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issue 27

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Training Bulletin Issue 27

The Pastor’s Ass, or, the story of a headline-grabber

A pastor entered his donkey in a race and it won. The pastor was so pleased with the donkey that he entered it in another race, and it won again.

The local paper reported the story with the headline:

Pastor’s Ass Out Front.

The bishop was upset when he saw the story so he ordered the pastor not to enter the donkey in any more races.

The next day, the local paper headline read:

Bishop Scratches Pastor’s Ass.

This was too much for the bishop, so he ordered the pastor to get rid of the donkey. The pastor decided to give it to a nun in a nearby convent.

The local paper, hearing of the news, posted this headline the next day:

Nun Has Best Ass In Town.

The bishop fainted. When he recovered, he told the nun that she would have to get rid of the donkey, so she sold it to a farmer for £10.

The next day the paper read:

Nun Sells Ass for £10.

This gave the bishop palpitations, so he ordered the nun to buy back the donkey and lead it to the plains where it could run wild.

The headline read:

Nun’s Ass is Wild and Free.

…and the next day, the newspaper reported the bishop’s obituary.

It’s all in the headlines

And what, you may ask, has this to do with business writing? It’s all about headlines. The business equivalent is headings: headings in reports, in emails, in letters, in any form of business writing.

What function do headlines perform?

In newspapers, they have to grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read the story. They can do this by playing games with readers, by joking, teasing, using puns-anything to arouse enough curiosity to make the reader glance at the story.

In business documents, headings perform the same function—they have to get the reader to read the document. Unfortunately, you can’t get away with the sort of jokes you’ve just read. In business writing, headings have to grab attention in different ways.

What else do headings do?

Because business documents aren’t laid out the same way as newspaper or magazine articles, headings also have to do a lot more to help readers find information. They work as signposts, letting readers navigate through the sections to find information relevant to them. Good headings also summarise the contents of a document.

What makes a good heading? Part 1: the look

The easy part is formatting: make sure your heading style stands out visually from the body text. A common practice is to use sans-serif fonts for headings and serif for body text. Headings should also be in a larger font, perhaps in bold, differently aligned to the rest of the document or with some sort of highlighting (shading, borders etc).

What makes a good heading? Part 2: the words

The hard part is getting the wording right. People usually know that the heading has to give the reader an idea of what is in the text following it. Writers generally also try to keep headings brief. Too often, though, by following the latter rule, they short-change their readers on information with headings that are too brief, such as “Costs” or “Staff Requirements”. These are ok but they don’t go far enough.

Here is a good way to find the right words for your headings: ask yourself these two questions.

  1. What is this section about?
  2. What am I telling the reader about what this section is about?

The answer to your second question should become your heading. So “Costs” could become “Costs within budget” or “Costs will exceed budget”. “Staff Requirements” could become “Staff Requirements-Database Administrator Needed”.

Write a longer heading if that heading tells the reader something important. As long as it fits on one line, it increases your chances of getting key information across to readers who just skim your documents.

Another good way to come up with a heading is to ask yourself, what is the most critical thing my reader needs to know from this part of my document? Can I put that into the heading?

Think about who your readers are and what they’ll be looking for in your report or email. What key words will get their attention? What questions will they have when they open your document? Can you answer at least some of those questions in your headings alone?

Good headings make a good TOC

For longer documents, you can generate a Table of Contents (TOC) using your headings, either just the level 1 headings or the level 2 headings as well. A detailed TOC can actually give a reader most of the important information they need in summary and will let them find what they need fast.

Anyone who has to read a lot of business reports will love you for writing them in a way that gives them the answers they need quickly.

As good headings are important to most forms of business writing, these suggestions, and more, are included in several of our courses.


Editor recommends

Read This! Business Writing That Works by Robert Gentle

Lots of simple and common-sense advice on business writing which also shows the benefits of an attractive layout, something many business writing books overlook.

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Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

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