Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.

Headings and Titles

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Headings and Titles are unique tools for telling your readers what will follow. Use these simple tools to guide your readers down a path of your design.


If you’ve been reading my blogs, you know that I encourage writers to create an outline. Many of your headings can come straight from the outline. Outline entries are often succinct and descriptive, exactly the qualities you want in a heading. The more brief you can be, and the more direct, the more likely your reader will either be pulled into the piece, or be able to scan for the salient bits that interest him. Your heading should summarize the section to follow or announce the presence of an important topic within. The more narrowly your heading describes the subject in the section to follow, the more likely it is that you’ve written tight prose as well. Be succinct and descriptive. If you can’t borrow from your outline, perhaps you could wait until you’ve written the section, and then stick the heading in when you know what you’ve said in the section. It’s certainly possible to insert headings after writing a whole piece or chapter, if your outline’s entries are too general. If the tone of your piece is light-hearted, it’s okay to be cute in your headings. But if you’re writing a serious discussion of a highly technical nature, don’t distract the reader from what you’ve written by how you’ve written it. It’s a rare person who can be dignified and command respect while wearing a white belt with plaid pants and a paisley shirt, right? If your headings are clever rather than informative, you can be sure that many readers will quit before making it to the end of your piece.


Some publications, like newspapers, newsletters, e-zines, and magazines, want a heading every couple of paragraphs. These readers are in a hurry and want the essence of the story without any fuss. Readers who aren’t in a hurry also like to know where they are headed. If you’re writing a book, headings should occur about every page and a half to two pages—frequent enough that the reader can take breaks, not so frequent that they interrupt the flow of the content.

Styles and Fonts

Most publications provide templates with heading styles assigned in advance. The title of the piece is styled as Heading 1. No other heading is Heading 1, only the title of the piece. I have yet to work with a publisher who played by different rules. The next most important section is assigned Heading 2, and any subheadings take Heading 3 or 4, and even deeper, if the template design accommodates it. By “most important,” I mean regarding the levels in an outline. Introduction Prerequisites Set Up Basic Usage Powering Up Pre-Assigned Priorities Permissions and Security Rights, Roles, and Groups Rights Roles Groups Making Changes Advanced Usage In that little outline, the Introduction and the Basic and Advanced Usage headings are to be styled Heading 2 in the text. The headings for Prerequisites, Set Up, Powering Up, and Permissions and Security are styled Heading 3. Pre-assigned Priorities, Rights, Roles and Groups, and Making Changes are styled Heading 4. The remaining Rights, Roles, and Groups are Heading 5, unless it’s not an option to go that deep, in which case they will either be promoted or deleted, depending on what does the most service to the reader and the topic at hand. Each level is assigned a Heading style so that readers can tell what section is a subsection of another. It’s important that you use the Heading styles based on their Heading numbers and not based on what they look like. The layout process reads the style of the heading and assigns the correct look, not the word processing program you’re using. It is a rare publisher who uses a word processing program to determine their final look. Don’t leapfrog headings. In other words, don’t skip a Heading 3 and use a Heading 4, just because the topic is less important than some other topic. If you find yourself leapfrogging, there’s probably something wrong with your piece’s structure. You’ll also seldom find a stack of Heading 2s comprising the whole of an article. You can, however, jump from any depth back up to Heading 2.

Punctuation and Capitalization

Titles and Headings get what is known as Title Case, which means that the initial letter of most words are capitalized. The first word of a title or heading is always capitalized, no matter what it is. Internally, don’t capitalize prepositions (at, to, by, etc.), articles (a, an, the), or coordinating conjunctions (with, between, etc.). Capitalize both parts of a hyphenated word, unless the second word is only a modifier (e.g., English- speaking). Use all capital letters only for acronyms and names of companies or software that have branded their names with all capital letters. Titles and headings never get periods, even if they are complete sentences. They do get question marks or exclamation points, as warranted. It’s okay to use commas, semi-colons, quotation marks, and other forms of punctuation in titles and headings. Colons are welcome, especially if they are between a term and its definition. Unlike in regular sentences, capitalize the first word after a colon, no matter what it is. Use a colon before a subtitle (e.g., Chant: The Spirit of Sound). Do not use quotation marks unless you are actually quoting something.

Titles as References

Within the body of your work, you may need to refer to titles and headings of other works. These take special treatment. Use italics for: Titles of books, pamphlets, periodicals, and newspapers Titles of plays, long collections of poetry, epic poems, or musical compositions of several movements or substantial length (rock and roll tunes do not qualify.) Titles of movies, films, and television and radio programs Titles of paintings, drawings, statues, and other works of art Use quotation marks for: Titles of articles, chapter or part titles, and short stories or essays Titles of songs
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