Tips On Content Numbering

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Sections of this topic

    Some Technical Writers like to use numbers in dividing up sections within a document and some do not. Some documents require it and some do not. What method is best?

    Sequencing information by using numerals or alphabetical letters:

    • ensures that the reader follows precise directions,
    • makes the content easier to read, and
    • makes it easier to find information if the material is being referenced
    • keeps lengthy documents organized – when combining alphabets and numbers.

    In general:

    • use numbers to emphasize step by step instructions
    • use alphabets for sequencing of sections or subsections
    • use numbers and alphabets to see a hierarchical picture of the information

    What is best to use depends on your user and what they are used to seeing. Make it useful for the target audience.

    For:

    • very short documents, numbering nor alphabetical listings may not be needed. You may just need to state the procedure within a heading, and then list the steps using bullets.
    • extensively long documents, the table of contents should give a break down by topic. Within each topic, use either numbers, alphabets, or both.
    • other documents, rely on your style guide. Every organization has a different set of rules that they follow and they should be noted within the style guide.

    The medium:

    The medium used to communicate your content has to also be considered when you are deciding on employing the use of numbering or alphabetical sequencing – will the content will be produced as hard-copies, online, or in particular formats.

    • If it is online, how will the target audience view the material?
    • If it is printed, will the material be presented within a familiar format?
    • If it is presented as a pdf, will the audience be accustomed to reading a pdf?

    To make it easier for your readers to consume documents, note the following:

    • For online documents – be sure to add links so that the user can return to the table of contents or the beginning of a chapter or topic. Having links combined with numbers and/or alphabets within headings and sub headings allow the reader to know where they are within the document – especially if it is lengthy.
    • For documents such as pdfs – use numbering, alphabets, or none at all. Normally, a pdf paper is not that long and does not require any kind of sequencing method. Of course, there are always exceptions such as when a book is published as a pdf. For those special cases, then a table of contents is used to let the reader know where they are within the book.
    • For printed documents – either use numbers and/or alphabets or both depending on the length of the material.

    In the end, the key is consistency and usability. If you can answer what works best for your target audience, then that is the technique you should be applying in your documents.

    If you have a preference for using either numbers or alphabets or both in documents, please leave a comment.