Monday, June 17, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp -- Session 8: Using Meaningful Headings

Using headings and sub-headings adds useful information and helps make the text less intimidating by breaking it up. So, if you’re in the habit of inserting headings and sub-headings – that’s great!

What we’re focusing on in this session is maximizing the value of headings by making sure they’re meaningful to the reader. 

Role of headings
Headings serve a number of important purposes, including:

·       Serving as aids to navigation – they orient readers, helping them understand where they are in the document and within the author’s argument, explanation, or thesis.

·       Summing up the writer’s thesis – this is one of the most important and overlooked uses for headings and sub-headings. By reading through the headings, the reader should be able to understand the author’s entire argument.

·       Making the page look better – one way they do this is by adding white space. Varying headings’ font style, size, and colour can also add graphic interest to the page.

·       Providing relief for the reader – they’re logical places for readers to pause. They also provide an easy-to-find place for readers to return to.

Misuses of heading
As I mentioned at the start of this session, headings can add useful information. A well-crafted heading distills – or summarizes in a few words – the information that follows. But headings are NOT a substitute for text. In other words, do not use the heading as a lead-in for the text that follows. (Beware: this happens a lot when people use bullet lists. We’ll talk about this again in the session on crafting vertical lists.)

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Honing Your Writing Skills Pays Dividends
Saving time is the biggest dividend. Whose time? Your readers’ time and yours….

In this example, the first sentence doesn’t make sense without reference to the heading. Put another way, the reader needs the information in the heading to make sense of the first sentence of the paragraph. Instead, the first sentence under the heading should read something like: Saving time is one of the biggest dividends from improving your writing.

One of the reasons it’s bad form to use headings as text-substitutes is because reviewers and editors sometimes tinker with headings. If the text below the heading depends on the heading to make sense, you’ll have to revise the text too. Can you say nightmare? Another reason it’s bad form to use headings as text-substitutes is because some readers simply skip headings – imagine their confusion!   

Writing good headings
A good heading is both concise and informative. Many business writers I’ve worked with confuse concise with short. Concise means without unnecessary detail. Ensuring headings are short is not the goal. Indeed, of the two qualities, informative is really key.

Say, for example, you’re writing about your analysis of the pros and cons of a number of aspects of a transaction, including foreign investment. To help the reader easily identify different things you’ve analyzed, you decide to include sub-headings. One sub-heading you might include, therefore, is: “Foreign Investment”. That’s fine – it’s certainly better than no sub-heading. But, something like: “Risks of Foreign Investment” or “Benefits of Foreign Investment” is better. In this case, adding just a few extra words provides the reader with useful information about your conclusion with respect to foreign investments.

Formatting Headings and Sub-headings
Some organizations have strict rules about heading and sub-heading formats. If your company has such rules, you probably don’t have much flexibility. But, if you can set your own heading formats, here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind:

·       Add sub-headings too draw the reader’s attention to details and to help readers locate specific ideas under a main heading.

·       Be sure that readers can quickly distinguish between headings and sub-headings. You can do this a number of ways, such as by:
  • using different fonts – perhaps a serif font (like Times New Roman) for headings and a san serif font (like Ariel or Tahoma) for sub-headings;
  • using different font sizes;
  • using different colours;
  • varying the line spacing before and after different heading levels

·       Avoid extreme indenting of sub-headings – some word processing templates indent sub-headings, with each subsequent sub-heading level indented a bit more. This can be awkward because readers’ eyes naturally look for text to start at the left margin. If you indent sub-headings very much from the left margin, the sub-heads get virtually lost.

What’s in it for you?
So far, we’ve talked a lot about how headings are useful to readers. Carefully crafted headings are also a great help to the writer. A quick read through the headings provides you with a great opportunity to consider:
·         whether you’ve organized the information in a logical way, and
·         whether there are any gaps in information that you might want to go back and address.

© 2019 Good with Words

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp – Stretch Break

We’re over half way through the boot camp – good job! How are you feeling about your progress so far?

While you’re taking a bit of a stretch break, I thought I’d make a couple general comments. These might be obvious, but I think they’re worth specifically pointing out.

It’s all about the reader
First and foremost, I’m hoping you’ve realized that the real secret to being a better writer is to focus on your reader’s needs. What we’re doing with each session is focusing on one thing that – if done well – will help your readers. In each Session I try explaining how or why improving in that one way will help make the reader’s job easier. For example, using transitions (Session 3) is a way to help guide the reader through your argument or idea. They help ensure the reader doesn’t veer off course – or miss any important points. Using active voice (Session 5) isn’t just about making things livelier – it makes clear to readers who’s responsible for actions or decisions.

Indeed, helping readers get through your document and understand the points you’re making is good for business. At a minimum, it shows you care and respect your readers. It also empowers them to make reasoned decisions and to take action. And, it makes you look smart – smart enough to share your knowledge and expertise in a way that they understand.

Don’t be a slave to old rules
The other point you may have noticed is that it’s ok to break some of the “rules”. Indeed, after the very first Session I got an email from a reader chiding me for splitting an infinitive. (If you missed it, the last sentence of Session 1 had the split infinitive that didn’t sit right with the reader.) You probably noticed in Session 2 that I ended a sentence with a preposition – another alleged grammar no-no. (Here’s the sentence: “The key to clear paragraphs is making sure each sentence relates to the theme or thesis you’re writing about.”)

There’s evidence that these “rules” were created by folks who were trying to make English grammar conform to Latin grammar. But, we’re living in the 21st century so there’s a strong argument these rules are irrelevant. Furthermore, applying them can result in awkward – or clumsy – sentences. For example, to ensure the correct emphasis, it’s often absolutely necessary to split an infinitive. Similarly, if it’s more natural to end a sentence with a preposition, feel free to. 

Another rule I routinely break relates to starting sentences with conjunctions like “and” or “but”. Many folks learned it’s incorrect to do so. I’ll bet you learned this “rule” in elementary school. There’s no basis in English grammar for this supposed rule, however. Teachers made this rule up to prevent you from making another grammatical mistake. Teachers thought that that by starting with “and” or “but”, students were more likely to write a sentence fragment. To prevent that possibility, they created the “rule” about not starting with those words. As long as you’re careful about crafting a sentence that includes a full thought, feel free to disregard what your elementary school teacher said.

Don’t be shy about sending feedback
And finally, I want to thank the readers who have dropped me a line. The feedback is great. It helps me understand what you’re finding useful, and what you might appreciate my help with. So, keep the feedback coming!

Until next session, keep up the terrific work!

© 2019 Good with Words