Using Headers in Your Research Paper

The Issue

Students have a hard time understanding just what we mean by section headers.


Fast forward a few years when today’s students enter tomorrow’s workplace. We live in a busy, overstressed world and one of the key points I stress to students is that they are not allowed to add to their boss’s stress. That is, you are not permitted to create work for your boss, which is a great pathway to short term employment.

Business executives are very busy people. To use their time, you actually have about 3 seconds to make an impression and quite often, once that impression is made, it lasts a long, long time.

So, when presenting a proposal to your busy boss, you need to make it as easy as possible for for them to digest your work – quickly. This is where the notion of “headers” for your soon-to-be business proposals, comes into play. Headers provide two important functions.  First, they help to reign in and focus your writing.  Otherwise, the writer tends to wander, wasting time writing on off-topic concepts and confusing the reader in the process.  Second, headers provide guideposts to the reader. Think of these as traffic signs assuring the reader of where they are in the paper and the topic you’re communicating.  Without these headers, the reader is left with a pile of words to digest and sort through.  Rest assured, your boss will not deal with your pile of words very well.

So here’s how we do it…

It Starts with the Concept Map

As we learn early in the semester, the Concept Map is a great tool for putting thoughts to paper, which in turn gets you off the starting line in writing your essay or research paper.  Let’s take the concept map below describing research we want to do on the Zika Virus.

Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.  There’s a kaleidoscope of programs you can use for Concept Mapping, but I find the old fashion pencil to paper approach to be most effective.

Translate Concept Map to Word

Now that you have parameters around your topic, simply write those topics, sub-topics or tertiary topics into MS-Word or Google Docs.  In this exercise we’ll illustrate using MS-Word, but you can do the same thing in Google Docs.

So, your initial paper will look something like this…

Retyped directly from your Concept Map
Retyped directly from your Concept Map

Convert to Headers

Now, your simple task is to convert each of these phrases into headers for your paper.

In MS-Word, highlight each of the lines, or you can select the entire document by cntrl-a or command-a on the Mac.  Then, go to the Style Pane and select “Heading 1”.  

MS Word Style Selector
MS Word Style Selector

This will convert each line to the style of Heading 1.  This process can be repeated for individual lines if you want to create secondary and tertiary (third level) headers.

At this point, you are ninety percent towards a great start in organizing your paper.

Text converted to Header 1s
Text converted to Header 1s

Now, just place the cursor to the right of any heading, hit enter and start typing.

Related Topics

Creating a Table of Contents using Headers

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