Should you Include Headings and Subheadings in an Essay?

If you have ever tried reading a large blob of text, then you know how hard it can be. However, it becomes easier to read when broken into headings and subheadings.

Academic writings like essays have a standard of writing that must be upheld. While not every essay requires headings and subheadings, they are important for organizing your writing.

Headings describe the succeeding section, while subheading gives supporting information for the heading.

With that said, here is everything you need to know about headings

What are Headings in Essays and Academic Papers?

According to Merriam-Webster, a heading forms or serves as a head.

In academic writing, headings represent what is to come in the assignment. Adding a heading will help structure a piece of writing and guide the reader throughout the content. Short pieces of writing don't always require headings. In long-form writing, each specific section should have its heading to communicate what the reader should expect clearly. Think of it as the title of that section.

Since some points are more important than others, the heading chosen should be based on whether the idea you are talking about is the main point. Each heading chosen should tell the reader what the following idea is about. This is because the main points are the building blocks of the content. Make sure it is short, descriptive, and precise.

You can include headings and subheadings/subtopics in an essay if it is long, but ensure that the subtopics or subheadings are relevant to the content and consistent throughout the text in a manner to contribute to your thesis statement. As a good practice, ensure that the essay headings and subheadings do not exceed 12 words.

Subheadings are not recommended for short essays . However, they improve the overall structure of a long essay, help you frame and explore your topic, and enable the readers to know what to expect (they act as signposts in an essay or research paper).

Heading vs. Title

Headings and titles may look similar at a first glance, but they are not. A title represents the entire paper and explains it in clear and short phrases. It is the first thing the reader will see and determine whether they read the rest of the document. For this reason, you need to think of striking, informative, and appropriate titles. You should also write the title based on why you are writing that document. For instance, if the aim of the documents is tutorial, then the title should be task-based.

On the other hand, a heading represents what each section of the paper discusses. They help guide the reader throughout the documents, which is why you should write effective headings, and they should be as descriptive as possible.

Headings are a requirement in most forms of writing, but some lecturers may be divided about using them in academic essays, which is why you should confirm with them first. 

Headings Vs. Subheadings

Headings are key parts of writing as they will capture the reader's attention and lure them into the document's purpose. They guide the reader to the main points of the paper. You have to set the headings apart from the body of the text by coming up with an enticing phrase.

Subheadings, on the other hand, do more than grab the reader's attention; they show the different subsections of the text. They keep the reader engaged by quickly guiding them to the information they want.

Headings and subheadings appear at the beginning of a section and organize the flow of the documents. In addition, they are both used to break down large blocks of text to make them more scannable. They also have a hierarchy that is Heading (H2) first, followed by subheadings (H3) and (H4) in that order. Subheadings should always come after the heading, as demonstrated.

The Best Length for Headings in Academic Writing

A heading can be as long as you want it to give the reader a snippet of the idea. A good rule of thumb should be no more than 70 characters.

For higher level headings, like H1, H2, and H3s, they could be as low as one word, for instance, the introduction, methodology, and such. For such sections, the one word is clear enough for the reader to know what it represents. Low levels like H5 and below can be much longer and direct the reader to exactly what they are looking for.

Levels of Heading in Academic Writing

Headings are an important part of academic writing as they act as a preview of the document. They guide the reader on what you are talking about, which is why you should assign different heading levels.

There are five levels of headings in APA style. Level 1, Level 2, level 3, level 4, levels 5. Level 1 is the main heading, followed by level 2, its subheading, and level 3 is the subsection of level 2 in that order.

Level 1 headings are your main headings and are usually typed in the center of the paper in title case and bolded. Their text beneath will always start in the next line, indented inward, just as you begin a new paragraph. These help the reader find their way through the document, read what they want and skip what they are not interested in.

The length and complexity of the paper will determine how many levels you will use. If it's just a short piece of writing, you can use Level 1. If you need two headings, use level 1 and level 2. If it's a 2000-word article, research paper, term paper, or essay, you will need between 3 and 5 headings.

Keep in mind that not every paragraph needs a heading. While headings can keep your work neat, too many can defeat the purpose. Also, make sure that each of the headings and subheadings has a connection to the main title.

All these levels are differentiated by different styles and formats depending on the publication manual provided, which can be either APA or MLA format.

Reasons to Use Headings in Academic Writing

Headings are helpful in academic writing for a myriad of reasons, including:

Making Your Content More Readable

Much information goes into academic writing to pass information to the reader. Putting all your information in a large block of text will be overwhelming and can scare away the readers. The white gaps at each heading section will offer a resting place hence a visual break. Therefore, separating the large chunks of text into manageable portions will keep your readers engaged.

Outlining Your Content

Headings serve as the structure of your writing. By dividing the large bulk of text with headings, you guide the reader through each section and what it is about. Otherwise, they won't know what it is about.

Capturing the Reader's Attention

The main aim of any heading is to hook the reader and create curiosity enough for them to continue reading through the rest of the article. Having a catchy and informative heading will entice them to read even further.

Remember that readers rarely read documents from start to finish. Major headings should stand out but so should headings and subheadings if you want the readers to continue reading your paper.

Finding Important Information

Readers will likely scan the essay to get a general idea of what it is about and decide if they want to read it. Well-structured headings will help them achieve that.

Improving Overall Quality

Headings and subheadings improve the quality of the essay. A high-quality essay is suitable for readers and also for search engine optimization (SEO) if you intend to publish it online. Ensure to use keywords in the headings and structure them to improve visibility.

Tips to Include Better Headings and Subheadings

Writing informative and precise headings and subheadings is vital if you want your writing to get the message home. You need to borrow the following tips to show that they should spend time reading your writing.

Use the Right Length

The length of your article or essay will determine how long your headings and subheadings should be. Put yourself in the reader's shoes and think of the heading you would like to read. Lengthy headings aren't attractive. Most readers want something short and precise, which is what you should do. It should only take them a few seconds to read, so be sure the length should be not more than 30 words.

Make It Relevant to the Content and Topic

Headings and subheadings are essential to catch the reader's attention but are not important enough to stand independently. They represent the critical concepts and all the supporting ideas. Therefore, you need to consider the topic's relevance when determining what phrases to use in your subheading. Carefully think about each key piece of information you'd like to include in each of your sections. Then ensure that each subheading is connected to the main title or the heading.

Be Clear and Concise

Headings and subheadings tell the reader what the content is about. They are usually about five words long. Therefore, you should go directly to the point using clear language that is easy to understand. Most readers skim through the text before reading which is why you should use simple and straightforward words. Always remember that readers have questions and are looking for answers and shouldn't have to ponder what you are talking about. If your heading is clear and to the point, they won't leave to look for answers elsewhere.

Place It in the Right Place

Consider where your target audience is likely to look and where they are likely to appear. While doing this, also consider the kind of phrases they are likely to type for the specific information they want. This gives you a general idea of where to place headings and subheadings. Remember that the APA and MLA format requires that all headings be placed hierarchically. So as you choose your phrases, ensure that they align with the content's topic and flow.

Consider the Formatting Style

Heading styles format your headings to make them stand out from the rest of the text. They also give your essay structure and make it more accessible to the target audience. In addition to this, headings also help in:

  • Generating a table of contents
  • Use style sets to reformat the document
  • Rearranging the documents
  • Creating a structured pdf file using the heading tag

Remember that each heading is formatted with a different heading style located in the style section. Since you've already used H1 for the major heading, the first subheading will be H2, and the second subheading will be H3.

Related Reading: How to indent an essay well.

Number the Heading or Subheading if Needed

Putting numbers on your heading makes it easy to scan. Top-level headings like H1 are numbered 1,2,3,4 while second-level headings, like H2, are numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3

Remember that even though you are numbering the headings, you need to introduce your topic in the first paragraph after the headings. Headings don't speak for themselves, so writing a few sentences restating the main idea will tell the reader what will come.

Be Consistent Throughout the Paper

If you intend to use headings in your paper, ensure each section has a heading and subheading. Also, ensure they are consistent in font, size, color, indentation, etc. The style function in Microsoft Word will help create consistency in your headings. You must select the text you want to convert into a heading, then select the appropriate heading from the Style box.

Avoid Repetition

Avoid repeating any phrases in your headings. Using the same heading more than once can affect the reader's comprehension of your message, negatively impacting their reaction to your essay. Sometimes you may repeat the headings without even noticing. For this reason, you should use the Find Function in MS Word or Google Docs.

Another way you can check for repetition is by reading your essay out loud, and this will help you spot any headings or subheadings that have been repeated.

Capitalize, Format, and Punctuate Well

Effective headings are well capitalized, formatted, and punctuated. The APA style uses two styles for this, title case and sentence case. In the title case, major words are capitalized, while minor ones are lowercase. Sentence cases, on the other hand, only capitalize the proper nouns while the rest remain in lowercase.

Use Automatic Heading in Word Processor

Microsoft Word has a built-in feature that anticipates how you want to format your document. As you begin typing, your text starts in the typical style, but when you press enter and move to a new line, the style changes to H1 with different fonts, colors, etc.

If you are typing a paragraph with a small number of words and press enter and then fail to provide proper punctuation, the feature will assume you are moving to a new paragraph, and it will then automatically enter a new heading with a heading style.

Use Descriptive Headings

Use concrete and descriptive language to make your headings more effective so the reader can know what to expect in each section. Don't use function headings when writing your technical reports; these are not so predictable, and readers benefit from the headings being much more descriptive.

Function headings are only used when writing pieces that need consistent structures, for instance, lab reports. An example is:

  • Introduction
  • Methodology
  • Conclusions

Include Technical Terms Needed

Technical terms should not be used in headings because they may be hard to understand except those who know the languages. Technical terms are primarily used in academic documents that professionals read but if not specified, avoid them.

Related Read: How to write an article title in academic papers.

Final Words

Headings and subheadings are vital features in academic writing that represent the main points of a topic. The difference in formatting helps reader's the main points from the rest of the texts. Ensure you follow all the tips about including headings and subheadings in your text. Talk to your lecturer, professor, teacher, or instructor if you are unsure whether to add them to your essay.

What are Headings in an Essay?

Headings are markers that guide the reader through an essay by showing them what the next section is about. Like a title, they are only a few words long and are essential in structuring your content so as not to overwhelm the reader.

Should I Put Headings in an Essay?

Yes. It will help if you put headings in your essays to make them more readable. Essays consist of three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. Most of them are written in a continuous, paragraphed text without the need for section headings, especially if it's a short essay. On the other hand, long-form essays need headings and subheadings to make them easy to write and read. Since most lecturers are divided about using them in academic essays, you should confirm with your tutor before you start writing.

How Do I Include Subheadings in an Essay?

Subheadings are mini headlines that come after the headings, and they help explain more about the headings and aid readers in skimming through the content. If you have used the first heading, H1, and need to provide more information about it, add a subheading, H2.

If you have trouble deciding how to use subheadings correctly, think of them as an outline. Therefore, break down your topic into simple ideas, then use them to organize your essay.

How Do You Make a Heading in an Essay or Academic Paper?

You must think carefully about the aim of writing a paper and the main idea. Each heading should be clear and to the point. You don't want to mince words and possibly confuse the reader. Also, remember that headings are meant to enhance, not replace, the main topic. Ensure you set it apart from the body of the text by using H1 formatting in either Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

Borrow some of the following best practices to write an effective heading:

  • Create a controversy
  • Ensure it short
  • Pose a question
  • Suggest a number
  • Provide an explanation

How Do You Use Headings and Subheadings?

Headings (section headings) are the title of your essay. They appear at the beginning of the page and guide the reader through your content. It is the first one your readers see before reading your essay or text. It doesn't matter whether the reader reads every word in your essay; they can still get the basic idea of your paper. Using different heading levels will help the reader navigate through the document. The headings and subheadings should be captivating enough to make an excellent first impression.

When writing a subheading, keep in mind that the H2s are the headers of each header for the main section of the essay. H3s are the subsections of the main points in H2s. H4s, on the other hand, are detailed subheadings breaking down the text into more specific options. The subheadings amplify the title or heading of the essay, and they also complement the headings. They make your writing flow and should be relevant to the topic. With such an organization, you have achieved a first-class essay level. A good subheading captures the essence of the title and consistently informs the reader that they are still on an idea related to the topic. It is also short, descriptive, clear, and concise.

Should Essays Have Section Headings?

Yes. Just like books are divided into chapters, essays and articles should be divided into sections. Essays should have section headings because they help make your work more organized and easy to read. And within those sections, the text can be divided into subsections.

Are There Specific Words to Use in Headings and Subheadings in Essays?

You will probably be tempted to use more words to make your heading more concise, but this isn't a good idea. Make sure you carefully choose words that clearly describe your chosen topic. If possible, use numbers in your headings because they are like brain candy, making your work more interesting. Also, ensure you use odd numbers because they are more attractive to readers than even numbers, according to the Content Marketing institute . Avoid abbreviations, idioms, or colloquial expressions when writing headings and subheadings.

How Many Headings to Use in an Essay or Academic Assignment?

To be safe, only use a maximum of three headings. However, this will depend on the length of your academic assignments. Remember that headings are short phrases that introduce the topic you are writing about and make it easy for the readers to read through. So if you are writing a short essay of fewer than 1000 words, there is no need for headings. But for articles above 1000 words then, you must use them. Headings will help identify the different sections in an essay.

What Are Heading Levels?

Headings organize your essay in a hierarchical order. Since some points are more critical, assigning different levels will help distinguish them.

can essay have headings

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Basic essay structure

Postgrad students taking notes and planning essay

Improve your writing

Organise your essays to demonstrate your knowledge, show your research and support your arguments

Essays are usually written in continuous, flowing, paragraphed text and don’t use section headings. This may seem unstructured at first, but good essays are carefully structured.

How your assignment content is structured is your choice. Use the basic pattern below to get started.

Essay structure

An essay consists of three basic parts:, introduction.

The essay itself usually has no section headings. Only the title page, author declaration and reference list are written as headings, along with, for example, appendices. Check any task instructions, and your course or unit handbook, for further details.

Content in assignment introductions can vary widely. In some disciplines you may need to provide a full background and context, whereas other essays may need only a little context, and others may need none.

An introduction to an essay usually has three primary purposes:

  • To set the scene
  • To tell readers what is important, and why
  • To tell the reader what the essay is going to do (signposting)

A standard introduction includes the following five elements:

  • A statement that sets out the topic and engages the reader.
  • The background and context of the topic.
  • Any important definitions, integrated into your text as appropriate.
  • An outline of the key points, topic, issues, evidence, ideas, arguments, models, theories, or other information, as appropriate. This may include distinctions or contrasts between different ideas or evidence.
  • A final sentence or two which tells the reader your focal points and aims.

You should aim to restrict your introduction to information needed for the topic and only include background and contextual information which helps the reader understand it, or sets the scene for your chosen focal points.

In most essays you will have a considerable range of options for your focus. You will be expected to demonstrate your ability to select the most relevant content to address your focal points.

There are some exceptions. For example, if an assignment brief specifically directs the essay focus or requires you to write broadly about a topic. These are relatively rare or are discipline-specific so you should check your task instructions and discipline and subject area conventions.

Below are examples of an opening statement, a summary of the selected content, and a statement at the end of the introduction which tells the reader what the essay will focus on and how it will be addressed. We've use a fictional essay.

The title of our essay is: 'Cats are better than dogs. Discuss.'

To submit this essay you also would need to add citations as appropriate.

Example of opening statements:

People have shared their lives with cats and dogs for millenia. Which is better depends partly on each animal’s characteristics and partly on the owner’s preferences.

Here is a summary of five specific topics selected for the essay, which would be covered in a little more detail in the introduction:

  • In ancient Egypt, cats were treated as sacred and were pampered companions.
  • Dogs have for centuries been used for hunting and to guard property. There are many types of working dog, and both dogs and cats are now kept purely as pets.
  • They are very different animals, with different care needs, traits and abilities.
  • It is a common perception that people are either “cat-lovers” or “dog-lovers”.
  • It is a common perception that people tend to have preferences for one, and negative beliefs about and attitudes towards, the other.

Example of closing statements at the end of the introduction:

This essay will examine both cats’ and dogs’ behaviour and abilities, the benefits of keeping them as pets, and whether people’s perceptions of their nature matches current knowledge and understanding.

Main body: paragraphs

The body of the essay should be organised into paragraphs. Each paragraph should deal with a different aspect of the issue, but they should also link in some way to those that precede and follow it. This is not an easy thing to get right, even for experienced writers, partly because there are many ways to successfully structure and use paragraphs. There is no perfect paragraph template.

The theme or topic statement

The first sentence, or sometimes two, tells the reader what the paragraph is going to cover. It may either:

  • Begin a new point or topic, or
  • Follow on from the previous paragraph, but with a different focus or go into more-specific detail. If this is the case, it should clearly link to the previous paragraph.

The last sentence

It should be clear if the point has come to an end, or if it continues in the next paragraph.

Here is a brief example of flow between two summarised paragraphs which cover the historical perspective:

It is known from hieroglyphs that the Ancient Egyptians believed that cats were sacred. They were also held in high regard, as suggested by their being found mummified and entombed with their owners (Smith, 1969). In addition, cats are portrayed aiding hunters. Therefore, they were both treated as sacred, and were used as intelligent working companions. However, today they are almost entirely owned as pets.

In contrast, dogs have not been regarded as sacred, but they have for centuries been widely used for hunting in Europe. This developed over time and eventually they became domesticated and accepted as pets. Today, they are seen as loyal, loving and protective members of the family, and are widely used as working dogs.

There is never any new information in a conclusion.

The conclusion usually does three things:

  • Reminds your readers of what the essay was meant to do.
  • Provides an answer, where possible, to the title.
  • Reminds your reader how you reached that answer.

The conclusion should usually occupy just one paragraph. It draws together all the key elements of your essay, so you do not need to repeat the fine detail unless you are highlighting something.

A conclusion to our essay about cats and dogs is given below:

Both cats and dogs have been highly-valued for millenia, are affectionate and beneficial to their owners’ wellbeing. However, they are very different animals and each is 'better' than the other regarding care needs and natural traits. Dogs need regular training and exercise but many owners do not train or exercise them enough, resulting in bad behaviour. They also need to be 'boarded' if the owner is away and to have frequent baths to prevent bad odours. In contrast, cats do not need this level of effort and care. Dogs are seen as more intelligent, loyal and attuned to human beings, whereas cats are perceived as aloof and solitary, and as only seeking affection when they want to be fed. However, recent studies have shown that cats are affectionate and loyal and more intelligent than dogs, but it is less obvious and useful. There are, for example, no 'police' or 'assistance' cats, in part because they do not have the kinds of natural instincts which make dogs easy to train. Therefore, which animal is better depends upon personal preference and whether they are required to work. Therefore, although dogs are better as working animals, cats are easier, better pets.

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Better Essays: Signposting

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Paragraphs main body of an assessment

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