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Subheaders and Lists

In addition to page titles and major page headlines, you also want to break up your text with subheaders. Nothing you put on the web should look like the papers you turn in to professors. Nothing says “move on without reading” to web users like grey blocks of text. Ginny Redish recommends that you think of your subheaders as a conversation that you are having with your user. People come to your pages with questions. Use your subheaders to answer those questions.

Here is a page from the website of the English Department at Illinois State University about English minors with all of the subheaders and other formatting removed:

Minors are a combination of courses designed to provide a cohesive introduction to an area of study beyond the student's major. The English Department offers four minors: English Studies, English Education, Writing, and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). English faculty and English courses are also included in a variety of University-wide minors. Minor in English: The minor in English is a good choice if you want a minor with a variety of English courses. Learn more about the minor in English. Minor in English Education: The minor in English Education is an option for students in other Secondary Education programs who wish to be endorsed in the Language Arts. By completing the minor, you will be certified to teach Language Arts in addition to your major area. Learn more about the minor in English Education. TESOL: The TESOL minor is most often taken by students who are seeking an endorsement in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Learn more about the minor in TESOL. Writing: The writing minor is taken by students in a variety of majors. Students in the minor can specialize in creative writing, technical writing, or rhetoric and composition. Learn more about the minor in Writing. University-wide Minors Students selecting a University-wide, interdisciplinary minor can take advantage of the many exciting resources of a large university community. Learn more about University-wide minors.

How much time would you be willing to invest searching for information about a minor that interested you? Figure 12 shows a part of the page as it is actually rendered on the department’s website.

web page with content organized by subheaders

Figure 12. Example from English Minors at Illinois State University of content organized into short paragraphs and subheaders.

Notice that on this page, you can easily find information about the various minors. 

Don’t Forget Lists

Lists, both numbered and bulleted lists, are another form of subheaders in that they make the underlying structure of your content visible to your readers. A good list can make clear the steps in a process, the advantages of an option, or the requirements of a program. Here is another bit of text from the Illinois State English Department Website about the requirements for an internship with all of the list formatting removed:

The following are requirements for an English Studies internship: Complete an internship application and a Professional Practice Insurance Certification form. An approved internship must be arranged with a provider before you can register for your internship. Enroll in ENG 398 if you are an undergraduate; ENG 498 if you are a graduate student. Three credit hours is the minimum number of credit hours for which you can enroll, but internships can be done for variable credits ranging from 3 to 12. Credits are determined on the basis of the number of hours of on-site work you will do during the semester of your internship. For each credit hour earned you must work at least 48 hours. Enrollment in ENG 398/498 is by permission of the internship director only. Enrollment permission will be given by Dr. Savage when application materials are completed and proof of an approved internship is provided. An Internship Proposal Form must be submitted for internships with organizations not previously approved by the English Studies Internship Program. The proposal form must be signed by the internship site supervisor and by the student. Certain internships have specific requirements of class standing, coursework, or prior internship experience to qualify. 

Does it make your head hurt to work through this list? Figure 13 shows the same information organized in a list as it appears on the website:

Example of a list on a website.

Figure 13. Example from Internship Qualifications and Requirements of content organized into a list.

Notice how it is much easier to see what you need to do to secure an internship when the steps are organized in a list. 

You may also have noticed that in these negative examples, there weren't any paragraph breaks, and instead, the information was presented as one long paragraph. In both examples, putting each new topic in its own paragraph would have made the text much more readable.

Keep your paragraphs short when you write on the web to help your readers. Well-written, short paragraphs have much the same impact as subheaders and lists: they break your text into visible chunks that help the reader find the information he or she is looking for quickly.