Self-Publishing Basics: Book Chapters and Subheads

by | Oct 19, 2009

The post continues the series called the Book Construction Blueprint, providing reliable guidance to anyone taking on the construction of a book that must conform to generally-accepted practice.

Chapter Titles

Most nonfiction books are at least divided into chapters. Chapter lengths vary widely, and the goal of trying to keep chapters the same length may be elusive. The chapter is a convenient method of dividing material by subject matter, by chronology, or by any other means the author uses to construct his book.

Chapter Format

Both right-hand (recto) and left-hand (verso) opening pages are common, and double page (double truck) openings in which both pages are used as a spread, are also used. Normally the chapter opening page has a drop folio and no running head.

Logically the first chapter in a book would start on a recto. The chapter opening page typically contains the chapter number and the chapter title. If they are used, a chapter subtitle or an epigraph may also appear, although it is important for all chapters to remain consistent.

Use of Subheads

The next logical way to divide the subject matter of a book is to subdivide the chapters, and this is accomplished with subheads. Subheads serve to guide the reader through the text, and to help cast light on the author’s way of thinking about her subject. Try to avoid chapters with only one subhead, and remember to keep subheads, like chapter titles, consistent throughout the book.

If more than one level of subheads is needed, each level will follow the guidelines for the initial level of subheads. For instance, try to avoid—unless necessitated by the material—having subsections with only one second-level subhead.

Keep in mind that chapters do not need to have the same number of subheads, or the same levels of subheads, depending on the needs of the specific chapter’s material.

Style of Subheads

Subheads provide another way for the designer to help the author’s communication with the reader. Typographically subheads are distinct from the body text and appear on their own line, separate from the text. Each level of subheads receives a different typographic treatment to both signify the level of importance within the scope of the work and to help the reader differentiate the sections set apart by the author.

Occasionally the lowest level subhead is run in at the beginning of a pragraph. In this case the typography will distinguish the subhead from the text by either italics, bold face, or both. The run in subhead is capitalized sentence style and punctuated as a sentence, with a period at the end.

Scientific and Technical Books

It is often the case that in scientific and technical works authors or publishers prefer to divide chapters with numbered sections rather than levels of subheads. Perhaps because of the technical nature of the content in these books, it seems easier for scientists and technical writers to cross-reference using numbers rather than textual names.

Numbered chapter sections start over at 1 with each new chapter. Subsections are numbered with the appropriate section number as well as their own subsection number. Each section or subsection number contains the complete “map” of the sections and subsections to which it belongs. Periods, hyphens or colons are used to separate the numbers.

Other systems can also be used, as long as the system employed is consistent throughout the work. These same systems are used for reference to illustrations, charts, tables, and other non-text elements.

Good Form

Although you may be tempted, it’s considered bad form to refer directly to the subhead as the text begins. The subhead and the text should each stand on their own without reference to each other.

Text Breaks

There are occasions when the author would like to have a break in the flow of the text, but doesn’t need to announce a new subject area, and has no need for a subhead. In these cases the book designer, with a type ornament and additional space between paragraphs, can create a text break. Using a row of asterisks is also common, and in some books just an extra line space is used. This method is unreliable, however, because it is very easy for a reader to miss the extra space if it falls at the bottom of a page.

Typographic Interest

Chapter opening pages and the treatment of text and subheads are the chief way the book designer influences the look and style of the book. Choices of typeface, spacing, decorative or illustrative material like drawing or photographs, type ornaments, and the layout of the chapter-opening pages themselves provide a counterpoint to the main text pages. Likewise, typographic styling of subheads helps provide color and rhythm to the page, while making the author’s communication more effective.

Watch for the next installment in the Book Construction Blueprint, Elements of the Page

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Joel

    bowerbird, you’re a pretty good proofreader, thanks for that!

  2. bowerbird

    joel said:
    > Although you may be tempting

    joel, i didn’t know that you knew me! ;+)


  3. Joel

    @Jan, typically I do not indent the first paragraph after a text break, the first para after a subhead and the first para in a chapter. I think the decision on the para following a text break could go either way, and I would decide based on that particular book / layout. But generally, when a new section is starting, I begin at the margin because it seems more logical to me. As always, if you know the rules, you can decide when you want to break them.

  4. jan

    So, would you NOT indent the first paragraph after a text break just like the first paragraph after the chapter title? Or would you NOT indent the first paragraph of the chapter and then indent the paragraph after a text break? I’ve got them un-indented now and they look a little silly, especially when they start with a quote.



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