How to Format Subheads

By Mark Nichol

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An effective way to break up long sequences of paragraphs and provide an organizational scheme for your writing is to insert subheads. Here are some considerations:

Subheads should be succinct — just a short phrase with a keyword or two. They should be formatted in a larger point size than the running text, or at least styled in boldface. Consider formatting them in a different type style than the running text; if one is serif (with appendages such as the tail here in the letter t), the other should be sans serif (“without serif”). Many publications and sites match subhead style and font (and color, if applicable) to those of the headline.

The purposes of inserting subheads are to provide an organizational scheme for parts of an article, book, or other piece of content and to offer the reader a break from reading line after line of unbroken prose.

Subheads should be roughly the same distance apart. If two sections are of inordinately different lengths, perhaps one section needs to be expanded or the other should be shorter. Otherwise, look for other points at which to break up the paragraphs instead so that the sections are about the same length.

If you have more than one level of subheads (for sections, subsections, and perhaps even sub-subsections), distinguish them clearly to aid readers in following your organizational scheme. Books and periodicals employ a hierarchical protocol for subheads, such as using all uppercase letters for the top level, headings with headline-style capitalization for the next level, and run-in headings (inserted immediately before the first word of the next paragraph, in boldface or italic type and perhaps with punctuation as well).

If you have a recurring print publication or multiple posts on your website, select a style for each heading level and use it consistently.

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2 Responses to “How to Format Subheads”

  • Mark MacKay

    I admit to having used subheads to fill space so I don’t have to write more because I’m on deadline. Okay. Jeez. Get off my back.

  • Paul Goble

    For an alternative philosophy of subheads, I heartily recommend the classic US Navy “QRC” (Technical Reports for Quick Reader Comprehension, 1961), which advocates marginal subheads which summarize–not just organize–the content. With this philosophy, headings, subheadings, and captions are planned so that they are meaningful when read together. Documents formatted this way “reveal their gist to the person who merely glances hastily through–scans–their pages.”

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