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Add useful headings

Well organized writing will still be difficult for users to follow if they can’t see how it’s organized. An effective way to reveal your document’s organization is to use lots of useful headings. Headings are also critical for effective web pages (see Writing for the web). You should use headings liberally on the web to help your user accomplish top tasks.

Types of headings

There are three types of headings:

  • question headings
  • statement headings
  • topic headings

Question headings

Question headings are useful if you know what questions your audience will ask. Most people come to government documents with questions. If you know those questions, use them as headings. They will help the audience find the information they are looking for quickly. Using the question-and-answer format helps your audience scan the document and find specific information.

Example:

Why do we use headings?

Statement headings

Statement headings are the next best choice because they are still very specific.

Example:

Add useful headings

Topic headings

Topic headings are the most formal; many times management is more comfortable with them. But sometimes they’re so vague that they just aren’t helpful. Topic Headings such as “General,” “Application,” and “Scope” are so vague they may confuse the user. For example, “Application” might mean an application to your agency from someone reading your document. But it might as easily mean what the document applies to.

Example:

Headings

Add page-level structure

It’s often useful to start writing your document by developing the headings, structuring them to your audience’s concerns. This approach can also reveal major groupings of information that you might want to identify with headings.

In the following example, broad topic headings help organize the document, and specific topics add a second level of organization:

Qualifications of permittees and lessees

  • Who may hold leases and permits?
  • Can foreign citizens hold permits or leases?
  • How do I file evidence of my qualifications?
  • Can I amend my qualifications statement?

Bonding requirements

  • Must I file a bond with my permit or lease?
  • Where do I file my bond?
  • What types of bonds are acceptable?
  • How does BLM establish bond amounts?
  • When does BLM terminate my liability under a bond?

Be concise and descriptive

Headings should not be so long that they overwhelm the material itself. Avoid headings with one-word answers. With rare exceptions, headings should be shorter than the content that follows them.

Don’t say Say
Do I have to file a newspaper notice of my activities before I begin operations? Yes. Do I need to publish a public notice? You must publish a notice of your operations in a local newspaper before you begin.

Focus on clarity over brevity

In the example below, the headings in the right column are more informative than the short topic headings on the left.

Don’t say Say
§ 254.11 Indian Rights §254.11 How do the procedures in this part affect Indian rights?
§ 254.12 Applications § 254.12 How do I apply for a grant under this part?
§ 254.13 Multi-tribal grants § 254.13 When must I submit my application?
§ 254.14 Administrative requirements § 254.14 Can a multi-tribal organization submit a single grant request?
§ 254.15 Appeals § 254.15 What special information do I need for an application by a multi-tribal organization?

Sources

  • Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 14-16.
  • Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, p. 70 (C).
  • Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, pp. 10-12, 27.
  • Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, MMR-2.