Friday, May 06, 2005

Use headings to create obvious, large-scale organization

Any piece of legal writing that is longer than a page or two could use headings. I use headings because I know my readers are busy, and I know that they rarely read a document from beginning to end. They skip and skim. They look for what they want and read only that. Headings help them do that.

Sometimes headings can be a crutch for the novice because they sometimes end up replacing strong topic and transition sentences. And headings can be overdone; I’ve seen a document with a heading for every paragraph. But if you remember to use both topic sentences and headings, and if you use headings in moderation, you’ll have a strong piece of writing.

Types of headings
I use two types of headings:
  • short, usually one-word headings that do no more than give a title to what follows, and
  • explanatory headings that give a fuller picture of what is to come.
Generally, I reserve short headings for things like titles or parts of a document, like Introduction, Background, Agreements, Discussion, Argument, and Conclusion.

I try to use explanatory headings for everything else. I try to make my explanatory headings short but condensed so the reader gets a good idea of what is coming but is not bogged down with a lengthy heading. This requires a balance.

For example, I am grading a set of memos right now, and the question I asked is whether the text of a warranty disclaimer in a contract is conspicuous under the UCC. I have seen the following headings used in the memos:

(a) Conspicuous
(b) How Texas courts have construed UCC section 2-316(b) and defined “conspicuous.”

Honestly, I would prefer something in between (a) and (b):

(c) Court definitions of “conspicuous.”

To me, (a) is too brief and, even though I know the subject matter of these memos well, the one-word heading does not convey enough to me. The heading in (b) is too long, though I have seen even longer. Remember, we’re talking about headings, not “point headings” in a brief. You’re trying to give the reader a sense of what is coming, not persuade on a point of law.

Placement on the margin
I like headings that line up neatly and vertically on the left margin. That set-up makes the headings easier to skim. I definitely do not like centered headings. I find them distracting and harder to skim. I use them only for the main title of a document, and I sometimes put even the main title on the left margin.

a. Subheading
But sometimes you need to tab over for sub-headings, of course. This is true especially when you have multiple layers of subheadings. But keep the tabbing to a minimum or you’ll end up with subheadings starting halfway across the page, as with the subheading for this paragraph.

Besides, you can use at least three layers of headings without any tabbing and still not confuse your reader if you use fonts and typefaces well, like this:

    Main heading
    You can use a boldface type in a contrasting font for the main headings in your document. My earlier post on fonts details why this works well for headings. You can also enlarge the heading type; I sometimes use a 16-point type when my main text is 13-point type.

    You can use the same font and type size as the main text, but in a boldface type, for the subheadings. This stands out well and still lets the reader know that this is a subheading. A numbering system tells the reader that, too.

    Sub-subheadings. You can use a more subtle typeface, like italics, for the sub-subheadings. I also like to place them in the same line as the first line of text. Readers will see these sub-subheadings when they get there. But these sub-subheadings don’t stand out as much as the other headings. They stand out enough so readers can skim and skip to them, but they keep the page from looking too cluttered or busy.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home