Dr. Tamara Fudge, professor in the School of Business and Information Technology
Writing a paper or even posting in a discussion board involves more than just writing content; it should include labeling. For a paper, these labels are called subheadings; for a discussion board, it is the subject line. Unfortunately, the power of the label can be overlooked. Here are some reasons to use labels and, more importantly, how to use them.
A Word of Caution
First, a word of caution is necessary. Before using headings in your papers, make sure that you actually need them. Headings and subheadings are often used to separate sections of a long paper – often scientific publications or upper-level academic writing – and make it easier for readers to follow. However, headings and subheadings are rarely used in short papers, unless required by the professor and the assignment. They should not be used simply to avoid normal transitioning between paragraphs.
Reasons for Labels
A subheading or subject line’s purpose is to help a reader understand the associated content and to be able to find information quickly. It is important for the student to learn how to label information for the workplace, where bosses tend to scan documents for small bits of information and need the guidance of subheadings. It also assists a professor in grading an assignment by clearly identifying and matching sections to the assignment requirements. In the discussion boards, descriptive subject lines prove an understanding of the material or at the very least provide a unique moniker. (When every initial post is called “Initial Post,” there are no winners.)
An Incredibly Bad Practice
One practice to always avoid is copying assignment or discussion questions, making the words bold, and pretending the words constitute a subheading. Copying never proves you understand anything. Questions are too long to use as appropriate labels; they cannot be perused quickly. Importantly, these questions are someone else’s work, so using them is plagiarizing.
- Keep subheadings and subject lines short (typically 1-5 words) and descriptive.
- Pay homage to the rules of netiquette and never write in all-caps.
- Write formally by avoiding clichés, questions, and conversational phrases.
- For most circumstances, avoid humor, as not everyone will “get it.”
- For discussion post subject lines, do not include your name, the unit number, the discussion or topic number, or the name of the unit. These are already known entities and do not adequately describe the content in the post. Besides, the poster’s name is always associated with a post.
- For assignments, check that the formatting of your subheadings is done correctly. The Writing Center has materials to assist in learning the proper way of presenting levels of subheadings.
Instead of allowing the copying of questions, those who teach courses taken early in a student’s program might consider offering an assignment template that already contains appropriate subheadings. Alternatively, suggesting a simple outline and providing good subheadings can teach the importance of good labeling. Of course, encouraging students to identify content on their own would be optimal.
This is a blog post, so subheadings were really not necessary. However, I hope they helped make the point! While stealing a question or using “answer 1” as a subject line takes no real effort, labeling well is also not difficult and should lead to good workplace habits. There are many reasons to promote the writing of strong, descriptive labels and to consider teaching the power of the label.