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Summary: Structure your document using paragraph styles (for documents) or heading tags (for web pages). Headings make the structure of your documents accessible to screen readers while improving both scannability and maintainability.

This article shows you how to format headings to improve the reading experience of all your readers, whether they read with their eyes or with their ears using a screen reader.

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Headings and document structure

You can apply document structure best practices in any written medium: from emails to research papers to blog posts. Everywhere you write, document structure can help you organize your work.

What does 'document structure' mean?

Document structure is the organization of a document into sections using headings and sub-headings.

Structure is critical for adaptive technology users, who rely on properly formatted headings to understand and navigate documents and web pages. Without this structure, there is no easy way to navigate a document because the document is read as a single long section. (BONUS: If you style your headings correctly and decide to change a font, weight, or size later, you can make one change and all of your headings will change, saving you oodles of time.) 

Well structured documents transform your writing from something dense and uninviting that looks like this:

improperly formatted document

Into one that is easier to read, like this:

properly formatted document
Document structure is about how you write and about how you format your writing.  

How headings help

Learn to organize your paragraphs under descriptive headings, and apply "styles" to these headings in Word or Docs. This habit will make it easier for anyone to scan through your document and find the parts of the document they want to read, an attribute known as “scannability”. (Bonus: Once you apply a style to a heading, changing the style to a different font, weight, or size will change all of those headings in your document, saving you oodles of time.)

Let’s see how this looks in Google Docs first. 

Highlight the text you want to make into a heading. Now, rather than manually formatting the appearance of the text by changing the size and color of the text, find the paragraph styles pulldown menu, which looks like this:

location of paragraph styles formatting menu on toolbar

Then click the menu to view your choices:

dropdown menu of paragraph styles in Google Docs

Notice that the software not only makes the text bigger and bolder, it also adds some space both before and after the heading line. The added space contributes to how easily your eye will land on the item as you are scanning down a long document. And if you don't like the default appearance of the headings, scroll to the Pro Tip on Customize Headings.

You can apply paragraph styles in other word processing applications, like Microsoft Word. The method is the same: just highlight the text you’d like to create as a heading and find the Styles menu. Here’s what the Styles menu looks like in Microsoft Word 2007-2010 for PC:

dropdown menu of paragraph styles in Microsoft Word
Your version may look a little different depending what version of the software you have on your computer.

A note about the "Title" style: Don't use it. Think of your document name as its name (not as a "title"). This might be "World Veggies.docx". Then make the first heading in the document a Heading 1. Note the comments on the sample document above, "Vegetables of the World".

Headings and Moodle (HTML)

Headings create a hierarchical representation of your document, which is especially useful in Moodle course websites and any other type of webpage. Screen reader software can isolate a list of headings on the page that the user can scroll through, scanning until they find the header that is most likely to have the information they’re looking for. 

In Moodle, highlight the text you’d like to make into a heading. In the WYSIWYG editor, find the paragraph styles pulldown menu:

dropdown menu of heading styles in Moodle text editor

Choose the headings large, medium, or small, based on the hierarchy of your written content, rather than your preferred size. Even if the size feels inappropriately large or small on your screen, it will look different to others depending on their own screen size and browser settings. The important thing is to maintain that hierarchical structure.

On the back end,  “Heading 1” (is your Course Title) and is represented by an <h1> tag in HTML. Heading 2 is <h2>, and so on. Heading 2's in Moodle are the Module or Weekly sections. So when you start building your course site, Heading (large) <H3> will be your first option. Remember, adaptive technologies and phone access are relying on properly structured and nested tags, so don’t go by size--go by logic and structure. 

Pro tip - Customize headings

Don’t like the way the heading style appears? Just format the text as you’d like it to appear, and then choose the option to update the style to match the selected text. 

In Google Docs, the option is in the paragraph styles menu:

location in formatting menu of command "update heading to match"

Look for the same option under Styles in Microsoft Word. The word processing program will automatically update all instances of the style, as long as you formatted them as headings. What a timesaver!


Save as default styles

Sick of changing the formatting of the styles every time you open a new document? You can set styles as preferences, or reset these preferences at any time. In Google Docs, the option is under Options in the paragraph styles menu:

location in formatting menu of how to set paragraph styles as defaults

Microsoft Word has a similar feature.


Pro tip - Creating table of contents

Another bonus of using paragraph styles to mark up your documents is that your software can use them to automatically create a table of contents. In Google Docs, all you have to do is find the Table of Contents button, which automatically generates a hyperlinked list of all the headings in the document. A table of contents can make it much easier for people to navigate your written work, especially long documents. A TOC also is a great way for people to get a preview of the content of your document. Here’s where the TOC button is located in Google Docs:

location of table of contents insert button on formatting menu

You can do the same thing in Microsoft Word or your own preferred word processing application. Depending on the version of Word you have, the table of contents feature may look like this:

table of contents menu in Microsoft Word

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