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When should I use headings?

This will depend on the nature of the task and the discipline.


Reports, for example, always use headings to structure the content and guide the reader; so do research literature reviews and theses.


This student has undertaken a strategic analysis of a company. Notice how you, as the reader, can gain a quick appreciation of what the report contains. This student has evidently prepared a strategic analysis of a company, using a variety of theoretical frameworks or tools of analysis. A series of recommendations are then provided. In this case, the headings reflect and help define the course of her analysis.

Click the highlights for an explanation of the key elements of the report and further comments.

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Executive summary

  1. Introduction
    1. Scope
    2. Method
    3. Assumptions and limitations
    4. Background
  1. External analysis
    1. Macro environmental forces
      1. Technical environment
      2. Political and legal environment
      3. Economic environment
      4. Socio-cultural environment
    2. Critical success factors (CSFs)
      1. Technology
      2. Price-Low cost strategy
      3. Excellent R&D process
      4. Quality
      5. Management performance
    3. Competitor analysis
      1. Pharmacia Corporation
      2. Novartis AG
      3. Pfizer
    4. Porter's five forces analysis
      1. Threat of new entrants
        1. Capital requirement
        2. Product differentiation
      2. Rivalry among existing firms
        1. Number of competitors
        2. Similarity of strategies
      3. Threat of substitute drug products
      4. Bargaining power of buyers
  2. Internal analysis and strategy
    1. Core competencies
      1. Advances in R&D
      2. Reputation
    2. Corporate strategies
      1. Directional strategy (growth orientation)
      2. Portfolio analysis (cash flow coordination)
    3. Business strategies
      1. Porter generic strategies
      2. Specific business strategies
    4. Functional level strategies
      1. R&D strategy
      2. Financial strategy
    5. Performance of Monsanto Pharmaceuticals
      1. Measures of corporate and business level performance
        1. Traditional financial measures
        2. Stakeholders measures
        3. Balances scorecard approach: using key performance measures
      2. Measures of functional performance
        1. Using benchmarking to evaluate performance
  3. Conclusions
  4. Recommendations
    1. Pursue aggressive international expansion
    2. Rationalise operations
    3. Form of research teamwork
    4. Form more strategic partnerships
    5. Increase social responsiveness
    6. Manage strategic changes through communication
    7. Establish peer-to-peer networking

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Frame your discussion


In the main, essays are expected to be written as an extended piece of prose. An essay that is written without relying on headings is often better regarded because it is generally well-integrated. That means the reader can easily follow the argument and discussion because the writer has used a variety of linking mechanisms. Refer to Language and Learning Online for guidance on reader directions. Check How can I improve my use of academic language? for essay writing connectives and transition signals. Also, see features of academic writing in How do I write more 'academically'?

Meaningful headings

You should not rely on headings to do the work for you. The following example illustrates this point.


Here are the headings taken from a student's essay. Can you determine what the essay is about?



Forces of change

Changes in the organisation

Discussion of various planned change models, their strengths and weaknesses

Criticism of planned change


You might conclude that the essay is something about change in a particular organisation, perhaps, but definitely about some of the strengths and weaknesses of models of 'planned change'. The direction the writer has taken isn't entirely clear from the headings but perhaps it's a major de-bunking.

Here, then, is the introduction and matching conclusion taken from a student's essay.

Click the highlights for an explanation of the features of this matching introduction and conclusion



Change is "making things different" (Robbins et al., 2001, p. 699). Change in an organisation is generally defined as alterations in people, structure or technology (Robbins, 1996, p.180). However, it is impossible to precisely define change. Change can happen when there is technological evolution, knowledge obsolescence and when there is an intensity of competition. It takes many forms- restructure, personnel change and company relocation. Change in the organisation can bring efficiency and effectiveness but it can also create uncertainties or even bring adverse effects to the business. Managers must note the nature of the change in the organisation and how to plan a successful change. This paper will have a close look at whether all organisational changes are 'planned change', discuss the various models of planned change and derive some critiques of planned change.


In summary, with increased complexity and intense competition in the global market, organisations are going through constant change. Changes happening to an organisation can be distinguished from 'planned change'. Management cannot control all the changes in an organisation but they can seek internal adaptation to cope with the dynamic and turbulent environment they are facing. Theories of planned change provide a systemic framework of how to carry out a change; however, strictly following the models does not guarantee success. Change should be tailored to a detailed analysis of the situation and with consideration for the social aspects of the organisation. Managers and OD practitioners should be aware of both the strengths and weaknesses of the current change models so as to design the best-fit organisation.

Note: the conclusion could be improved with a summary of what his analysis of planned models of change revealed.

After reviewing the introduction and conclusion, the headings could probably be improved to indicate some kind of direction; for example, instead of 'forces of change', perhaps 'the unplanned nature of contemporary change' and the 'discussion of various planned change models, their strengths and weaknesses' could be expanded with sub-headings indicating the nature of the analysis.

If you are going to use headings, make them meaningful. You can check this by isolating them as in example A above. If you can see what the essay is about, then you've done an adequate job of providing meaningful headings.

Disciplinary differences

In some disciplines, headings can be used in essays to help guide the reader. For example, it is often acceptable in BusEco subjects to use headings. It is generally not the case in Sociology. Nursing and Midwifery also like the use of headings to help guide the reader through the different elements of the assignment.


In this example, note how the student's use of headings closely reflects the conclusion?

Headings from student's Nursing assignment



Minimising the risk of complication: Education and management





Chronic complications


Macrovascular problems


Regardless of the discipline, your headings should be an integrated part of the essay.

Spend some time with the samples of writing in different disciplines available in Language and Learning Online to get a feel for what is accepted practice in your discipline. Also, consider discussing how to approach particular tasks with others on your subject MUSO site.

If you are still unsure about when to provide headings, check with your lecturer.

Using headings: in general

Make your headings meaningful and don't rely on them to do your work for you. If your assignment is a report, thesis or could be styled a case study, then use headings. If your lecturer has requested an essay, it would be permissible, generally, to use headings in Nursing and Midwifery, BusEco, and Social Welfare and Social Work; otherwise, check with your lecturer.

Check Language and Learning Online for further guidance on using headings.

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