Headings are usually just a few words each, but they can play a vital role in your document’s success. Their most important function is helping readers navigate your content. (No one benefits when readers are cast adrift!) And when headings are constructed with parallel structure, they also enforce consistency throughout your content and demonstrate attention to good writing standards.
What is parallel structure?
Last week’s post defined parallel structure as a method of uniformly constructing related elements. Parallel structure helps readers identify the relationship between the elements.
How is parallel structure applied to headings?
Typically, headings with parallel structure are all formatted as complete sentences, questions, or phrases. For example, all of the headings in this blog post are formatted as questions. When they are formatted as phrases, they frequently begin with the same type of word (e.g., noun, adjective, verb).
Although not technically part of parallel structure, same-level headings should also maintain consistent capitalization and typographical features. Typographical features include fonts, font sizes, and colors, as well as typographic emphasis (i.e., regular, italics, or bold).
How should parallel structure be applied to multi-level headings in formal documents?
If you have multiple levels of headings in a formal document (e.g., report, proposal, academic paper), it’s good practice to use the same structure for all levels. In the example below, all six headings are formatted as phrases beginning with present participles (starting, caring, providing, preventing, dealing, and selling).
[First-Level Heading] Starting Your Ant Farm Business
[Second-Level Heading] Caring for Ants
[Third-Level Heading] Providing Proper Nutrition
[Third-Level Heading] Preventing Disease
[Second-Level Heading] Dealing with Escapees
[First-level Heading] Selling Your Ants
As mentioned above, same-level headings should have consistent fonts, font sizes, colors, typographic emphasis, and capitalization. Consult your primary style guide, in-house style guide, or publisher’s guidelines for specific heading advice.
How should parallel structure be applied to multi-level headings in casual documents?
If you have multiple levels of headings in a casual document (e.g., blog post, deliberately informal marketing material), you may want to use different formats for different levels. For example, you could use phrases for the first-level, questions for the second-level, and phrases for the third-level.
[First-Level Heading] Ant Farming 101: Care and Nutrition
[Second-Level Heading] How Do I Take Care of Ants?
[Third-Level Heading] Nutrition Program
[Third-Level Heading] Disease Prevention
[Second-Level Heading] How Can I Prevent Escapees?
[First-Level Heading] Ant Farming 102: Sales
However, only use mixed formats if they benefit your reader and comply with your organization’s writing guidelines for casual documentation. And, just like headings in formal documents, all of the same-level headings should maintain a consistent appearance.