This is the third in a series about the importance of properly formatting company documents and best practices.
In our previous post, we shared tips for designing for readability. Now we can get a bit more detailed about best practices and what to avoid when writing technical documents, starting with the importance of headings and how to use them for maximum results.
Heading levels represent information hierarchy with different font styles, sizes, and colors. Headings provide readers with
- An organizational overview of content
- A logical development of ideas
- A hierarchical relationship of information
- The ability to scan and read selectively
- Increased readability through white space
Headings can be descriptive or functional. Descriptive headings tell the reader what to expect from the content. The headings in this document are descriptive headings.
Functional headings fulfill a specific, predetermined function, as in lab reports. Example functional headings include:
Technical documents are usually not as strictly organized or predictable as lab reports.
When designing the headings for your document, keep the following in mind:
If you use headings, every section must have a heading. First level headings are larger than second and subsequent level headings.
Each level of heading must have consistent
- Parallel phrasing
Use typography to show content hierarchy or the connections between and relative importance of content.
To increase readability, use slightly more space above each heading than below. Avoid overusing headings. In general, use two to four headings per page.
Use descriptive headings that tell the reader the content to expect in each section. Avoid vague headings.
DON’T do the following:
- Don’t stack headings directly on one another. Each heading must have at least a sentence of information below it. Stacked headings can indicate inefficient organization of information.
- Don’t use a heading to introduce a table, figure, or list. You must have lead-in text that introduces and explains the figure, table, or list.
- Don’t refer to a heading with a pronoun in the text below it. Begin the first sentence below a heading as if the heading were not there.
- Avoid creating lone headings at any level of your document. Having only one heading at a level is like having only one item in a list. Try to avoid it.
- Avoid leaving a heading at the bottom of a page with no text below it. In Microsoft Word, use Widow/Orphan control, Page break before, or Keep with next.
- Avoid manually designing your headings unless you do not want them to appear in your Table of Contents.
- You may use numbered headings if there are many sub-sections, but do not use Roman numerals or letters.
Microsoft Word Styles
The Styles in Microsoft Word offer many advantages.
- Automatic table of contents (ToC) and table of figures (ToF)
- Navigation pane
- Outline feature
- Screen reading
Creating an automatic table of contents or figures saves time and effort.
- Create a table of contents (ToC) from headings.
- Create an automatic table of figures (ToF) from captions.
- Automatically update as you revise document sections and captions.
The Styles formatting tool makes writing easier and allows you to fluidly integrate sections and documents written by different team members.
Screen reading software can identify heading hierarchy for accessibility.
There are many online tutorials for how to use these and other Microsoft Word tools.
After creating your document, remember to ask someone else to read it with a critical eye, so you can catch design or other mistakes. Consistent formatting is essential when creating documents for any reader, whether they are looking for specific information or skimming for an overview.