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Can You Have Headings In Essays

Key words: report writing, signposts, headings, heading levels, sub-headings, parallel structure, maximal & minimal capitalisation

Headings are standard for some written forms (e.g. report writing, case studies). However, lecturers can be divided about whether they allow/prefer you to use headings in your academic essays. Some lecturers prefer headings while others don’t want you to use headings. You will need to check your lecturer’s preference. If you do use headings, then use them wisely and correctly.

About using headings

Most students who have just completed secondary studies come to university with the firm belief that you should not use headings in essay writing. The use of headings in formal writing was once restricted to business style writing, such as report writing. However, in more recent times, headings are often used in formal academic writing such as books and journals. Also, texts on the Internet are easier to read on screen if they have headings.

Headings are signposts that focus the reader on the most important content in a piece of writing, and are usually connected to the set question. Provided that they are well structured, a few headings make longer pieces of writing easier to write and easier to read (for the marker). Look at headings systems in your unit reading material, and you will get a ‘feeling’ for their structure and suitability.

Exercise 1: Recognising the appropriate use of headings

It’s easy to see why you need a few rules to help you develop a good system of headings. Compare the following sets of headings then answer the questions that follow:

Heading set 1Heading set 2



(sub-headings for this section)
Division of headings and text
Heading levels
Isolated headings


(sub-headings for this section)
Length of headings
Informative wording
Parallel structure and content



What are the heading hierarchies?

(sub-headings for this section)
Division of headings and text
Heading levels
Isolated headings


(sub-headings for this section)
Length of headings
Informative wording
How does using parallel structure and content help with writing headings?


Read this description of a well-structured set of headings:

  • The heading system is clear and logical
  • The sub-headings are all at the same level and in the same font style
  • The wording of the headings and sub-headings is alike
  • If you used this heading system, the reader would not be confused

This description applies to:

Heading set 1

Correct! When you see headings set out like this, it becomes obvious that you need to create a plan for your headings before you start. Heading set 1 follows the rules and is logical, whereas Heading set 2 breaks the rules and would send the reader on a ‘chase’ to work out what the writer means. So, take a couple of minutes to work out a consistent plan for using headings and apply it to all of your essays.

What to do

In general, you are expected to use headings correctly so that your writing is clear, and it is obvious that you have answered the set question. There are rules to help you to do this.

Click on the links to see more details and examples.

Design a system of graded headings

Graded heading system


Work out a system of headings that you can use with all of your essays. Headings should be graded at levels to show a clear order of importance (e.g. level 1 – most important; level 2 – next important and so on). You will mainly use one to three levels of headings in your essay, depending on the length of your assignment. For example, most 2000 word essays may only require 3-5 level 1 headings (i.e. a level 1 heading every 2-3 pages). Remember that the aim of using headings is to keep your reader on track. Too many headings and too many levels creates confusion.

When you design a heading system, show the relative importance of headings with the type size, position (e.g. centred or left justified), using boldface, underlining or capital letters. You can follow a recommended pattern or make up your own system—so long as it is clear and consistent. Example:
Level 1: CAPITALS, bold, 14pt, centred, space below
Level 2: Lowercase, bold, 12pt, left justified, space below
Level 3: Lowercase, italics, 12pt, left justified, no space below

Distribute information in logical sections

Information in logical sections


The key to working out your essay sections is to work from your question analysis. Consider the following question:

Many lecturers now approve of the use of headings in academic essays. Consider whether the benefits outweigh the problems for the writers and markers. Identify and discuss the key rules for using headings appropriately in academic essays. (2000 words)

Example of a heading plan for this question:

Level 1 headings

Level 2 headings (example from one section)
could have the following level 2 headings:

Heading hierarchies (3 paragraphs)

Effective wording of headings (2 paragraphs)

Only use sub-headings if there is a lot of information in a section.
Use three principles to word your headings

Effective wording of headings


Use three basic principles to word your headings:

  • Keep headings brief (avoid two and three liners)
  • Make them specific to the written work that follows
  • Follow a PARALLEL structure

For example:

  • If you use a question as a heading, then follow that pattern for that heading level and for that section (e.g. if your level 1 heading is What are the rules for heading levels?, then the next level 1 heading would need to be a question also: How do you word headings effectively?).
  • If you use a phrase starting with an ‘ing’ word, then follow that pattern for that heading level and for that section (e.g. Designing heading levels; Wording headings effectively).
  • If you use a noun phrase, then continue to use noun phrases for that level and for that section (e.g. Design of heading levels; Effective wording of headings).
  • You can change your heading style between levels, but you must be consistent at level 1 then in each section (i.e. all level 1 headings should follow the same pattern; each level 2 heading in a section should follow the same pattern.)
Punctuate headings correctly and consistently

Correct punctuation for headings


Headings can be single words or short phrases and DO NOT require a full stop unless you have used a question as a heading—a question mark is then required. The use of capital letters may follow either of the following approaches provided that you are consistent:

  • Minimal capitalisation—only the first word of a title and any proper nouns and names are capitalised (e.g. Punctuation rules for Australian texts)
  • Maximal capitalisation—all words are capitalised EXCEPT for articles (e.g. a, an, the), prepositions and conjunctions (e.g. Punctuation Rules for Australian Texts)
Linking headings to the following text


When you place a heading in the text, it is a signpost for a section of writing. You need to begin the following paragraph with a sentence that introduces the reader to the heading topic and then announce what will be coming in that section in the essay—just as you do in the essay introduction. A heading is not part of the text of your paragraph, so you should not refer to it with a pronoun reference (e.g. this, these, that).


Effective wording of headings

This means that the wording of the heading matches the information of the following section. Do not make the heading part of the first sentence.

UNE Moodle (heading)

a customised learning platform used to provide online delivery of course material for UNE students submission of assessment tasks, to enable participation in discussions and support collaboration.

UNE Moodle (heading)

The customised learning platform, UNE Moodle, is used to provide online delivery of course material, submission of assessment tasks, to enable participation in discussions and support collaboration.

What NOT to do

There is much to learn from what is NOT wanted. Following are some of the common mistakes made in the use of headings in formal written work:

Click on the links to see more details.

DO NOT rules
  • DO NOT use headings in smaller documents (i.e. less than a 1000 words)
  • DO NOT use too many headings
  • DO NOT change the style of heading levels midway through your writing (work out your system and stick to it)
  • DO NOT number headings in an essay unless you are asked to
  • DO NOT put headings on individual paragraphs (normally a heading applies to a number of paragraphs in a section)
  • DO NOT leave a heading at the bottom of a page by itself (‘widowed’ heading)
  • DO NOT ‘stack’ headings (e.g. a level 1 heading followed by a level 2 heading without any text in between)
Avoid rules
  • AVOID using ‘isolated/lone’ headings (e.g. using only one sub-heading with no other sub-headings of that type following)
  • AVOID writing headings more than one line long
  • AVOID using definite articles (e.g. a, an, the) to begin headings (e.g. ‘ example problem’ should be ‘Example problem’)

Headings for essay planning

Designing a good headings system is also very helpful for setting up a plan for writing as you can quickly see whether you have included and balanced all of the parts of a question. Make sure your headings match the information you signal in the outline statement of your introduction paragraph.

Note: As a general rule, you should only use headings in longer essays of over 1000 words where you can divide your essay into large sections.
Note: If you use headings in an academic essay, do not use headings systems designed for report writing.
Note: You can change your heading style between levels but you must be consistent at level 1 then in each section (e.g. all level 1 headings should follow the same pattern; each level 2 heading in a section should follow the same pattern.)

MLA Formatting and Style Guide

Summary: MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities. This resource, updated to reflect the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed.) and the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (3rd ed.), offers examples for the general format of MLA research papers, in-text citations, endnotes/footnotes, and the Works Cited page.

Contributors:Tony Russell, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2010-11-16 10:21:00

General Format

MLA style specifies guidelines for formatting manuscripts and using the English language in writing. MLA style also provides writers with a system for referencing their sources through parenthetical citation in their essays and Works Cited pages.

Writers who properly use MLA also build their credibility by demonstrating accountability to their source material. Most importantly, the use of MLA style can protect writers from accusations of plagiarism, which is the purposeful or accidental uncredited use of source material by other writers.

If you are asked to use MLA format, be sure to consult the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th edition). Publishing scholars and graduate students should also consult the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (3rd edition). The MLA Handbook is available in most writing centers and reference libraries; it is also widely available in bookstores, libraries, and at the MLA web site. 

Paper Format

The preparation of papers and manuscripts in MLA style is covered in chapter four of the MLA Handbook, and chapter four of the MLA Style Manual. Below are some basic guidelines for formatting a paper in MLA style.

General Guideline

  • Type your paper on a computer and print it out on standard, white 8.5 x 11-inch paper.

  • Double-space the text of your paper, and use a legible font (e.g. Times New Roman). Whatever font you choose, MLA recommends that the regular and italics type styles contrast enough that they are recognizable one from another. The font size should be 12 pt.
  • Leave only one space after periods or other punctuation marks (unless otherwise instructed by your instructor).
  • Set the margins of your document to 1 inch on all sides.
  • Indent the first line of paragraphs one half-inch from the left margin. MLA recommends that you use the Tab key as opposed to pushing the Space Bar five times.
  • Create a header that numbers all pages consecutively in the upper right-hand corner, one-half inch from the top and flush with the right margin. (Note: Your instructor may ask that you omit the number on your first page. Always follow your instructor's guidelines.)
  • Use italics throughout your essay for the titles of longer works and, only when absolutely necessary, providing emphasis.
  • If you have any endnotes, include them on a separate page before your Works Cited page. Entitle the section Notes (centered, unformatted).

Formatting the First Page of Your Paper

  • Do not make a title page for your paper unless specifically requested.
  • In the upper left-hand corner of the first page, list your name, your instructor's name, the course, and the date. Again, be sure to use double-spaced text.
  • Double space again and center the title. Do not underline, italicize, or place your title in quotation marks; write the title in Title Case (standard capitalization), not in all capital letters.
  • Use quotation marks and/or italics when referring to other works in your title, just as you would in your text: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as Morality Play; Human Weariness in "After Apple Picking"
  • Double space between the title and the first line of the text.
  • Create a header in the upper right-hand corner that includes your last name, followed by a space with a page number; number all pages consecutively with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), one-half inch from the top and flush with the right margin. (Note: Your instructor or other readers may ask that you omit last name/page number header on your first page. Always follow instructor guidelines.)

Here is a sample of the first page of a paper in MLA style:

The First Page of an MLA Paper

Section Headings

Writers sometimes use Section Headings to improve a document’s readability. These sections may include individual chapters or other named parts of a book or essay.


MLA recommends that when you divide an essay into sections that you number those sections with an arabic number and a period followed by a space and the section name.

1. Early Writings

2. The London Years

3. Traveling the Continent

4. Final Years

If you are only using one level of headings, meaning that all of the sections are distinct and parallel and have no additional sections that fit within them, MLA recommends that these sections resemble one another grammatically. For instance, if your headings are typically short phrases, make all of the headings short phrases (and not, for example, full sentences). Otherwise, the formatting is up to you. It should, however, be consistent throughout the document.

If you employ multiple levels of headings (some of your sections have sections within sections), you may want to provide a key of your chosen level headings and their formatting to your instructor or editor.

Sample Section Headings

The following sample headings are meant to be used only as a reference. You may employ whatever system of formatting that works best for you so long as it remains consistent throughout the document.


1. Soil Conservation

1.1 Erosion

1.2 Terracing

2. Water Conservation

3. Energy Conservation

Formatted, unnumbered:

Level 1 Heading: bold, flush left

Level 2 Heading: italics, flush left

     Level 3 Heading: centered, bold

     Level 4 Heading: centered, italics

Level 5 Heading: underlined, flush left

Source: Russell, Tony, Allen Brizee, and Elizabeth Angeli. "MLA Formatting and Style Guide." The Purdue OWL. Purdue U Writing Lab, 4 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 July 2010.