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Style Manual

Headings

Headings help users scan content and find what they need. Organise content using clear heading levels. Begin each heading with keywords and keep it to the point.

Write headings that are clear and short

Headings organise information. Clear headings are specific to the topic they describe.

Keep them brief. They are signposts for people and for search engines.

Many people skim through headings to check whether a page is relevant before they read it in detail. Search engines use headings to analyse and rank content.

Accessibility requirements

Write clear page titles. This is the first topic a screen reader user will hear and should align with the first heading on the page.

Organise content with a clear structure using section headings. Clearly describe the topics or the following section in the headings.

Make sure all users can navigate through all content in the intended order, regardless of the technology they are using. Use the same navigation elements consistently across services.

WCAG quick reference:

State the main point

Write headings that tell the user what is in the content below it.

Headings should state the main point. This helps users find and use content in search results and on social media.

Use words that accurately describe the content. Don’t use empty words or phrases (for example, ‘more’ or ‘related information’).

Only include information in the section that is relevant to the heading. If the information isn’t relevant, move it or rewrite the heading.

Like this

Learn how to drive

Not this

More information

Use fewer than 70 characters

Write headings that are no more than 70 characters (including spaces).

Longer headings are more difficult to read and can be confusing. They might also suggest that you have too many ideas in a section.

Avoid questions as headings

Using questions pushes your main idea towards the end of the heading.

Starting a heading with ‘why’, ‘how’ or ‘what’ makes it slower for the user to read. They have to read the whole heading before finding relevant keywords.

Use keywords to start headings

Start headings and subheadings with keywords that help people to make a connection.

People scan-read headings to know the relevance of the content. If they use assistive technologies, they might use the tab key to read from heading to heading. Others who use screen readers might generate a list of headings for quick navigation.

The keywords should relate to the main content below the heading. Pay special attention to the first 2 or 3 words. These might be the only words someone reads to decide whether to continue to scan the page or to read the text.

Using keywords at the start of a heading is called ‘frontloading’. Frontloading makes it easier for people to assess the heading’s relevance – either on a web page or in search results. It also helps search engines find your content.

Write this

Use keywords to start headings

Not this

Write a heading starting with the main keywords

Organise heading levels in a logical order

Heading hierarchy is the relationship between main headings and subheadings. The hierarchical structure shows users how topics fit together

A clear and logical heading hierarchy shows readers where to find information and how important it is.

Keep each section concise and use headings to chunk information so it works well on screen for the user.

Heading levels include main titles, headings and subheadings:

  • Level 1 headings are titles of webpages or titles of chapters in a book or printed report.
  • Level 2 headings are main headings.
  • Level 3 headings are subheadings.
  • Level 4 headings are sub-subheadings (headings under subheadings).

Don’t skip heading levels

Write headings in a complete organised hierarchy.

A complete hierarchy helps people scan the content to find the information they need. Screen reader users need to be able to rely on heading level hierarchy to find relevant content.

Use one level 1 heading

Use just one level 1 heading per webpage. Make it unique to your site. This helps users understand the content and find it using search engines.

The level 1 heading is also a good place to include target keywords needed for search engine optimisation.

Print considerations

In documents, use level 1 headings (or ‘Heading 1’ style) for the main sections, such as part titles.

Make the headings relate

Every heading and subheading must relate to the heading above it so the grouping of information is logical and clear for users.

Avoid level 5 and deeper heading levels

Try to use only 3 or 4 heading levels at the most. A simpler structure is easier to read.

You can use deeper heading levels (level 4 and below) for very complex documents, but try to avoid it.

Deep and complex hierarchies of headings are a sign that you are probably trying to do too much on a webpage or in a chapter. It is likely that you will lose the reader.

Space out headings

Separate each heading from the next one by some text, even if it’s only a sentence. This helps create a clear distinction between ideas.

Create at least 2 headings for each level

Give each heading level in a section at least one other heading at the same level. This avoids the appearance of stranded ideas.

Like this
  • H1: Apply for a drivers licence
  • H2: Pass the theory test
  • H3: Learn the road rules
  • H3: Book a theory test
  • H2: Pass the driving test
  • H3: Practise for the test
  • H3: Book the driving test
Not this
  • H1: Pass the driving test
  • H3: Learn the road rules
  • H4: Pass the theory test
  • H5: Practise for the test
  • H2: Book theory test
  • H2: Pass the driving test

Use numbered headings only for steps

Use numbered headings only when they relate to a series of steps. Numbered headings can help users through a sequential structure.

Print considerations

In print, you can use numbered headings to help people cross-reference information:

  • If you use numbered headings, use them only in the body.
  • Don’t use numbered headings in the preliminary pages or endmatter in a report.
  • Don’t number more than the first 3 heading levels.

Be consistent: use a parallel structure

All headings in a level should be consistent.

They should have the same:

  • overall message (for example, they are all steps in a process)
  • grammatical form (called ‘parallel structure’).

Two common forms are:

  • noun phrases (for example, ‘effective headings’ and ‘punctuation and capitalisation’)
  • instructions (for example, ‘keep headings short’ and ‘be consistent’).

Use unique formatting for each level of heading

Format headings so the heading levels are visibly different. This helps users scan the text.

People should be able to tell the difference between heading levels at a glance.

Formatting options include:

  • font weights and sizes that are distinct from one another – a larger, bolder font for main headings and a smaller, lighter font for lower-level subheadings
  • colour to help people scan the headings – but don’t rely on colour as the only way to differentiate heading levels
  • spacing above a heading to help people see the visual break from one section to the next.

Don’t add an underline

Don’t underline headings or any other text.

Underlined text looks like a hyperlink, which can confuse users. It also makes it harder to read letters with descenders (for example, ‘p’, ‘y’ and ‘g’ in ‘Applying for government support’).

Apply HTML elements, tags and styles to headings

Use styles, tags and HTML elements to identify headings in digital content.

Correctly styled and tagged headings:

  • make it easy to create consistent headings
  • help software build an automatic table of contents
  • are needed for accessibility of digital content
  • help search engines understand the topic that you’re writing about.

Print considerations

Correctly styled headings make it easier for graphic designers to know how to lay out the publication, including what weighting to give each heading.

The reader should see at least one heading on each double-page spread in a printed document.

Don’t leave a heading at the bottom of the page with no text below it. Send the heading to the top of the next page so it stays with the content below it.

HTML elements

Use the correct HTML element for the heading level.

Your content management system should have inbuilt heading styles that you can apply to text.

Example

A page about paying your tax might use these headings:

  • H1 = ‘Lodging your tax return’ (the page title)
  • H2 = ‘Individual tax return’ (a heading for a main section)
  • H3 = ‘Lodging online’ (a subheading)
  • H4 = ‘Creating an account’ (a sub-subheading)

System heading styles

Apply correct inbuilt heading styles so they can be automatically added to navigation and contents pages.

If your organisation uses templates, use the template styles.

Print considerations

Some organisations have their own heading style guidelines.

If no guidelines apply, use a ‘Heading 1’ style for the main sections in the document. The title of a document uses the ‘Title’ style.

Write all headings in sentence case and use minimal punctuation

Use sentence case for headings to help people read the text more easily.

This means you should use a capital letter only for:

Don’t write headings in all capital letters as users could misread words. For example, ‘ACT’ could be ‘act’ (the verb) rather than the initialism for the Australian Capital Territory.

If you work for an organisation that uses all capitals for headings, make sure any abbreviations are easy to understand.

Don’t use a full stop to end headings

Even if the heading is a sentence, it doesn’t need a full stop at the end.

Avoid using shortened forms in headings

Don’t use a shortened form in a heading unless it is better known than the full term (for example, ‘DNA’ and ‘CSIRO’).

Digital Service Standard requirements

To ensure the content works on all devices, use responsive design methods.

Many people do not use a desktop computer or printed material to access services and information. Test content on a mobile device first.

Release notes

The digital edition focuses on writing headings for online content, but includes print considerations. 

It builds on content from the sixth edition and has new guidance on tags, styles and frontloading. It recommends against using isolated headings.

The Content Guide mentioned frontloading, short headings and heading hierarchies. The digital edition has new content on tags, styles and frontloading.

About this page

References

Content Design London (2020) ‘Headings and titles’, Content Design London readability guidelines, Content Design London website, accessed 30 May 2020.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Flann E, Hill B and Wang L (2014) The Australian editing handbook, Wiley, Milton.

General Services Administration (n.d.) ‘Headings’, 18F Accessibility Guide, 18F website, accessed 29 May 2020.

Loranger H (9 August 2015) ‘Headings are pick-up lines: 5 tips for writing headlines that convert’, Nielsen Norman Group, accessed 30 May 2020.

Lynch PJ and Horton S (2016) Web style guide, Web Style Guide website, accessed 29 May 2020.

Moran K (20 March 2016) ‘How chunking helps content processing’, Nielsen Norman Group, accessed 30 May 2020.

New Zealand Government (2020) ‘Headings and subheadings’, Content design guidance, Digital.govt.nz, accessed 30 May 2020.

Oxford University Press (2016) New Oxford style manual, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2020) ‘5.1: write useful page titles and headings’, Canada.ca content style guide, Canada.ca, accessed 30 May 2020.

University of Chicago (2017) Chicago manual of style, 17th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) (2020) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) overview, W3C website, accessed 29 May 2020.

WHATWG (Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group) (2020) ‘4.3.6: the h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, and h6 elements’, HTML: living standard, WHATWG website, accessed 4 June 2020.

This page was updated Sunday 20 September 2020.

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