As you’d expect, much of a proofreader’s job is checking spelling, punctuation and grammar. But a large part is spent spotting inconsistencies.

There are more ways of being inconsistent than you might imagine, and some documents manage to include nearly all of them. This post focuses on the importance of consistency in headings and subheadings.

Spotting patterns

The human brain is hard-wired to create meaning from patterns and shapes. It’s part of the instinct to survive. This why we can ‘see’ faces in an arrangement of a few dots, and why that cloud formation looks like a shark, or maybe a teapot.

When we read written text, we start by using existing shape and pattern knowledge (to quickly read known words and familiar sentence structures). But we also match other elements that we perceive as patterns, to make meanings for ourselves. This happens without us having to think about it, and if everything is consistent, it all works brilliantly.

But as soon as something looks different from what we have come to expect, our brains start to look for different meanings. At the very least, surprises like this will be a distraction from the smooth flow of the text.

Why use headings and subheadings?

Headings and subheadings are routinely used to make longer text easier to follow. Sometimes that’s the only reason for using them, as in this blog post. (There is just one fairly straightforward topic, so I didn’t really need them… they’re just extra pointers to smooth the way.)

Where headings and subheadings become essential is when the text is multi-layered or complex.

A heading of any sort gives an overview of what comes beneath it. If that text needs dividing even further, subheadings are used. And if the info under a subheading needs dividing, we need another group of subheadings… but they would have to look different.

Why?

Because our brains work logically. In this case, it’s all about categories. We need the smallest or lowest-level categories to come under the subheadings with the smallest typeface. Our brains will assume that those categories all come under the ‘umbrella’ of the next category up. And so on.

What can go wrong?

Here’s a simplistic example of what happens when subheading style goes awry:

At first glance, this seems to tell us that birds are mammals (ostriches and vultures included). Yes, you know that can’t be true… but a young child might not realise. If the topic was one you were already unsure about, a mistake like this could cause real confusion. And it’s not because the information is in the wrong place – it’s all because one word is the wrong size.

Here’s a different problem:

Now it’s clear that birds have their own category… but what’s going on with the elephants? Written like this, they are at the same category level as mammals, reptiles and birds. This implies that they are therefore not mammals, but something different.

OK, you’re fairly confident that this wouldn’t catch you out; your ‘African animals’ knowledge is secure. Great. But with more complex or uncommon information, lack of attention to such details can lead to confusing and sometimes serious consequences.

And it’s not something that can be left to a formatter to decide – this kind of decision depends on knowledge of the topic.

As a proofreader, I may have that topic knowledge… but if I don’t, I can still spot when something could cause confusion, and will flag it up. This is because I know that heading inconsistencies are about more than making your document look pretty; they can change the whole meaning.

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Catherine Kendal is a professional proofreader and editor who loves helping to show written ideas at their best. Living in rural mid-Suffolk with her partner, two cats and a scruffy dog, she takes the description ‘pernickety’ as a compliment.