Should I use headings? Response to a reader’s comment

by Carla Douglas

Image by arnoKath (CC BY 2.0)

Last week I wrote about how to make your writing more readable by using shorter words, sentences and paragraphs and by including visual elements such as headings and bulleted lists. These recommendations come from both literacy and web usability experts.
A reader commented on the post, noting that while I had followed some of my own advice (shorter paragraphs), I had used boldface print to feature some key words. This facilitated “skimming” the text, she said, but I hadn’t mentioned it as a technique for improving readability. Also, although I discussed them, I had neglected to use headings to guide the reader’s eye. She’s right. After taking the time to outline how and why to make reading easier, I then proceeded to do otherwise. What gives?
A few months ago, I said that writing is a bit of a juggling act that involves making a series of decisions. The same can be said about editing, and this reader’s query falls into that category.
Maybe I didn’t adequately edit last week’s entry before posting it. If I had, I may have considered more carefully whether what I said agreed with how I’d said it. The truth is, however, that I did consider putting headings in the post to show how they’re used, but I decided not to. Why?
A few reasons. First, the post is a combination of background information and “how to.” To me, it doesn’t break neatly into sections that headings would support. It is not a report. Second, I didn’t think that a piece this short (about 500 words) needed headings to guide the reader. Third, I reasoned (perhaps contradicting myself) that adding headings would make the piece too long. They would require the reader to scroll further down the page and they might add visual clutter. A fourth (and less lofty) reason is that I had run out of time and needed to finish the piece and post it. It was “good enough.”
These answers have to do with another earlier post about purpose and audience. In this case, my purpose was to inform and explain, and my audience (I assumed) would be sufficiently interested to read the piece in its entirety. Other kinds of web writing – newsletters, resumes and product pitches, for instance – benefit hugely from the quick hits created by scannable, boldface text because we expect the reader to spend no more than a few seconds viewing it.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that this piece would not have benefited from headings. When users are online looking for specific information, headings tell them quickly if the page they’ve landed on will be useful. So I concede this point – I should probably have taken the time to add headings to the post.
Watch for future posts about web writing vs. print and how the way we read is changing. For now, here is last week’s post, this time with headings.
Do they add to the piece? Detract? Distract? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear what you think.

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