Section headings, a.k.a. subheads, can be powerful tools for the academic writer. Without them, chapters in scholarly books and journal articles would be huge, undifferentiated blocks of text.
Subheads can announce topics, they can transition for us, they can display wit, and they can scaffold. Perhaps that’s why it’s tempting to rely on them a bit too much.
As an editor, I have seen pitch-perfect subheads, but I have also seen them overused and haphazardly phrased. (I sometimes wonder whether ineffective subheads are left over from much earlier drafts and are simply out of place in the revised material.)
Clearly, subheads can be powerful, and they can strengthen already strong manuscripts. They can’t, however, make up for deficiencies in argumentation. So to use subheads well, we must implement them judiciously and conscientiously.
So how do we strike that balance—employing subheads strategically without basing too much of our organizational strategy on them?
Let’s start with The Chicago Manual of Style‘s take:
1.53 Subheads—general principles
Subheads within a chapter should be short and meaningful and, like chapter titles, parallel in structure and tone. It is rarely imperative that a subhead begin a new page. The first sentence of text following a subhead should not refer syntactically to the subhead; words should be repeated where necessary. For example:
The secondary spongiosa, a vaulted structure. . .
This vaulted structure . . .
So subheads should be brief, informative, and parallel in structure. And running text should not immediately refer to them.
I would take this advisement a bit further: the first part of a section following a subhead should act as if the subhead were not there. This is the cornerstone of my philosophy—we’ll call it the Tweed philosophy—on subheads.
The best manuscripts remain functional without their subheads.
Let’s say subheads cost a million dollars apiece. If you had your wits about you, you’d want to avoid that ridiculous fee by electing to remove all the subheads from your manuscript. Your subhead-free argument should still make sense and not have any strange, abrupt transitions that leave readers scratching their heads.
What good are subheads if we shouldn’t need them? To my mind, their job is to help us skip ahead or glance back over a text. That’s it.
Subheads are not for readers who are engrossed in an argument as it unfolds. Those ideal readers may appreciate subheads as they go, sure, but do not write your subheads to be read in situ.
Crafting subheads that way—with engrossed readers in mind—is lazy subheading behavior because it excuses us from writing cogent arguments that transition authentically from idea to idea and topic to topic. I’ll say it again:
Think of your subheads as handy aids for readers who are skimming, not reading.
Will all editors and publishers agree with me here? Probably not. The Tweed philosophy on subheads isn’t for the rulebooks. It’s a frame of mind that I hope will challenge authors to go above and beyond in their subheading practice.
If you write brief, meaningful, and symmetrical subheads that don’t usurp the role of authentic argumentation—which should be accomplished in the running text itself—but do act as aids for readers who are skimming, then you are indeed using subheads judiciously. Congrats!
Questions? Ask them in the comments!
(Are you troubled by my use of big, bold textual snippets in this blog post? Do you think those are subheads that don’t abide by my own philosophy? Well, those aren’t really subheads. They’re more akin to pull quotes in magazines—sort of. Take comfort in this: writing for the Internet and writing an academic manuscript are not the same thing. But I like the way you think.)