Numbering the headings?

Subject: Numbering the headings?
From: "Geoff Hart" <geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Thu, 21 Oct 1999 12:38:14 -0400

John David Hickey's first draft of a section of a manual
<<...has been reviewed and the comments are starting to
trickle back. One of the suggestions I intend to fight is to
number the headings (1.1, 1.2.1, Management
thinks would help the reader remember where they are in the

Without knowing about the specific context, my initial
reaction is negative: numbers will never serve that purpose
for anyone other than those who have learned to memorize
subsections of legislation, contracts, or standards. That
probably doesn't represent your audience, who you described
as primarily nontechnical.

Think of it this way: if numbers are really so darned helpful,
then why do we need words in the headings to explain what
part of the procedure the reader has reached? That's not to say
that numbered lists are unimportant, because the numbers do
indeed provide a firm grasp of sequence and a nice handle to
use when remembering how far you've proceeded. They're
also a very useful cross-referencing tool in really large,
complex documents. Even then, a page number
supplemented by the heading title strikes me as more
friendly. However:

<<This numbering style can be useful if you have many sub-
sections and the documents are long and complicated.>>

That's no always a reliable assumption. (There are cases
where it might be true, such as in extremely complex and
detailed procedures, but these are comparitively rare.) If the
procedure is so complex that it requires more than three levels
of heading, then it's a clear clue that you need to reassess how
you've presented the procedure. I find that three levels of
heading (excluding the chapter title) is the most that the
average reader will tolerate, with the caveat that this is
anecdotal evidence, unsupported by rigorous research. The
most common way to simplify a structure in this manner is to
treat each first-level heading in the procedure as its own
chapter (thereby eliminating one level of heading); you can
then group the relevant chapters into sections. This has
another benefit that numbers alone lack: it provides a simple,
high-level overview (in words, not numbers) of what this
phase in the larger procedure represents.

For example, let's say your manual is about buying a
computer and its peripherals. The sections might be about
selecting a cpu, selecting storage, selecting a printer, and so
on. So rather than having the reader remember the whole
hierarchy of buying a computer, they focus on one aspect of
buying the computer (i.e., one section) at a time. Now let's
assume the reader is thinking about printers, which form a
single section. Within that section, you can have separate
chapters on color, engine speed, RAM, consumable costs,
etc. etc. The hierarchy is very clear: "I'm looking at buying a
computer, and I want to figure out what type of printer to buy
with it: I'll look at whether I need a color printer, a fast
printer, a printer that can..." Try achieving that effect with

<<I don't think that if the reader really is lost, knowing that
they are in section will help them find themselves.>>

I'd agree, for the reasons listed earlier. However, one
compromise you'll sometimes see is the use of tiny numbers
in the margins to provide ease of cross-reference, with the
body text using only the text headings.

<<Are there other arguments I could be making to defend an
non-numbering Heading style?>>

Personal experience usually works far better than abstract
theory. So head down to your library and photocopy a few
pages of any legislation from the Revised Statutes for your
province. Create a heading hierarchy in your word processor
that uses just the section numbers, minus the text beneath
them, and provide a printout of the document to the people
who proposed the numbering. Ask them to read through the
document once, then take it away from them and ask them to
identify a section number chosen at random: offer to buy a
beer for anyone who can tell you all the preceding headings
in the hierarchy. You won't be buying much beer. <g> Now
present them with the same document, but with proper section
titles that explain what the section refers to, minus the
numbers. Repeat your little experiment, but this time, don't
offer any beer, because most of them will quickly remember
the headings that preceded the current heading. The
prosecution rests... <g>

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca (Pointe-Claire, Quebec)
"Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all those sevens, something just calling out for us to discover it. But I
that it is only a pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence." George Miller, "The Magical Number Seven" (1956)

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