The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Attorneys sometimes italicize headings, bold them, underline them, or enlarge the font. But virtually everyone tries to distinguish the appearance of headings. Why? Because we all recognize the unique value of headings.
Headings create a semantic context for the reader. Psychologists and linguists explain that readers comprehend and remember better when writers use headings that trigger focus at the earliest possible moment.
With this potential, all legal writers would naturally spend a lot of time thinking about how to focus readers through each heading, right?
Consider how Supreme Court justices use headings, dividing their opinions into sections designated by Roman numerals. Defenders of this practice typically explain that the content should be readily apparent. For example, when readers come to "I," they should immediately recognize that they are about to read a statement of background facts. Or when coming to "IV" and spotting a mention of double jeopardy in the opening sentence, readers should recognize that the judge is about to discuss a double jeopardy claim.
But why use headings at all if they serve no purpose? Skilled writers should use headings when they serve the reader, and few readers are served by Roman numerals unaccompanied by text. On the other hand, textual headings can effectively aid readers by furnishing the outline for the analysis.
Headings can serve three purposes:
- to provide contextual information useful to understanding the section,
- to identify the function of the section, and
- to communicate organizational information about the section.
Fulfilling these purposes can facilitate readers' memories of the text and shape their perception.
Writers can provide contextual information through a topic, such as "the Claim of Double Jeopardy." Or the section's function can be identified through a one-word heading like "Background" or "Discussion." And organizational information can be supplied through subheadings. Though these methods ease the readers' burden, they shed little light on the point to be driven home in the section. To shine a light on that point, use a heading expressing your core point.
For example, think about a functional heading like "Background." This heading orients the reader to the nature of what is to come: the basic historical facts underlying the case. Orienting the reader to the topic serves to facilitate recall. But a one-word heading like "Background" does not tell the reader which facts are important. So tell the reader. If the reader needs to know that the victim of an armed assault was the initial aggressor, say so through a heading: "Joseph attacked John, who reacted in self-defense." A one-word heading like "Background" creates unnecessary work for readers, telling them that they'll need to look elsewhere for the key takeaways.
Use your heading to tell readers the point of each section. The collection of points will serve as a guidepost for readers, breaking up your information into easily digestible chunks. These chunks become identified with the headings, allowing readers to absorb the material incrementally, enhancing recall.
With headings, consider how to maximize their usefulness. A heading signals a topical shift, focusing the reader on the text that immediately follows. The process of refocusing the reader enhances recall because readers generally remember what comes immediately after the heading better than what comes later.
So next time you insert a heading, think about it. Don't just italicize or enlarge the font. Take advantage of the opportunity by focusing your readers on what you want them to understand and remember.