Headings and Hanging Paragraphs

1.1 Introduction
Today’s post deals with the important topic of Headings and the associated perils of the dreaded hanging paragraph.

1.2 Background
The Reader is referred to “Design”. From this it will be recalled that some attention to ‘windows’ will pay dividends in the long run. One form of window is the structure and text-breaks afforded by the headings that you choose.

1.3 Choosing Appropriate Headings
In some chapters of your thesis, the choice of headings is that of Hobson, which is to say no choice at all. For example, I provided a set of headings for the post on Concluding Remarks, and I will also be providing a set for ‘Introduction’. Whilst you are free to try and come up with something different, it is worth remembering that: 1) these are tried and tested and they are designed to address a particular set of problems and 2) you will want to save your creative endeavours for the bulk of the thesis.

As an aside, one of the reasons that this set works is that it is simple. Another, perhaps more important, is that it allows the thesis to flow in a logical manner – in one of those situations where there are about twenty different ‘rule #1’ to follow simultaneously, this is definitely one of them. Hence, it is a fundamental precept for the thesis as a whole, that headings should be chosen to help define the sequential presentation of data and ideas, hypotheses and arguments. If your thesis feels at all clunky in places then it is possible that you have that wrong headings and/or they are in the wrong order. This is an easy thing to look for in the first instance, and relatively easy to fix.

With the rest of your chapters, the headings that you choose will be determined to a greater or less extent by the content. However, there are several ‘rules of thumb’ that can get you started. One is that it is usually worthwhile starting a given chapter with an Introduction which provides some sort of link to the previous chapter and an outline for the current one. The obvious exception is the Introduction chapter itself; the concluding chapter’s introduction is also slightly different. It is also worth ending each chapter with a Summary that highlights a few key points (typically 3-5) that are important for the following chapter specifically and the thesis in general – again, the concluding chapter is an obvious exception.

Advice, that I’ve seen recently, which I wish I’d known about well before this, is that you should use subheadings to break up a piece of text that goes over ~1000 words. I will be bearing this in mind, not so much as a rule as a guideline. A similar guideline suggests that all chapters should be of a similar length – this I am much more inclined to forget about. I’ve mentioned the idea of a word-budget previously, and I’ll be picking up on this again in a few posts time. I think the worst thing though is to feel constrained by this. In terms of chapter length, I am very comfortable with the first and last being very focussed and hence of shorter length than the other chapters. I would usually expect the Literature Review to be longer, and other chapters shorter – but when putting a thesis together, it is important to remember that all are similar; all are different. Your thesis is yours: yours to write, your mistakes to make – my purpose this month is, I hope, merely to highlight where mistakes can be made so that you can put a plan in place ahead of time.

Finally, beware of breaking text into too finer structure, if you find yourself resorting to 4th level headings, double check that you really need them. 5th level headings are never justified – if you need to provide extra emphasis or structure at this level, then it may be better to provide a title that is not numbered but is emphasised in some way e.g. italicised, underlined, emboldened.

1.4 Hanging Paragraphs
This is a hanging paragraph. Don’t do it – avoid putting one into your thesis like the plague.

1.4.1 Why Hanging Paragraphs are bad.
Oddly, when looking for corroboration of my view point, Googling “Hanging Paragraph” seems to pull one towards indented paragraphs and associated hanging indents. So one conclusion might be that hanging paragraphs (in the sense that I mean) are bad, because they can be confused with something else. But this doesn’t feel like a particularly satisfactory answer.

1.4.2 Why not having hanging paragraphs is correct
I have seen hanging paragraphs in some quite surprising places, including legal and quasi-legal documents, but I will be honest and tell you that putting the one in above made me feel physically ill – it is just WRONG. If you break a section into a number of subsections, then each subsection needs to be numbered, because, every paragraph needs to be referenceable. If you have a hanging paragraph then you might reference it as the paragraph prior to heading 1.4.1 (in this case), but this is rather ridiculous. You might argue that an introductory paragraph does not need to be numbered or labelled in any way and indeed not doing so provides emphasis of its own. I disagree.

1.5 Summary
This post has introduced the subject of Headings and Hanging Paragraphs. Headings can be used to help manage the flow of the ‘story’ that you are trying to tell, and provide sign-posts to the reader to help keep them on track and to give them confidence that you know where you are going. Chapters are broken up into sections, sections into subsections and so on. Where appropriate, individual paragraphs may be given a heading, but this approach should be used sparingly and with a definite view in mind.

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2 thoughts on “Headings and Hanging Paragraphs

    1. Sorry if it wasn’t clear in the post; we use the term ‘hanging’ even if the paragraph is not indented. I suppose ‘pendent’ might be better, but sometimes you don’t realise that a local term might conflict with wider usuage until you come into contact with it.

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