Section Titles: Learning from Newspaper Headings

Imagine what would happen if the newspapers started using headers like this:
“the Middle East” or “Bicycles in the City” or “President Johnson and Prime Minister Germany”

You would be left with a couple of questions, wouldn’t you? What do they mean: everything you ever wanted to know about the Middle East but were afraid to ask? How many bicycles are there in London city? Are President Johnson and the Prime Minister of Germany getting married? The mind boggles.

And yet this is exactly what I see in a lot of technical reports. Section headings like: “Concept 3” and “Background” and even “Other”. As if the writer is trying to keep everything a secret for as long as he can. ‘We have generated three concepts, but if you want to know in what way they are different from each other you will have to read the entire section. Teehee! Oh, and we have named the next section “Detailed Design of Winning Concept”, so you will have to move all the way to that section to find out which concept that is.’Most of your readers will have about 15 minutes to read your report. How annoyed do you think they will be when you make them search for information this way?

Newspaper editors have learned how to make life easy for selective readers like theirs and ours. Maybe we can learn from what they do.

Pick up any newspaper, paper or online and read the headlines. You will find that almost all headlines contain a verb. “Donald Trump announces Mike Pence as VP” (the Guardian, 15/07/2016), Winona Ryder, an Emblem of ’90s Cool, Grows Up” (NYT 15/07/2016). The effect is that every heading reads like a tiny summary; you don’t have to read the actual article to find out what’s going on. If you click on the heading (online newspapers only) you usually get a bold printed summary of the article, about the size of a tweet, and underneath that we finally get the actual article.

It makes sense. Readers who are in a real hurry just skim the headlines, readers who are just mildly late read the summaries, readers who are on holiday read the entire articles. The second and third group use the headlines to select the articles that they want to read. That sounds a lot like the reading strategies our readers use when they read our reports.

What would happen if we applied the same principle to our reports? What if, instead of naming the introduction simply “Introduction”, we call it “Introduction: planning a new runway for Alice Springs airport”? What if, instead of “Trade off”, we say “Trade off shows HydroCAM meets all the important criteria”?

I dare you: in your next report write short informative sentences has section headings. Better still: practice this on the most recent report you have written. See what happens. If I’m right, the table of contents will read like a summary. How can that be a bad thing?

Using an acrostic to insult your professor

A colleague of mine whose name shall remain a secret until they reveal it themselves, told me the following story about a Ph.D. student and his professor. Certainly, it is one of the best stories on writing I have heard in a long time and I hope you will like it too.

Recently, this candidate graduated from our university, although I think he wouldn’t have, if the committee head read his dissertation more carefully. Our candidate was so annoyed with the quality of the guidance his professor gave him that he decided to hide a message in the first part of his conclusions section as an acrostic.

Some of you may not know what an acrostic is, so I here is a really simple explanation. The acrostic is a text in which the first letter of every word, line or sentence you write is the next letter of a new word or sentence, rather like this post in fact, just read the first letter of every sentence, together they make up a word.

It must have been really difficult for our candidate to write this message while still maintaining good academic quality of the text, but apparently it worked, because nobody noticed anything peculiar about the text. Certainly, he must have been rather nervous during the defense of his thesis, because he had manipulated the first twenty-two sentences of his conclusions to make the first letters of every sentence say “my professor is an asshole”.

(No, students in my class, don’t try this on me, please. I am sure I will fail your test!)

Section Intoductions: Tell Your Readers What to Expect

When you divide your text into subsections you will have to make your reader understand what you are doing and what you are doing it for. This means that all sections at first and second level that you split up into subsections get an introduction.

Third level sections  usually don’t get an introduction as they are not split up. You would get a fourth level, which is really too much of a good thing. The example below shows a first level section that is subdivided into two second level sections in which two systems are compared. Notice that Chapter 3.1 is not split up into fragments and therefore does not have an introduction.

Please bear in mind that in reality you would never call them system A and B. Give them names that explains how they are different form each other.

Chapter 3: Comparison: System B performs better than system A

Now that we have established that system A and system B both yield satisfactory results, it is time to see which system meets the requirements best. Chapter 3.1 shows how both systems compare on durability and maintainability, chapter 3.2 will show how they cope in extreme situations.

3.1: Both systems are durable and easily maintainable

According to Johnson (2015), System A was found to be extremely durable. Even after 15 years of non-stop service the accuracy remained …. This was confirmed in several experiments (e.g. Post 2011, Williams 2012). System B, likewise, has proved to be ….

Maintenance of both systems was different only in minor aspects. System A requires slightly more time for …., but his is negligible because …

3.2: System B is more reliable under extreme conditions

Even though both systems function similarly under most circumstances, some remarkable differences came to light when we tested them in extreme temperatures. Both systems were used to measure X at 12 different temperatures and it was here where system B proved to be … Chapter 3.2.1 will first show the results of …., chapter 3.2.2 describes …

3.2.1: Low temperatures

Our measurements show that at temperatures below 100K, system A started to show …. This means that an extra insulation …., which will lead to ….

3.2.2: High temperatures

The last two measurements, at 500 and 600K respectively, show a marked difference ….

3.3: Conclusion: system B will be more reliable in future deployments

In the current situation, system A and B will both work equally well, as the temperatures at which they are used are moderate. However, as the situations, and with these the temperatures at which the systems will be subjected, will become more extreme in the next 3 or 4 years ….

(Do you see, by the way, how all the headings together form a kind of summary?)

Communicate Technology

Helping students to write and present technical reports.


This blog was initially created to help my students at Delft University of Technology write and present better technical reports. It turns out that a lot of people who are not my students are reading my posts too. Cool! I hope you find what you need and that you enjoy reading my blog.

What do you mean with “better technical reports”, you may ask. Better means: more geared to your readers’ needs and wishes.  So, all we need to do is find out who your readers and listeners are, find out what they need and wish and then find ways to deliver.

Easy? Hardly. The tricky thing about professional reports is that they are all read by several different people who all have different expectations from the same report. The fact that the reports that we write deal with technology adds an extra layer of challenges to this.

Presentations also, are usually attended by mixed audiences. Some people will be experts in your field, some will not. Some people will expect pictures, some people will expect numbers. And it’s you job to decide on a good mix.

In this blog  I will post anecdotes, examples, exercises and ideas dealing with writing and presenting  about technology. Please feel free to leave comments and questions.

Punch those keys!