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A Tip on Better Formatting for Headings

I recently led a business writing workshop for a group of writers who had very complex information to share with their readers. Wisely, they used headings throughout their documents, so their readers could scan to find information quickly.

Unfortunately, the headings were not placed well. Each heading was the same distance from the information above it as below it. So the formatting didn't make a strong visual connection between the parts that belonged together.

This sentence and the following lines illustrate the formatting they used, which doesn't work.

Sentence Structure

Effective business writing is made up of clear, concise sentences. Experts have found. . . .  


Besides not making a strong visual connection, double-spaced headings stretch out a document unnecessarily. 

Below is an example of stronger formatting, with the heading just above the content it introduces.

Sentence Structure
Effective business writing is made up of clear, concise sentences. Experts have found. . . .


You can also guide your reader with run-in headings, which appear on the same line as the content they introduce, like this:

Sentence Structure. Effective business writing is made up of clear, concise sentences. Experts have found. . . .

The writers I worked with in class decided on run-in headings for their documents. They were all smiles about the difference in readability that small change made.

Do you have tips on better formatting of complex messages? Please share them.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “A Tip on Better Formatting for Headings”

  • These are good suggestions that encourage me to update our firm’s report style – I think it was laid out back in the dark ages of typewriters!

    In your examples, I think the heading on a separate line is more effective for a main heading because it implies a change of subject. The run-in heading would then be a good sub-heading. I like the look of bold caps for headings because they really stand out, and they would help accentuate the run-in headings.

    Now I just need to get my boss (and the faithful old employee who’s been here forever) to agree with me.

  • Hi, Val. Thank you for weighing in on the headings. I like your comments on your preferences for main headings and run-in headings. They make good sense.

    When you mentioned “bold caps,” did you mean headings in bold with all capital letters? I usually recommend that type of heading only for the title.

    Good luck with your boss and the long-standing employee! Perhaps they will be open to change if you can show them before and after versions. That approach worked in my business writing class.


  • Hi, Lynn,

    Yes, bold capitals is what I mean. It looks better in “small caps” so you get the variation in sizes, mimicking uppercase and lowercase. The font we use for our reports and letters is a very neat sans serif, and the caps don’t overpower the page. I can see that Times New Roman capitals in bold would be a bit heavy and are best reserved for titles.

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