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APA Heading Format: All 5 Levels Explained Plus Examples


Headings are tools used in documents to organize information. They group information into categories based on content and organize those categories into sections and subsections throughout a document. Organization is key to helping the reader understand what they are reading. APA heading format is ultimately designed for clarity and purpose to help writers maintain a clear flow throughout their document.

There are various types of heading styles across different industry style guides, but APA has very clear guidelines on heading styles. With documents formatted using APA style, headings are especially useful because there is a lot of information presented in those documents. From capitalization to bold type to alignment, APA heading format helps you to organize your document with an easy-to-follow structure.

Why should you use headings?

Without headings, works in the behavioral and social sciences, such as sociology, history, psychology, and business, would become cumbersome to read and understand. Separating information into sections that flow smoothly through the document ensure that the information you are presenting is clear in meaning and purpose. The APA style blog states, Headings help writers highlight the important content in their work, and they also help readers easily find the information they need.

Imagine reading a 200-page dissertation without having headings to identify specific topics and key information. Without the headings, you would have a difficult time knowing where a section started for a specific historical figure or event. With the headings, however, finding a section for those specifics would be simple.

Definitions for terms used in heading styles

Before we get into the current defined heading styles in APA 7th edition, it's important to understand the terminology used when referring to text styling.

  • Boldface: This means the text has thick, heavy lines. Using boldface type helps the text to stand out, as can be seen by the headings used in this article.
  • Flush Left: Flush means to be in line with. In the case of headings and text, flush left means that the text starts at the very left margin, no indent and no spaces before the text begins. As you may have guessed, flush right would mean that the text starts at the right margin.
  • Title Case: Title case means that the first letter of each word is capitalized, while the rest of the letters are lowercase. The exception is usually articles (e.g., "the" or "a") and words with fewer than four letters. Note that the first word is always capitalized no matter how many letters it has.
  • Italic: Google Fonts describes italic type as a type style that's almost always slanted and is designed to create emphasis in text. Originally based on semi-cursive forms, italics are a direct contrast to the upright style.
  • Indented: Indenting text means starting the text one half inch from the left margin.
  • Inline: This means that the heading is on the same line as the paragraph text that follows it, rather than the paragraph text starting on a different line.

APA 7th edition heading format

APA 7th edition defines the required heading format using five distinct levels.

1Centered, Boldface, Title Case Heading
2Flush Left, Boldface, Title Case Heading
3Flush Left, Boldface Italic, Title Case Heading
Indented, Boldface, Title Case Heading Ending With a Period. Paragraph text continues on the same line.
Indented, Boldface Italic, Title Case Heading Ending With a Period. Paragraph text continues on the same line.

Level 1

Level 1 headings are designed to identify the main, high-level sections or the title of your work. They are centered, boldface, and title case. Note that the centering is based on the margins, not the page. Check the indents and margin settings to ensure that there are no indents on the Level 1 heading line.

Example: If your work was about the history of Blue Bell ice cream, the paper title would show up like this:

The Unbelievably Delicious History of Blue Bell Ice Cream

Notice that "The" at the beginning of the title is capitalized even though it's only three letters long and is an article. In addition, do not use an "Introduction" heading. The beginning of the paper is automatically assumed to be the introduction.

Level 2

Level 2 headings are used for the first subsections within a Level 1 section. Remember that the topics of equal importance should use the same heading level. This means that if you have two experiments each with their own Methods and Results, you would use the same heading levels for the Methods and Results sections for both experiments.

To show what the Level 2 heading would look like in continuing with our example above, the first subsection in the history of Blue Bell ice cream would appear like this:

Early Starts in Brenham, Texas

From the early starts, you might then discuss the growth phase of Blue Bell Creameries, with another Level 2 heading of:

Business Boom in the 1980s

Because both of these subsections describe definite periods of time within the business's history, they deserve to be the same heading level.

Level 3

Level 3 headings are nested as subsections of a Level 2 subsection. Not every work will require three or more heading levels, so you are not obligated to use them. If you were to describe three significant events in the early days of Blue Bell ice cream, you would use a Level 3 heading for each one, like this:

From Butter to Ice Cream

Name Change

Giving Up on Butter

You want to avoid having only one of any heading level, meaning that if you only have one Level 3 heading, you should opt instead to not use the Level 3 heading and simply keep that content in with the Level 2 subsection.

Level 4

Level 4 is the first of the heading levels to be indented rather than flush left or centered. Indenting can easily be done if you are using a word processing program. This is usually accomplished by pressing the tab key. APA recommends not using spaces to create indentation. Instead, use the tab key default or manually move the indent using the ruler functions. For example:

Homemade Vanilla. This was the first flavor of ice cream made by the Brenham Creamery Company in 1910.

Dutch Chocolate. This was the next flavor made by the Brenham Creamery Company and was a natural follow up to the vanilla.

Level 5

Level 5 headings are subsections of Level 4 headings and further group information to maintain organization of ideas throughout a paper. Maintain the indent, boldface type, and inline paragraph text, but italicize the heading:

Interacting With the Local Population. Take a tour of the Blue Bell Creamery to see the inner workings of the factory, shop at the Country Store, and get a taste of the best ice cream in America.

Marketing Strategy. The wide range of flavors Blue Bell has developed over the years are a testament to the success of their business model and their tenacity in the marketplace.

While Level 5 headings aren't common, they can come in handy in works that are extensive or have many facets that require good organization.

APA heading format changes

The APA style guide has undergone changes over the years, just like all other style guides. APA's goal has been to continue to make updates to improve clarity in APA-formatted documents. APA 6th edition made many improvements over APA 5th edition headings. In the 5th edition, there was more use of centered text and italics. For example, a level 5 heading was centered and all uppercase. This was often seen as confusing, because the level 1 heading was centered with uppercase and lowercase letters. Essentially, the level 5 heading stood out more than the level 1 heading.

In APA 6th edition, the APA aimed to improve the flow of heading styles from top to bottom. The level 1 headings were centered and boldface, with mixed case capitalization. Level 2 was flush left and boldface, with mixed case capitalization as well. From there, the remaining levels were indented and lowercased, with variations in italics and boldface type.

A few years later, the APA updated the heading styles once more to be even more clear. You can see that the headings have been adjusted to follow three basic rules:

  1. All title case
  2. All boldface
  3. Italics and then indents differentiate between levels

APA defines five heading levels, but you don't have to use all five levels. It's up to you how many levels your work needs to be properly organized. The key is to maintain the order of the headings, from level 1 through to level 5.

With this information, you have the tools you need to properly organize your next document in a way that is sure to keep your reader engaged and informed. Start with an outline, and model that outline when creating your headings, sections, and subsections to create a document that flows well.

Header image by Drobot Dean.

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