Different style guides have different rules regarding the formatting of headings and subheadings in a paper, but what information you should actually put into your subheadings is a different question and often up to personal taste. Here we quickly summarize general guidelines, different approaches, and what not to do when choosing headings for a research paper.
Does it matter how I name my sections and subsections?
The main sections of a research paper have general headers and are often journal-specific, but some (e.g., the methods and discussion section) can really benefit from subsections with clear and informative headers. The things to keep in mind are thus the general style your paper is supposed to follow (e.g., APA, MLA), the specific guidelines the journal you want to submit to lists in their author instructions, and your personal style (e.g., how much information you want the reader to get from just reading your subsection headers).
Table of Contents:
- Style Guides: Rules on Headings and Subheadings
- What Sections and Subsections Do You Need?
- How Should You Name Your Sections and Subsections?
- Avoid These Common Mistakes
Style Guides: Research Paper Heading and Subheading Format
Headers identify the content within the different sections of your paper and should be as descriptive and concise as possible. That is why the main sections of research articles always have the same or very similar headers (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion), with no or only small differences between journals. However, you also need to divide the content of some of these sections (e.g., the method section) into smaller subsections (e.g., Participants, Experimental Design, and Statistical Analysis), and make sure you follow specific journal formatting styles when doing so.
If the journal you submit to follows APA style, for example, you are allowed to use up to five levels of headings, depending on the length of your paper, the complexity of your work, and your personal preference. To clearly indicate how each subsection fits into the rest of the text, every header level has a different format – but note that headers are usually not numbered because the different formatting already reflects the text hierarchy.
APA style headings example structure
Level 1 Centered, Bold, Title Case
Text begins as a new paragraph.
Level 2 Left-aligned, Bold, Title Case
Text begins as a new paragraph.
Level 3 Left-aligned, Bold Italic, Title Case
Text begins as a new paragraph.
Level 4 Indented, Bold, Title Case, Period. Text begins on the same
line and continues as a regular paragraph.
Level 5 Indented, Bold Italic, Title Case, Period. Text begins on the
same line and continues as a regular paragraph.
If you only need one section header (e.g. Methods) and one level of subsection headers (e.g., Participants, Experimental Design, and Statistical Analysis), use Level 1 and Level 2 headers. If you need three levels of headings, use Levels 1, 2, and 3 (and so on). Do not skip levels or combine them in a different way.
If you write a paper in Chicago style or MLA style, then you don’t need to follow such exact rules for headings and subheadings. Your structure just has to be consistent with the general formatting guidelines of both styles (12-pts Times New Roman font, double-spaced text, 0.5-inch indentation for every new paragraph) and consistent throughout your paper. Make sure the different formatting levels indicate a hierarchy (e.g., boldface for level 1 and italics for level 2, or a larger font size for level 1 and smaller font size for level 2). The main specifics regarding Chicago and MLA headings and subheadings are that they should be written in title case (major words capitalized, most minor words lowercase) and not end in a period. Both styles allow you, however, to number your sections and subsections, for example with an Arabic number and a period, followed by a space and then the section name.
MLA paper headings example structure
2. Material and Methods
2.1 Subject Recruitment
2.2 Experimental Procedure
2.3 Statistical Analysis
3.1 Experiment 1
3.2 Experiment 2
What research paper headings do you need?
Your paper obviously needs to contain the main sections (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and maybe Conclusion) and you need to make sure that you name them according to the target journal style (have a look at the author guidelines if you are unsure what the journal style is). The differences between journals are subtle, but some want you to combine the results and discussion sections, for example, while others don’t want you to have a separate conclusion section. You also need to check whether the target journal has specific rules on subsections (or no subsections) within these main sections. The introduction section should usually not be subdivided (but some journals do not mind), while the method section, for example, always needs to have clear subsections.
How to Name Your Sections and Subsections
The method section subheadings should be short and descriptive, but how you subdivide this section depends on the structure you choose to present your work – which can be chronological (e.g., Experiment 1, Experiment 2) or follow your main topics (e.g., Visual Experiment, Behavioral Experiment, Questionnaire). Have a look at this article on how to write the methods for a research paper if you need input on what the best structure for your work is. The method subheadings should only be keywords that tell the reader what information is following, not summaries or conclusions. That means that “Subject Recruitment” is a good methods section subheading, but “Subjects Were Screened Using Questionnaires” is not.
The subheadings for the result section should then follow the general structure of your method section, but here you can choose what information you want to put in every subheading. Some authors keep it simple and just subdivide their result section into experiments or measures like the method section, but others use the headings to summarize their findings so that the reader is prepared for the details that follow. You could, for example, simply name your subsections “Anxiety Levels” and “Social Behavior,” if those are the measures you studied and explained in the method section.
Or, you could provide the reader with a glimpse into the results of the analyses you are going to describe, and instead name these subsections “Anxiety-Like Behaviors in Mutant Mice” and “Normal Social Behaviors in Mutant Mice.” While keeping headings short and simple is always a good idea, such mini-summaries can make your result section much clearer and easier to follow. Just make sure that the target journal you want to submit to does not have a rule against that.
Common Heading and Subheading Mistakes
Subheadings are not sentences
If your heading reads like a full sentence, then you can most probably omit the verb or generally rephrase to shorten it. That also means a heading should not contain punctuation except maybe colons or question marks – definitely don’t put a period at the end, except when you have reached heading level 4 in the APA formatting style (see above) and the rules say so.
Always check your numbering, for example for spaces and periods before and after numbers (e.g., 3.2. vs 3.2), because readability depends on such features. But also make sure that your headings are consistent in structure and content: Switching between short keyword headings (e.g., “Experiment 2”) and summary headings (e.g., “Mice Do not Recognize People”) is confusing and never a good idea. Ideally, subheadings within a section all have a similar structure. If your first subsection is called “Mice Do not Recognize People,” then “People Do not Recognize Mice” is a better subheader for the next subsection than “Do People Recognize Mice?”, because consistency is more important in a research paper than creativity.
Don’t overdo it
Not every paragraph or every argument needs a subheading. Only use subheadings within a bigger section if you have more than one point to make per heading level, and if subdividing the section really makes the structure clearer overall.
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