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NOV16

Omit colons and full stops after headings

Filed on: November 16, 2011 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Headings or headlines are a special kind of text and are not as rigidly governed by conventions of punctuation. In particular, whenever a heading is on a separate line (the text that follows the heading starts on the next line below the heading), it is pointless to end it with a colon or a full stop. The Publications Office of the European Union [1] puts the matter succinctly: "Do not use colons at the end of headings or to introduce a table or graph set in text matter."

Such punctuation does not help readers; in fact, it has been shown to affect comprehension. A study that specifically addressed this point found that headlines that ended in a full stop lowered comprehension [2]. As Darren Rowse puts it [3], "Full stops, like their name suggests, are something that halts the eye of your reader. . . . [whereas] titles are all about leading your reader into your post."

However, minor headings are sometimes followed by full stops or colons, but only when they are "run on" (text continues on the same line immediately after the heading). Even then, the punctuation can be dispensed with if the headings are set in bold or italics. This, however, is a matter of style: if your target journal uses colons or full stops after such headings, you should do the same.

[1] Publications Office, European Union. [no date]. House rules for the preparation of the text. <http://publications.europa.eu/ code/en/en-4100100en.htm>

[2] Harrison K. [no date]. Bringing a headline to a full stop. <www.cuttingedgepr.com/ article/coreprskills_headline_to_full_stop.asp>

[3] Rowse D. 2006. Full stops (periods) in titles. <www.problogger.net/ archives/2006/09/26/full-stops-periods-in-titles>   

 

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

MAR 7

Tips to write informative and logical headings

Filed on: March 7, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Although many research papers that follow the so-called IMRaD format (Introduction, Materials and methods, Results, and Discussion) use these words as their main headings, you can choose appropriate subheadings to help your readers get a quick overview of the scope of your paper and its structure. Typically, readers see the title of a paper and, if that interests them, skim through the paper, looking at tables and figures and headings. And if these look promising, the readers will probably read the abstract. Therefore, headings offer a useful entry point into a paper, and it is important to write them so that they are effective. Here are a few tips.

Draw an organogram.  Organograms are typically used to show how an organization is structured and how its parts are arranged in a hierarchy. Since headings serve the same purpose, try drawing an organogram to show the structure of your paper. The main headings will be the first or the top tier; the subheadings will show how a given main heading is divided; and the minor headings will show how each topic that corresponds to a subheading is divided further. Once you have the organogram, use it as an outline while writing the paper.

Limit the number of levels to three.  For a typical research paper, three levels of headings are usually enough, although a review paper, a chapter in a book, or a report may have to use more levels. Limiting the levels to three makes it possible for those who skim through the paper to get an idea of the scope of the paper. If there are more levels, the overall picture beings to fade.

Use a consistent grammatical structure for every set of subheadings.  Sometimes referred to as “parallel structure,” a consistent grammatical structure means writing all headings under a given heading as nouns or phrases or sentences. In this post, for example, all the subheadings are complete sentences. A paper describing a field experiment in crop sciences, for example, may use the following as subheadings under the main heading Methods: Cultivar, Sowing, Fertilizers, Pest control, and Harvesting. The subheadings under Sowing may include Date of sowing, Depth of sowing, and Spacing.

Headings are to a paper what signposts are to a route: choose your headings well and your readers will have a smooth ride.

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

DEC 8

Consistent formatting of headings to signal their relative importance

Filed on: December 8, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

A research paper or any other technical document is never a flat stretch of land; the expanse is enlivened by headings and subheadings, each of which marks off its territory as it were. To its author, the structure of a paper is clear enough—it is by using headings with varying degrees of prominence that the author communicates that structure to readers.

Using numbered headings is a simple way to mark the position or level of any heading within the hierarchy of headings: major headings are numbered 1, 2, 3, and so on; subheadings under each major heading are numbered 1.1, 1.2 . . . 3.1, 3.2, and so on; and those even lower down in the hierarchy are numbered 1.1.1, 1.1.2 . . . 3.2.1, 3.2.2, and so on. Beyond three levels, the system begins to be cumbersome. Second, the system triggers automatic formatting in some word processors, which can be a nuisance. Third, journals that do not use the system have to delete the numbers at some stage.

Since it is essential to differentiate between different levels, I suggest a simple system here; it can deal with up to four levels and uses the same typeface and font size throughout. Note: if the journal’s instructions to authors tell you how to style the headings, follow that system and ignore the system suggested below.

Assuming that the text of the document is in 11-point Georgia and left-aligned throughout (I recommend both), format the levels as follows.

# Major headings: bold with centered alignment

# Subheadings: italics and left-aligned

# Sub-subheadings: normal and left-aligned

Insert one blank line above each heading. In all the three levels above, text that follows begins on the next line. Thus, each heading has some extra space above but no extra space below.

# Minor headings: bold and left-aligned, followed by normal word space; text continues on the same line after the space. Thus, minor headings have no extra space either above or below.

If you style your headings this way, it will be easy for the publisher to apply whatever design the journal uses to differentiate different levels of headings.

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]