YOU DESIGN YOUR HEADINGS SYSTEM, MAKE SURE THAT THE WORDING IS CONSISTENT.

Use three basic principles to word your headings:

  • Keep headings brief (avoid two and three liners)
  • Make them specific to the written work that follows
  • Follow a PARALLEL structure

For example:

  • If you use a question as a heading, then follow that pattern for that heading level and for that section (e.g. if your level 1 heading is What are the rules for heading levels?, then the next level 1 heading would need to be a question also: How do you word headings effectively?).
  • If you use a phrase starting with an ‘ing’ word, then follow that pattern for that heading level and for that section (e.g. Designing heading levels; Wording headings effectively).
  • If you use a noun phrase, then continue to use noun phrases for that level and for that section (e.g. Design of heading levels; Effective wording of headings).
  • You can change your heading style between levels, but you must be consistent at level 1 then in each section (i.e. all level 1 headings should follow the same pattern; each level 2 heading in a section should follow the same pattern.)
Punctuate headings correctly and consistently

Correct punctuation for headings

IT IS IMPORTANT THAT YOU KNOW AND APPLY PUNCTUATION RULES TO YOUR HEADINGS.

Headings can be single words or short phrases and DO NOT require a full stop unless you have used a question as a heading—a question mark is then required. The use of capital letters may follow either of the following approaches provided that you are consistent:

  • Minimal capitalisation—only the first word of a title and any proper nouns and names are capitalised (e.g. Punctuation rules for Australian texts)
  • Maximal capitalisation—all words are capitalised EXCEPT for articles (e.g. a, an, the), prepositions and conjunctions (e.g. Punctuation Rules for Australian Texts)
Linking headings to the following text

INTRODUCE THE TOPIC OF YOUR HEADING IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH FOLLOWING YOUR HEADING.

When you place a heading in the text, it is a signpost for a section of writing. You need to begin the following paragraph with a sentence that introduces the reader to the heading topic and then announce what will be coming in that section in the essay—just as you do in the essay introduction. A heading is not part of the text of your paragraph, so you should not refer to it with a pronoun reference (e.g. this, these, that).

Example:

Effective wording of headings

This means that the wording of the heading matches the information of the following section. Do not make the heading part of the first sentence.

IncorrectCorrect
UNE Moodle (heading)

a customised learning platform used to provide online delivery of course material for UNE students submission of assessment tasks, to enable participation in discussions and support collaboration.

UNE Moodle (heading)

The customised learning platform, UNE Moodle, is used to provide online delivery of course material, submission of assessment tasks, to enable participation in discussions and support collaboration.

What NOT to do

There is much to learn from what is NOT wanted. Following are some of the common mistakes made in the use of headings in formal written work:

Click on the links to see more details.

DO NOT rules
  • DO NOT use headings in smaller documents (i.e. less than a 1000 words)
  • DO NOT use too many headings
  • DO NOT change the style of heading levels midway through your writing (work out your system and stick to it)
  • DO NOT number headings in an essay unless you are asked to
  • DO NOT put headings on individual paragraphs (normally a heading applies to a number of paragraphs in a section)
  • DO NOT leave a heading at the bottom of a page by itself (‘widowed’ heading)
  • DO NOT ‘stack’ headings (e.g. a level 1 heading followed by a level 2 heading without any text in between)
Avoid rules
  • AVOID using ‘isolated/lone’ headings (e.g. using only one sub-heading with no other sub-headings of that type following)
  • AVOID writing headings more than one line long
  • AVOID using definite articles (e.g. a, an, the) to begin headings (e.g. ‘ example problem’ should be ‘Example problem’)

Headings for essay planning

Designing a good headings system is also very helpful for setting up a plan for writing as you can quickly see whether you have included and balanced all of the parts of a question. Make sure your headings match the information you signal in the outline statement of your introduction paragraph.

Note: As a general rule, you should only use headings in longer essays of over 1000 words where you can divide your essay into large sections.
Note: If you use headings in an academic essay, do not use headings systems designed for report writing.
Note: You can change your heading style between levels but you must be consistent at level 1 then in each section (e.g. all level 1 headings should follow the same pattern; each level 2 heading in a section should follow the same pattern.)

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