We're all familiar with book headings. They come in many different styles and sizes, but every book has one or more. And while the specifics of effective headings may not be apparent to readers, every writer should be familiar with the proper use of headings.
That's just what I'll cover in this article on the proper use of each heading in a book.
- Different kinds of headings
- Proper heading format and capitalization
- How to use headings effectively
Table of contents
This is only one of many posts that discuss all the different components and parts that go into creating a book. I recommend further reading!
Why Should You Trust Me?
I've actually been writing and formatting books for a long time. Over 10 years so far, and counting.
But that's not the real reason, because there are plenty of authors who have lots of experience, but know next to nothing about the different parts of a book, or book formatting in general.
The real reason you should trust me is because I actually created my own formatting software that solved all my problems. I called it Atticus.
But this isn't meant to be a sales pitch. I just want to make sure it's clear that I know what I'm talking about. The amount of research that went into not only formatting my own books, but also creating a formatting software is huge.
I researched everything, which led me to learn all about every. single. part. of. a. book. And there were a lot more than I realized.
And of course, that includes Headings.
So if all that makes sense, hopefully you'll come along with me as show you everything I've learned.
What is a Heading?
There are many different kinds of headings. You'll find them in blog posts, news articles, books, restaurant menus, and even in short stories.
Essentially, a heading is a way to preview and organize the information to follow. It gives the reader an idea of what will come after the heading, even at a glance.
What is a Heading in a Book?
Every book will have at least one heading: the book title. The title is the ultimate heading in a book. Most books also have other headings, known as chapter titles. Even if the chapter title is nothing more than a number, it's still considered a heading, meaning it tells the reader some useful information.
For example, if I lost my place in a book, I could recall what chapter I was on to help me find my place. The chapter headings would help me do this. And while not every book has chapter headings, most of them do.
Different types of headings are more common in nonfiction books than in fiction. This is because many nonfiction books are written not to tell a story, but to convey a complex idea to the reader. And by breaking up the text with proper use of headings, the author can create a pleasant and informative reading experience.
Types of Heading Levels
You can tell the difference between different heading levels or styles by their size. The biggest heading level is the book title, which will generally be the biggest heading in the book, located on the title page.
Of course, you won't see the title at the beginning of every chapter. Instead, you'll see the next largest heading: the chapter title. This is formatted as an H1 heading in most word processors.
Here’s a look at the heading options in Microsoft Word:
And in Google Docs:
After H1, you have the first subheading, which is slightly smaller than the chapter heading, formatted as an H2 heading.
You also have the H3 option, which you can consider the sub-subheading. You generally won't need to go any lower than an H3 heading in a book, although you can.
As an example:
The heading for this section, “Types of Heading Levels,” is a subheading in the “What is a Book Heading?” section.
Is a Subtitle a Heading?
It's important to differentiate between a heading and a subtitle here. While a subtitle is technically a heading, it's kind of its own thing. In other words, you won't format the subtitle with an H2, even though it does come after the H1-formatted chapter title.
You'll see in every word processing tool that the subtitle is separate from any numbered H-tags. Take the image below from Atticus as an example.
With Atticus, you can add a subtitle directly in the word processing window. Alternatively, you can add a subheading by using the toolbar above the word processing window, as seen inside the red box in the image below. This is similar to other word processing tools.
So if you have a chapter subtitle, you'll want to make sure it's formatted properly. Then you can use the appropriate H-tags for the other headings and subheadings in the chapter. And if you’re using Atticus, you can even use the Formatting Preview option to see how your headings will look on different readers as you write the book.
While we're on the subject of formatting, it's important to understand the nuances of heading capitalization.
As a rule of thumb, it's good to use title case capitalization for each different heading level. In other words, you want to capitalize the first and last words in the heading. You'll also want to capitalize nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. You don't need to capitalize coordinating conjunctions, articles, or short prepositions.
However, if you have a preferred style guide, such as MLA, The Chicago Manual of Style, or APA Style, then you can always defer to that guide for specifics on title case.
Whatever you do, keep it consistent. And if you’re unsure, just stick to the guidelines mentioned above.
For a more in-depth look at title case rules, check out this article on how to capitalize titles.
What's in a Heading?
Now that I've covered a bit about proper heading format, let's look at how to use headings properly.
Headings serve many purposes. These include:
- Providing the reader with a glance at what's to come.
- Capturing the reader’s attention.
- Breaking up the text for easier reading.
- Making the page/section scannable.
- Allowing the reader to locate a specific section with ease.
You generally want to ensure that each heading serves not only one or two of these purposes, but all five. Headings should be as concise and informative as possible. Don't use five words when three will do. And if a section doesn't deserve its own heading or subheading, you don't need to put one in just to break up the text. This should always be a secondary concern.
Take the following headings as examples of what to do and what not to do with your book headings:
- Writing Like Your Life Depends On It
- No Time for Crime
- Using Your Toolbox
The above headings are vague. You can't really tell what the following section will entail at a glance. Now, consider these heading examples:
- Research Tactics for Writing Crime Fiction
- Conducting Effective Interviews
- Honing Your Skills for Crime Writing
These headings are specific, allowing the reader to determine what follows just by glancing at them. Since a good subject heading is a short preview, the content that follows should stand on its own, even if you remove the heading.
Outline for Good Heading Ideas
When writing a nonfiction book, it's usually a good idea to outline before you start writing. It isn't like creative writing, where there's a constant debate to be had about whether to outline. In nonfiction, you should already know where you're going with the book's content.
Not only does outlining allow you to organize your ideas, but it can also be a great place to determine your headings. Of course, as you actually write the book, you can revise your headings and subheadings as needed.
Using Headings to Guide the Reader
It's helpful to think of book headings in terms of chapters and sections. Since nonfiction books are most likely to have headings, I'll stick with this example.
Each chapter in a nonfiction book will deal with a certain idea, which is part of the larger whole of the book's main idea.
Just as the book is broken down into chapters, each chapter will also be broken down into sections, each with section headings (and possibly subheadings).
So, while each chapter will start with a chapter title, each section will start with a heading. And just as each heading is a part of the larger chapter, each subheading will be part of the section.
All this to say that you can have multiple headings (H1) in a single chapter, each with its own subheadings (H2s and H3s). But these headings and subheadings need to be logical in their use. Each subhead should indicate a slightly deeper dive into the subject at hand.
But when you move on to a new idea, you'll start the section over again with another H1, followed by H2s and possibly H3s, if appropriate.
Here's an example to help you visualize the proper use of headings in a nonfiction book:
Section Header (H1)
Section Subheading (H2) – Diving deep into H1 topic
Section Sub-Subheading (H3) – Diving even deeper into H1/H2 topic
Section Subheading (H2)
Section Header (H1) – New Idea to Explore
As you can see, you never want to skip from an H1 to an H3. Headings always go in order, and always in logical fashion.
Conclusion on Headings
Whether you're writing in a program like MS Word or a dedicated book-writing/formatting software like Atticus, it isn't hard to format your headings properly. By keeping them informative and concise, you can easily provide the reader with the best possible experience. And by sticking to a consistent title case heading style, you can present a professional book that is easy to navigate and a pleasure to read!