Frequent, highly visible headings that stand out so the reader can move quickly through a document to understand its structure and access its content. There should be one for each clause or paragraph, acting as a layered explanation.
They do not necessarily replace conventional hierarchical headings for chapters or sections (although that is a possibility, too), but work alongside them.
Contracts are often very lengthy and visually dense. At a glance, it is hard to get an idea of what they say and to search quickly for specific information – that is, they are not designed to help people to read them strategically.
Use skimmable headings for any document you want people to actively engage with and be able to read strategically.
Skimmable headings help people build a context for their reading by skimming through a document before reading more closely. And they help people search for specific answers to their questions.
Effective readers engage actively with a document, reading with purpose and monitoring their own understanding as they read. Skimmable headings help them to understand why the document creator has provided the content, and how it is structured. Ideally, skimmable headings should connect with each other to tell a story – and connect with the reader. This is why skimmable headings are often worded as FAQs.
Additionally, skimmable headings are a good discipline for the writer. The process of writing them often reveals flaws in the document structure – for example, clauses which contain two different topics, or clauses which belong somewhere else in the document.
As a note of caution, try not to use technical jargon in headings before it has been explained – you should not have to read a clause to understand its heading.
© 2019 Rob Waller.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
Shell’s new contracts use skimmable headings in the hand left margin to give the gist of the clause content – and sometimes spell out the question it answers.
© 2018 Royal Dutch Shell plc. Used with permission.
Design: Rob Waller
Have you used skimmable headings in your contracts? You can contribute to the Library by sharing an example.
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