What Is a Heading in a Book

Good writing is structured, uses good grammar, shows an excellent and discernible pattern, and is well-greased with transitions hence flows smoothly.

Above all, it has signposts. Yes, you read that right, HEADINGS. Your readers need and deserve to know where your passage or text is going. Headings are not just there to beautify your books or blog posts, and they are not just fingerboards either, they inform readers or give them a hint of what’s to come.

I had to, I just had to write a post on headings and tell you all there’s to know about headings in a book.

Let’s get started.

what is a heading in a book

What Is a Heading?

A heading is a word or a small set of words (phrase) that describes the content in the subsequent body of text—it gives a bearing on the succeeding text. It’s like a title (well, it is) but for the section that it heads.

Your Facebook posts or tweets may not need a heading but almost or long reads do. Some academic assignments, business reports, blog posts, and, more especially, books need text to tell readers what a particular section is all about.

What Is a Subheading?

They are the same thing, actually. A subheading is a heading, just a little bit lower in rank. A subheading heads a subdivision of a text. We normally use subheadings to support a heading; they add information about the heading and are initially conceived as supporting arguments or points.

heading and subheadings
Headings and subheadings.

Why Different Heading Levels Are Needed

So, now that we know that a heading is intended to tell your readers about the content of the section under it, why do we have some headings in strata? Well, some points are more important than others, so we need these headings in strata to show the order—by significance—of these headings.

For your writing to have structure and exhibit flow, you need to present your argument in an orderly and apprehensible pattern. And… headings are the building blocks of your argument, so you have to construct and arrange them in a way that reflects this structure and flow. You can support this structure with finer details (i.e., statistics or particular cases).

Most of the time, when you come up with concepts, they are just headings and subheadings. That’s why when you read a book, its key concepts and supporting ideas are first revealed in the headings and subheadings, then explained in the body text.

Therefore, the levels of headings are there to help the writer visually convey levels of importance to their audience. That is also why we apply the headings’ font sizes in accordance to their ranks—main headings are usually bigger than subheadings, and there’s an easily perceptible diminish in font size from the text that heads the largest division of the text to the last subheading that heads the smallest subdivision.

What’s The Difference Between a Title And a Heading?

Heading and titles are almost the same things, but one is like a king and the other just a clan leader.  Whether it’s just an academic paper or a 200-page book, the title leads the entire document and describes its content in word or phrase.  A heading, on the other hand, only indicates what the chapter or section below is about. It only serves to describe the content of that chapter or section alone.

heading and title
The difference between headings and titles.

How Long Should Headings Be?

Headings should be as concise as possible but also long enough to effectively put the point across. The goal is to clearly explain the content of the sections they head. However, there should be some balance between each detailing and concision.

One line should do it.

The type of headings should also be considered. Is it a higher-level or lower-level heading? The difference between a higher-level heading and a lower-level heading is that the former normally comprises of a single word (e.g., “Characteristics” or “Summary”), while the latter has more words. You can see, from that explanation, that higher-level headings are used for more general content. Since the topic or content is general, a single word is usually enough to clearly explain it and it’s easy for everyone to know or guess what section is all about.

Lower-level headings don’t cover general content so they are longer and use more specific phrases to help clarify what the section is all about.

Rule of Thumbs for Headings

Here are some guidelines for writing headings:

Don’t Capitalize Everything

When it comes to the capitalization of headings, there are many different views. Some will tell you to capitalize the first letter of the first word only, except for proper nouns. Others, like me, use capitalization rules like the ones I put in this article.

Keep Your Heading Structure Simple

When it comes to good writing, structure is very important, and it must be kept simple so that you don’t lose the reader.

Plus… logical, well-structured headings also help with SEO.

Graphically Show Different Headings

I have already explained why different heading levels are necessary, but they must be shown distinctively. Different font sizes have to be used for different levels, and some levels of headings should be bold and others italicized.

Numbering and indenting headings can also help differentiate headings.

Headings Should Be Properly Ordered

After showing that the headings are of different levels, you have to arrange them in proper order. Not only should headings of smaller size are positioned under larger headings, but there should also be a direct numerical rank link between consecutive headings; a level 1 heading should be followed by a level 2 heading, which should be followed by a level 3 heading and so on.

Headings Shouldn’t Stray From the Content

Headings must be logical and comprehensible when read alone and have to meaningfully describe the content which they head. Going back to the length, conciseness, and description factors, higher-level headings should not be used for specific sections like chapters; if you want the reader to know what’s in that chapter, you have descriptive text that relates to the content.

headings a rule of thumb
Headings: A Rule of Thumb

Things to Remember When Writing Headings and Subheadings

So, we’ve talked about the rule of thumbs, but there are still four things I need to talk about. They are not rules, just things you need to consider when coming up with a heading.

Succinctness. I cannot over-stress the importance of writing concise headings. Subheadings are a different case and can be a little longer, but headings must be concise.

Use headings as regular breaks. Chunky text has and will never be appealing to readers, especially the younger generations. To make reading more exciting, you need to break up your text at regular intervals using delightful headings. For bloggers, headings also provide opportunities for improving SEO ranking because you can use them for hyperlinking and incorporating keywords.

Use headings to enhance the content. Headings and subheadings have to be used to enhance the substance of their section, not to replace topic sentences within that section. They should be used as frames of a Picasso, so they should not distract the audience from appreciating the artwork within its bounds.

Do not overdo it. You have to be economical with your headings—and I’m not talking about conciseness. Not all paragraphs need a subheading, so you have to use headings only if you have enough points to necessitate the separation of sections.

Headings, Headers, and Footers

Apart from headings, headers and footers are other signposts; they are used to show the reader where they are in your book or where they want to go.

These signposts are used differently in non-fiction and fiction books. In non-fiction books, headers are used to show the book title on the left-hand page and the chapter title on the right-hand page. The footer, on the other hand, shows the page number. The page can also be shown using the header.

headings, headers, and footers
Headers and footers are used to direct the reader’s attention to where they are in your book or where they want to go.

The usage is different with fiction books; the header usually contains the author’s name and the book title, with the former on the left-hand page and the latter on the right-hand page.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Are Headings Important In a Book?

Because they are signposts, they’re beacons. Without headings, the sections of written works (e.g., books, essays, blog posts, etc.) are just a directionless chunk of words. Headings are used to present—to your readers—the main argument or point of that section.

Headings give the reader an overview of the section and introduce them to the content before they start reading it. By giving the reader a picture of what is to come, the heading helps the reader to absorb the material speedily and easily. They are not only important for the reader; headings also help the writer organize their content, give it a controlled rhythm, and give their writing a well-defined structure.

How Many Headings Should I Use In An Essay?

Well, it depends on many factors and I really can’t give a direct answer. Obviously, lengthier pieces have to have more headings than shorter reads. Having said that, I think I should also say that not every paragraph needs a heading—you don’t want to flood your pieces with headings. When this happens, the reader is overwhelmed and instead of organizing your text, the headings leave everything in a higgledy-piggledy state of affairs.

However, if your piece of writing has too few headings it becomes strenuous for the reader because they are no longer aware of where the content is going. It’s like traveling on a road with no signposts and not on Google maps, and you have no compass. Nothing!

What Are Heading Levels?

Headings and subheadings are generally your key points and arguments and, sometimes, your supporting arguments. In some documents, you only have a few paragraphs to present your main arguments, but if you are writing a complex piece you may need to include supporting arguments or points, so you’ll need multiple levels of headings to organize these arguments. These heading levels are used to visually represent levels of importance and give the sections a discernible flow. It’s like you’re presenting a tree of ideas; obviously, the trunk will have to be thicker and heavier than the tree branches and leaves.


There’s not a single ounce of doubt that headings are important; apart from making your book easier to scan, headings give your book a well-structured feel and help the reader to follow easily as they go deeper into the content.

Headings and subheadings are also important for you—the writer—because they make it easier for you to organize your ideas while writing. They are your building blocks, your roadmaps, and they help keep you on track of progress when writing.

Bottom line? Both readers and writers can’t make do without headings.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.