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An Essay With Headings

When you are first faced with the task of writing a long essay or term paper it can be intimidating, but you make your job and the reader’s job much easier by following some basic rules of thumb. Of course, if your professors offer you any specific guidelines about writing be sure to follow those first. Otherwise, incorporate the advice that follows into your papers wherever appropriate.


Of course, papers should always be typed, double-spaced on 8-1/2 x 11 paper on one side of the page only, and letter-quality print or better is always expected. Often you are expected to supply a cover sheet giving the date, your name, the title of the paper, the class, and the professor’s name. Tables and figures should be numbered consecutively throughout the text, and if there are a good number of them, then separate lists of tables and figures at the beginning of the paper may be expected. Tables and figures should always have descriptive captions, and if they come directly from sources, the sources must be specifically credited in the captions with the same citation style that you use throughout the paper.


A paper’s title should be succinct and definitive, individual and informational. Clearly, the title "An Overview of the Hydraulic Fracturing of Methane-Bearing Coal Formations" is more complete, satisfying, and informative than "Hydraulic Fracturing." The title is important because it announces the paper’s specific content and typically serves as a pathway to the paper’s thesis.


Your introduction is your opportunity to be at your most individual. You should get your reader’s attention immediately by announcing the paper’s subject or by launching into a relevant scenario or narrative that informs or illustrates your overall argument. A paper illustrating the costly effects of poor mine design, for instance, might open with the scenario of how a poorly designed pillar at a salt mine in Louisiana once collapsed, fracturing the surface above and draining an entire lake into the mine. A paper on the supply and demand of nickel might begin by straightforwardly announcing that the paper will explain the uses of nickel, detail its market structure, and use data to forecast the future supply and demand of the metal.

In brief, a paper’s introduction should define and limit the paper’s scope and purpose, indicate some sense of organization, and, whenever possible, suggest an overall argument. Another important principle in technical writing is that the introduction should be problem-focused, giving the reader enough background so that the paper’s importance and relationship to key ideas are clear. A rule of thumb about the introduction’s length: about 5-10% of the entire paper.

As examples of how creative an introduction can be, here are the opening lines from a geography paper and a paper on optics, both of which use narrative technique to arouse our interest. Note how the first excerpt uses an "I" narrator comfortably while the second excerpt does not use "I" even though the writer is clearly reflective about the subject matter. The first excerpt is from a paper on the generic nature of America’s highway exit ramp services; the second is from a paper on shape constancy.

The observation struck me slowly, a growing sense of déjà vu. I was driving the endless miles of Interstate 70 crossing Kansas when I began to notice that the exits all looked the same. . . .

Our eyes often receive pictures of the world that are contrary to physical reality. A pencil in a glass of water miraculously bends; railroad tracks converge in the distance. . . .

Thesis Statement / Objective

Most papers have outright thesis statements or objectives. Normally you will not devote a separate section of the paper to this; in fact, often the thesis or objective is conveniently located either right at the beginning or right at the end of the Introduction. A good thesis statement fits only the paper in which it appears. Thesis statements usually forecast the paper’s content, present the paper’s fundamental hypothesis, or even suggest that the paper is an argument for a particular way of thinking about a topic. Avoid the purely mechanical act of writing statements like "The first topic covered in this paper is x. The second topic covered is y. The third topic is . . ." Instead, concretely announce the most important elements of your topic and suggest your fundamental approach—even point us toward the paper’s conclusion if you can.

Here are two carefully focused and thoughtfully worded thesis statements, both of which appeared at the ends of introductory paragraphs:

This paper reviews the problem of Pennsylvania’s dwindling landfill space, evaluates the success of recycling as a solution to this problem, and challenges the assumption that Pennsylvania will run out of landfill space by the year 2020.

As this paper will show, the fundamental problem behind the Arab-Israeli conflict is the lack of a workable solution to the third stage of partition, which greatly hinders the current negotiations for peace.

Body Paragraphs / Section Headings

Never simply label the middle bulk of the paper as "Body" and then lump a bunch of information into one big section. Instead, organize the body of your paper into sections by using an overarching principle that supports your thesis, even if that simply means presenting four different methods for solving some problem one method at a time. Normally you are allowed and encouraged to use section headings to help both yourself and the reader follow the flow of the paper. Always word your section headings clearly, and do not stray from the subject that you have identified within a section.

As examples, I offer two sets of section headings taken from essays. The first is from Dr. Craig Bohren’s "Understanding Colors in Nature" (1), which appeared in a 1990 edition of Earth & Mineral Sciences; the second is from a student’s paper on the supply and demand of asbestos.

Section Headings From "Understanding Colors In Nature"

  • Color By Scattering: The Role of Particle Size
  • Color By Scattering: The Positions of Source and Observer
  • The Blue Sky: The Role of Multiple Scattering
  • Color By Absorption in Multiple-Scattering Media
  • Color by Absorption: Microscopic Mechanisms are Sometimes Elusive

Section Headings From "Asbestos: Supply and Demand"

  • Industry Structure
  • The Mining and Properties of Asbestos
  • World Resources and Reserves
  • Byproducts and Co-products
  • Economic Factors and Supply and Demand Problems
  • Uses of and Substitutes for Asbestos
  • The Issue of Health on Supply and Demand

Just by considering the section headings in the above examples, we can begin to see the fundamental structures and directions of the essays, because both sets of headings break the paper topic into its natural parts and suggest some sort of a movement forward through a topic. Note how these headings—as all section headings should—tell us the story of the paper and are worded just as carefully as any title should be.

Most importantly, then, you must use your section headings in the same way that you use topic sentences or thesis statements: to control, limit, and organize your thinking for your reader’s sake.


Most papers use "Conclusion" as a heading for the final section of the text, although there are times when headings such as "Future Trends" will serve equally well for a paper’s closing section. When you are stuck for a conclusion, look back at your introduction; see if you can freshly reemphasize your objectives by outlining how they were met, or even revisit an opening scenario from the introduction in a new light to illustrate how the paper has brought about change. Your conclusion should not be a summary of the paper or a simple tacked-on ending, but a significant and logical realization of the paper’s goals.

Beware of the temptation to open your final paragraph with "In conclusion," or "In summary," and then summarize the paper. Instead, let your entire conclusion stand as a graceful termination of an argument. As you write your conclusion, concentrate on presenting the bottom line, and think of the word’s definition: a conclusion is an articulated conviction arrived at on the basis of the evidence you have presented.

What follows is an excerpt from a conclusion to a paper entitled "Exercise in the Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis in Women." Note how the conclusion reflects directly on the paper’s hypothesis and spells out the bottom line, gracefully bringing closure to the paper’s argument:

The majority of evidence presented in this paper supports the hypothesis that exercise positively affects bone mineral density in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Significantly, exercise has been shown to increase bone mineral density in premenopausal women even after the teenage years, and it helps preserve the bone mass achieved in the following decades. There is also evidence that exercise adds a modest, yet significant amount of bone mass to the postmenopausal skeleton. As these findings demonstrate, women of all ages can benefit by regular weight-bearing exercise, an increased intake of calcium-rich foods, and—for postmenopausal women—the maintenance of adequate estrogen levels. For all women, it is never too late to prevent osteoporosis or lessen its severity by making appropriate lifestyle choices.


Any sources cited must be correctly listed on a References page using the Author-Year or Number system (see Chapter 5 of this handbook).

Key words: report writing, signposts, headings, heading levels, sub-headings, parallel structure, maximal & minimal capitalisation

Headings are standard for some written forms (e.g. report writing, case studies). However, lecturers can be divided about whether they allow/prefer you to use headings in your academic essays. Some lecturers prefer headings while others don’t want you to use headings. You will need to check your lecturer’s preference. If you do use headings, then use them wisely and correctly.

About using headings

Most students who have just completed secondary studies come to university with the firm belief that you should not use headings in essay writing. The use of headings in formal writing was once restricted to business style writing, such as report writing. However, in more recent times, headings are often used in formal academic writing such as books and journals. Also, texts on the Internet are easier to read on screen if they have headings.

Headings are signposts that focus the reader on the most important content in a piece of writing, and are usually connected to the set question. Provided that they are well structured, a few headings make longer pieces of writing easier to write and easier to read (for the marker). Look at headings systems in your unit reading material, and you will get a ‘feeling’ for their structure and suitability.

Exercise 1: Recognising the appropriate use of headings

It’s easy to see why you need a few rules to help you develop a good system of headings. Compare the following sets of headings then answer the questions that follow:

Heading set 1Heading set 2



(sub-headings for this section)
Division of headings and text
Heading levels
Isolated headings


(sub-headings for this section)
Length of headings
Informative wording
Parallel structure and content



What are the heading hierarchies?

(sub-headings for this section)
Division of headings and text
Heading levels
Isolated headings


(sub-headings for this section)
Length of headings
Informative wording
How does using parallel structure and content help with writing headings?


Read this description of a well-structured set of headings:

  • The heading system is clear and logical
  • The sub-headings are all at the same level and in the same font style
  • The wording of the headings and sub-headings is alike
  • If you used this heading system, the reader would not be confused

This description applies to:

Heading set 1

Correct! When you see headings set out like this, it becomes obvious that you need to create a plan for your headings before you start. Heading set 1 follows the rules and is logical, whereas Heading set 2 breaks the rules and would send the reader on a ‘chase’ to work out what the writer means. So, take a couple of minutes to work out a consistent plan for using headings and apply it to all of your essays.

What to do

In general, you are expected to use headings correctly so that your writing is clear, and it is obvious that you have answered the set question. There are rules to help you to do this.

Click on the links to see more details and examples.

Design a system of graded headings

Graded heading system


Work out a system of headings that you can use with all of your essays. Headings should be graded at levels to show a clear order of importance (e.g. level 1 – most important; level 2 – next important and so on). You will mainly use one to three levels of headings in your essay, depending on the length of your assignment. For example, most 2000 word essays may only require 3-5 level 1 headings (i.e. a level 1 heading every 2-3 pages). Remember that the aim of using headings is to keep your reader on track. Too many headings and too many levels creates confusion.

When you design a heading system, show the relative importance of headings with the type size, position (e.g. centred or left justified), using boldface, underlining or capital letters. You can follow a recommended pattern or make up your own system—so long as it is clear and consistent. Example:
Level 1: CAPITALS, bold, 14pt, centred, space below
Level 2: Lowercase, bold, 12pt, left justified, space below
Level 3: Lowercase, italics, 12pt, left justified, no space below

Distribute information in logical sections

Information in logical sections


The key to working out your essay sections is to work from your question analysis. Consider the following question:

Many lecturers now approve of the use of headings in academic essays. Consider whether the benefits outweigh the problems for the writers and markers. Identify and discuss the key rules for using headings appropriately in academic essays. (2000 words)

Example of a heading plan for this question:

Level 1 headings

Level 2 headings (example from one section)
could have the following level 2 headings:

Heading hierarchies (3 paragraphs)

Effective wording of headings (2 paragraphs)

Only use sub-headings if there is a lot of information in a section.
Use three principles to word your headings

Effective wording of headings


Use three basic principles to word your headings:

  • Keep headings brief (avoid two and three liners)
  • Make them specific to the written work that follows
  • Follow a PARALLEL structure

For example:

  • If you use a question as a heading, then follow that pattern for that heading level and for that section (e.g. if your level 1 heading is What are the rules for heading levels?, then the next level 1 heading would need to be a question also: How do you word headings effectively?).
  • If you use a phrase starting with an ‘ing’ word, then follow that pattern for that heading level and for that section (e.g. Designing heading levels; Wording headings effectively).
  • If you use a noun phrase, then continue to use noun phrases for that level and for that section (e.g. Design of heading levels; Effective wording of headings).
  • You can change your heading style between levels, but you must be consistent at level 1 then in each section (i.e. all level 1 headings should follow the same pattern; each level 2 heading in a section should follow the same pattern.)
Punctuate headings correctly and consistently

Correct punctuation for headings


Headings can be single words or short phrases and DO NOT require a full stop unless you have used a question as a heading—a question mark is then required. The use of capital letters may follow either of the following approaches provided that you are consistent:

  • Minimal capitalisation—only the first word of a title and any proper nouns and names are capitalised (e.g. Punctuation rules for Australian texts)
  • Maximal capitalisation—all words are capitalised EXCEPT for articles (e.g. a, an, the), prepositions and conjunctions (e.g. Punctuation Rules for Australian Texts)
Linking headings to the following text


When you place a heading in the text, it is a signpost for a section of writing. You need to begin the following paragraph with a sentence that introduces the reader to the heading topic and then announce what will be coming in that section in the essay—just as you do in the essay introduction. A heading is not part of the text of your paragraph, so you should not refer to it with a pronoun reference (e.g. this, these, that).


Effective wording of headings

This means that the wording of the heading matches the information of the following section. Do not make the heading part of the first sentence.

UNE Moodle (heading)

a customised learning platform used to provide online delivery of course material for UNE students submission of assessment tasks, to enable participation in discussions and support collaboration.

UNE Moodle (heading)

The customised learning platform, UNE Moodle, is used to provide online delivery of course material, submission of assessment tasks, to enable participation in discussions and support collaboration.

What NOT to do

There is much to learn from what is NOT wanted. Following are some of the common mistakes made in the use of headings in formal written work:

Click on the links to see more details.

DO NOT rules
  • DO NOT use headings in smaller documents (i.e. less than a 1000 words)
  • DO NOT use too many headings
  • DO NOT change the style of heading levels midway through your writing (work out your system and stick to it)
  • DO NOT number headings in an essay unless you are asked to
  • DO NOT put headings on individual paragraphs (normally a heading applies to a number of paragraphs in a section)
  • DO NOT leave a heading at the bottom of a page by itself (‘widowed’ heading)
  • DO NOT ‘stack’ headings (e.g. a level 1 heading followed by a level 2 heading without any text in between)
Avoid rules
  • AVOID using ‘isolated/lone’ headings (e.g. using only one sub-heading with no other sub-headings of that type following)
  • AVOID writing headings more than one line long
  • AVOID using definite articles (e.g. a, an, the) to begin headings (e.g. ‘ example problem’ should be ‘Example problem’)

Headings for essay planning

Designing a good headings system is also very helpful for setting up a plan for writing as you can quickly see whether you have included and balanced all of the parts of a question. Make sure your headings match the information you signal in the outline statement of your introduction paragraph.

Note: As a general rule, you should only use headings in longer essays of over 1000 words where you can divide your essay into large sections.
Note: If you use headings in an academic essay, do not use headings systems designed for report writing.
Note: You can change your heading style between levels but you must be consistent at level 1 then in each section (e.g. all level 1 headings should follow the same pattern; each level 2 heading in a section should follow the same pattern.)