How to Use and Format Headings in Academic Writing

21 May 2023




Headings help the readers to navigate through a document easily. They divide information into sections that make it easy to find. At the same time, they let the reader see how sections fit with each other. APA style of writing has 5 levels of headings. However, not all the levels are to be used in a document. This article will guide you on using the level headings to make your paper stand out.

Level Headings

Level 1 headings are the main headings. Use them for the main components of the paper, such as the Research Problem, Discussion, Findings, and Conclusion. Level 2 are subheadings for level1. Level 3 are subheadings for level 2 and so on until level 5. The number of levels used depends on how long and complex the paper is. Short papers might not need any headings. Always use the headings in order, no matter how many levels you have. Start with level 1.

Using Level Headings

Headings are sometimes confused with titles. While titles head the whole document, headings only head a section. They contain the content of that section only. They should be concise and preferably limited to one line. At the same time, they should be as descriptive as possible to let the reader know what that section is about. Use the appropriate language depending on the knowledge level of your readers. Only use technical terms if your readers can understand them. Lastly, Avoid writing ' 'Introduction' as a heading. It is unnecessary because it is assumed that the first paragraphs are always introductory. 


Formatting Headings

APA style has set specific guidelines for formatting headings to create uniformity and increase readability. Study the table below to see an illustration of the formatting guidelines.





Centered, Bolded, Title Case Capitalized.


Alligned to the left, Bolded, Title Case Capitalized



Indented, Bolded, Sentence case capitalized, Period

 (Begin text right after the period).


Indented, Bolded, Italiced, Sentence case capitalized, Period.

(Begin text after the period).


Indented, Italiced, Sentence case capitalized, Period.

(Begin text after the period). 



Note : Always capitalize the word that begins the title and other major words in the heading.

 Using Formatting tools

The fastest and easiest way to format headings is using an automatic headings tool in your word processing software. You can find it in the toolbar. However, Headings styles in word don't use APA style by default, but the settings can be changed. You can right-click on the styles and choose modify. 


Alternatively, you can download a heading template online and attach it to a Word document. Once you have downloaded the template, click on 'Tools' and select 'Templates and Add-ins.' Then go to the template and choose 'Attach' At the same time, check the box that says ' Automatically update heading styles. This method will add formatted headings to your work and apply them to the existing headings. In addition, it can generate and update a table of content automatically.


Here is an example to help you understand better how different levels of headings are used in the APA writing style.


Titles vs headings

There are some differences between the following titles and headings: The title of a document serves as its guidepost and sums up its contents in a few words, while the header of a chapter or section does the same for its content.  To learn more, check out our post on creating engaging titles for academic papers.

Which brings up the question, how lengthy should headings be? You can make headings as long as needed to effectively convey the information under them.  However, each heading should be as brief as possible; one line is generally the maximum allowed.

Subheadings versus.  headers

In contrast to the lengthy headers typically found at the lower levels, higher-level headings (such as "Introduction" or "Methods") typically only need one word.  This is so because the information under the more generalized headings is more easily summarized.  There's no need to elaborate; a single word describes what happens in a prologue well.

Subheadings should employ more descriptive vocabulary to explain their respective sections' contents better.  The subheadings here make it easier for readers to zero in on the specifics they need.

Using headings that provide context

Use as much detail as feasible in your headlines because their primary function is to alert the reader to the nature of the information in the section beneath them.  

Avoid Repetitive headlines

Equally important, no two sections' headers should cover the same ground.  The header of a chapter could be improved upon by adding more detail.

Headings with Technical Terms

When creating documents in domains that frequently use specialized terminology, it's essential to recognize that the headings may lose certain readers.  So long as you consider the reader's degree of expertise.  But if the jargon isn't necessary to convey the topic, don't use it.

Proper punctuation, spacing, and order

Prepare an outline of your intended approach to the capitalization, formatting, and sequence of headings at the outset.  Similarly-leveled, headings should both look and be formatted the same.  They should be parallel in structure.

Before you begin writing headings, it's a good idea to see whether there are any guidelines for capitalization, formatting, and sequencing provided by your style guide or institution.  Both the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) have precise formatting requirements for section titles.

Make use of Word's built-in heading styles

Use the heading styles option available in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and much other word-processing software to avoid formatting each heading individually.

In addition to the other advantages of adopting these heading styles, you can also have a table of contents created and kept up to date mechanically.  The time you save doing this will be invaluable.


The Next Steps

In general, you should use headings properly so that your writing is understandable and it is evident that you have addressed the assigned task.  The regulations will guide you through this process.

  1. Headings should adhere to these three rules of thumb.
  2. Use clear headings to organize your data.
  3. Inserting headers into the following text
  4. Create a grading system for headers
  5. Make sure you consistently and accurately punctuate headlines.


Most headings consist of a single word or a few words at most and never have a period in the end.  When creating a heading system, maintain uniformity in text, style, and punctuation—especially regarding capital letters.  For this purpose, keep in mind these three guidelines:

 Standards of education evaluation criteria

·         use a similar framework (edited 2016)

·         Standards for Education: A Definition

·         Criteria determination

·         Establishing Educational Benchmarks

·         Keeping headlines succinct and accurately describing the content beneath them is essential.

·         The use of noun phrases as headings

·         Maintain a parallel document structure using the same grammatical pattern for each level of headings.

·         Putting forth a strategy

·         Suggestion for a structure

·         Applying 'ing' constructions to headings



Why Different Heading Levels Are Needed

You know that the purpose of a heading is to inform the reader of the content to be found under it.  Differentiating the importance of certain points by giving them separate header levels is essential.  Whether a concept is a primary or secondary thought determines the appropriateness of its heading level.

In the first paragraph that follows your header, you should ideally introduce the subject of your heading.  The reader will then know what to expect from the rest of that section.  Remember that headings are not self-explanatory and that the material after them must constantly restate and support the section's core theme.


Your main points should circle back to support the thesis statement you introduced in the introduction.  They function similarly to stepping stones on the path to your conclusion.  That's why they must jump out at you immediately.  Whereas main points are broad and overarching arguments, subpoints are more specific and in-depth pieces of evidence, including statistics or concrete examples.  Even though they aren't massive enough to be featured alone, they nonetheless warrant the reader's focus.


You should highlight the paper's main ideas and supporting details using headings and subheadings.  They are a visual representation of relative value.  A varied text presentation lets readers focus on the most critical information.  Subheadings are smaller and less noticeable than headers.  All subsequent subheadings should be smaller and less prominent than their predecessors.



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