We habitually refer to anything appearing at the top of the page, other than the folio, as a running head. Properly speaking, though, a running head is one that changes as we go through the book, giving a description of the material appearing on that page, or spread. Usually a running head will appear only on the recto, with the verso carrying the Part title, the Chapter title, or at a pinch the book’s title. This unchanging head should properly be termed a page head or headline.

We rarely use real running heads nowadays: they cost extra, since you can’t decide what they should say until the book has been paged, so they lead to an extra step in the proofing process. As a compromise we occasionally use the section titles as a sort of running head. Dictionaries usually have proper running heads, telling you the range of words covered on that page. Bibles also tend to have truly descriptive running heads, providing a sort of commentary on what appears on the page. A careful publisher will give you a running head in the endnotes section, providing the text page range for which notes can be found on each page of notes. This makes the endnotes much easier to use, and I wish it was always done.

As Judith Butcher points out in Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for editors, authors and publishers “Running heads are unnecessary unless they help the reader to find a particular part of the book”. Thus most novels will not have anything at the top of the page unless the publisher has wanted to waste space to make a short book seem more substantial. A page head giving you the book’s title only doesn’t provide you with any information — we can assume, I think, that the readers are aware what book it is they are reading! If that’s all you can think of to put up there, keep quiet. Innocent publishing novices may assume that a book needs to have running heads in order to look like a book: wrong — it will only need running heads if it needs running heads to provide navigational help to the reader. But try telling that to some enthusiasts.

See also my raised nose on the subject of running feet.

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