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Headings Are Key to an Effective Document

Whatever document you’re drafting—from a memorandum for a partner to a brief for the court—using clear and concise headings and subheadings will take your reader by the hand and lead them smoothly through your document. Here’s some advice from noted appellate attorneys Daniel U. Smith and Valerie T. McGinty on making your headings as useful and effective as possible.

In their recent program for CEB, Daniel Smith and Valerie McGinty stress the importance of headings and subheadings in your legal writing—they’re your first chance to sell the reader on your point of view.

In this short clip, Valerie McGinty describes one of the general rules of headings:

Here are some other general rules from Smith and McGinty to keep in mind as you draft your headings:

  1. Your heading should assert a complete point, not just a topic. Use the heading to tell the reader where you’re going.
  2. Keep the heading to two lines or less. If it’s longer, edit it down or consider subheadings.
  3. Use parallel structure. Present the various elements of your argument with sentences structured in a parallel way. This will increase clarity and make your argument more apparent in your table of contents.
  4. Echo key terms after the heading. Repeating key terms from the heading in the text below helps with continuity. You promised the reader what the section is about, so use those exact terms. Don’t change up the terms for variety’s sake.
  5. Put your heading in bold and lower case (except for first letter of first word). Writing in either all capital letters or capitalizing the first letter of each word is more difficult to read.

One way to check if your headings are effective is by examining the table of contents. Smith and McGinty note that many judges and clerks look first at the table of contents to get a sense of the arguments, the writer’s style, the document’s length, and its logic. If a reader can understand the organization of your brief and identify the salient points you’ve made simply by reviewing the table of contents alone, then headings and subheadings are well crafted and serve their purpose.

Whether you’re new to practice or have been at it for a while, we can all use tips to improve our legal writing skills. Get specific advice on how to make your writing as effective and it can be with CEB’s progam Smith and McGinty on Legal Writing, available On Demand.

Other CEBblog™ posts you may find useful:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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