Headings in a document identify the topic or purpose of the content within each section. Headings help all readers become familiar with how a document’s hierarchy is structured and how the content is organized, helping them easily find the information they seek. Headings that are formatted and worded well aid both visual and nonvisual readers of all abilities. Headings must be clearly distinguishable from body text.
How can one then create and use excellent headings (and related body text) for all users, including those using assistive technologies? Read on.
Purpose of Headings
The functional purpose of headings is to identify the topic of the content within each section. Treat your headings as if they are “landmarks” within the text, guiding readers to their desired destination. Headings allow readers searching for particular information to find it easily; readers looking to understand the scope of a work are able to do so at a glance.
Also, it is impossible to talk about presenting a truly great heading structure without crossing over into the wording within the headings. Headings should never contain content that is not within the text in the section described by the heading. In other words, if your heading is “How Many Designers Does It Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?” the text in that section must discuss designers and lightbulbs. In academic research papers, standard headings are often used, such as Method, Results, and Discussion. Standard headings allow readers to understand the structure and content of the research being reported. It is best practice to keep headings to 60 characters or less, and 80 at most. This is especially helpful to nonvisual users who could, for example, be using a dynamic Braille display that only presents 80 characters at a time.
When appropriate, headings can, accessibly, include intriguing wording intended to capture readers’ attention, as long as there is also a part of the heading that reveals what is actually present. Just like a book title can include both an intriguing phrase as well as an explanatory phrase (e.g., “Frustration Exemplified: How To Give a Cat a Pill”), you could do the same in a heading. However, context is important: For a “do it yourself” book, this might engage readers and enhance their reading pleasure. For a medical textbook, this might be distracting and even frustrating for readers trying to look up specific information.
In longer works (e.g., dissertations and theses, books), headings appear in a table of contents. The purpose of the table of contents is to give readers an overview of the entire contents of the text as well as to make them familiar with how the content is organized in sections and subsections. Especially for reference works, this is a vital part of the reader interaction. The table of contents, in essence, is a collection of the headings within the text. Readers use visual style and content to understand the importance of the heading (the hierarchy) and the topic or purpose of the content in the section labeled by the heading. Thus, if you have excellent headings (both in content and in visual style), you will generate an excellent table of contents. For electronic documents, excellent headings will help you generate an excellent navigational structure as well.
The Publication Manual does not set standards for tables of contents because journal articles and student papers do not contain tables of contents. For works that include a table of contents, such as dissertations and theses, APA recommends that you use the automatic table of contents function of your word-processing program to create the table of contents. Any of the automatic formats are acceptable. Typically the three highest levels of heading within each chapter or section are included in the table of contents; however, this can vary depending on the length and complexity of the work.
Are You Required to Use Heading Styles in Your Work?
Writers should use heading styles to format and electronically tag headings to help their audience of readers navigate and understand their work. Heading styles also help students create consistently formatted headings.
However, in some cases, using heading styles (vs. manually formatting body text to look like a heading) is optional. The most common case in which it is optional to use heading styles to format text is when authors are submitting a manuscript for publication. Regardless of whether the authors use heading styles in their manuscript, the typesetter will strip the work of all heading styles and implement the headings styles of the publisher. Thus, it is not required for authors to use headings styles in draft manuscripts, but they can if desired. For example, during review, heading styles may help editors and reviewers navigate the work, especially a longer work.
Likewise, students are not required to use heading styles to format their headings, but they can if desired. For example, if students submit a course assignment on paper, it will not matter whether they used heading styles or manual formatting to create the look of headings. However, if students submit an assignment electronically, it may be helpful to use heading styles to facilitate the instructor’s navigation of their work.
If writers are self-publishing their work online, it is helpful to use heading styles to assist readers in navigating the work. For further advice on how to use heading styles, particularly when publishing your work online, read more about accessible typography and style at David Berman Communications.
Arditi, A., & Cho, J. (2005). Serifs and font legibility. Vision Research, 45(23), 2926–2933. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.visres.2005.06.013
Russell-Minda, E., Jutai, J. W., Strong, J. G., Campbell, K. A., Gold, D., Pretty, L., & Wilmot, L. (2007). The legibility of typefaces for readers with low vision: A research review. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 2007, 402–415. http://bit.ly/2mshytC
Tinker, M. A. (1963). Legibility of print. Iowa State University Press.