Chapter 3 - Headlines and Subheadings

How to Write Useful Subheadings

Engaging subheadings optimized for scannability add to the overall quality and value of content. They support the main idea of the content, give clues to what can be learned by reading more closely, and signify a shift in the article.

In order to accomplish this properly, subheadings should always:

Provide the Most Interesting Information First

The first subheadings should be the strongest, most unique and engaging elements of the content. Example Headline: 9 Signs It’s Time to Upgrade Your Phone

Bad Opening Subheadings:

  • Your Screen Is Cracked
  • Your Touchscreen Doesn’t Work
  • You Keep Dropping Calls

Don’t add the obvious information up front. The reader will likely assume that the rest of the article will be equally obvious and useless. While none of your content should be obvious and useless, lure the reader in with the more interesting elements first.

Good Opening Subheadings:

  • Cell Phone Associates Can’t Answer Questions About Your Phone
  • You Can’t Buy Cases for Your Phone Anymore
  • An Upgrade Won’t Cost You Anything

Tie Back to the Title

The subheadings should always refer back to the question or statement in the title. If the title says “Tips for…” the subheadings should be tips. If the titles says “Questions to Ask…” the subheadings should be questions, and so on. Example Headline: 12 Things You Used to Use Daily Until Smartphones Killed Them

Bad Subheadings:

  • Wind Up An Alarm Clock Last Thing At Night
  • Carry a Pocket Mirror
  • Fold a Map

The title implies that the list will include “Things You Used to Use Daily,” so that list should include things, not actions. Those subheadings would work if the title was “12 Things You Used to DO Daily Until Smartphones Killed Them.” But with the given title the following subheadings are better.

Good Subheadings:

  • Alarm Clocks
  • Pocket Mirrors
  • Street Maps and Paper Directions

Avoid Stating the Obvious and Tell the Reader More

Subheadings that are simple lists of items can be boring and useless. Look for ways to provide additional value by adding useful information such as:

  • Superlatives (best for [blank], most [blank], etc.)
  • Supporting information (for “Highest Grossing Apps of All Time,” the subheadings should include the amount earned by the app)
  • Cues that tie the elements together  (numbers for steps, years for timelines, descriptions for phrases, reason why the element is in the list, etc.)

Example Headline: If You Had These Apps, You Might Have Kept Your New Year’s Resolution

Bad Subheadings:

  • MyFitnessPal
  • QuitNow!
  • Kindle

By expanding the concept surrounding the app list and attaching a resolution to each app, the article becomes more engaging and useful. Now readers can find the app that will be the best for them.

Good Subheadings:

  • MyFitnessPal – To Exercise More
  • QuitNow! – To Stop Smoking
  • Kindle – To Read More

Avoid Cute Play-on-Words and Puns

Playful titles and subheadings don’t tell the reader what they really want to know—what the article is about. Don’t get caught up on cutesy subheadings, poetics, and puns. Use subheadings to tell reader what they will find in the section. (You can use creativity in your subheadings, but just as long as the subheading still relays a message.) Example Headline: Does Mobile Technology Make Us More Connected or Farther Apart?

Bad Subheadings:

  • Forging New Connections, Staring at Screens Instead of Faces
  • Nice to Meet You… Sorry, I Was Talking to Your Cell Phone
  • Break the Cycle

From the title of this article, the reader would expect the body of the content to offer examples of when phones make us closer and when they make use farther apart. But the subheadings don’t give the reader that information. They are vague and not useful. Helpful subheadings would further clarify the concepts as well as tie back to the title.

Good Subheadings:

  • Farther Apart – Staring at Screens Instead of Faces
  • Farther Apart – Avoid a Stranger, Play on Your Phone
  • More Connected – Constant Connection Through Social Media

Tell the Story of the Content

Creating subheadings can be difficult when the subheadings are not obvious elements to a list. To develop subheadings for these types of articles, start with your outline. The outline will feature the main points of your article—which should end up being your subheadings.

Use the subheadings to tell the story in an abbreviated way so that the reader can get the main points of the article quickly, as well as know where to look for the information that they seek. Example Headline: Do the Math: Tech Growth Equals Economic Growth

Bad Subheadings:

  • The Internet Supports Mobile Businesses
  • Advancements in Health Technology
  • Impact of Mobile Phones on the U.S. Economy

Walk the reader through the main points and concepts of the article by including facts, stats and examples in subheadings. Don’t merely insert subheadings here and there just to break up the content. Make sure that they are mindfully inserted in a relevant and useful way.

Good Subheadings:

  • 49 Percent of Smartphone Users Make Purchases through the Mobile Web
  • Health Technology Supported $69 Billion in Economic Growth in 2012
  • The Mobile Industry Has Over 6 Billion Customers

Use Numbers When They Add Clarity

Numbers in subheadings are helpful only when they explain or represent something in the text. Only use them if they add clarity to the content.

Use Numbers in Countdowns – Use numbers when the elements of a list are relative to the numbers. If the headline is Top 3  Beaches in the World, use numbers to count down to the best. Show which item is best by labeling it number one.

  • 3. Falassarna Beach
  • 2. Coffee Bay Wild Coast
  • 1. White Bay Beach

Use Numbers in Steps to Complete an Action – Use numbers when the elements of a list are a series of steps. If a headline is How to Change Your Tire, label each step with a number in the order the actions should take place.

  • 1. Find Your Car
  • 2. Take off the Tire
  • 3. Put a New Tire On

Don’t Use Numbers in a Simple List of Items – Just because a number is in the title of an article, doesn’t mean numbers should be in the subheadings. Don’t use numbers if they don’t represent anything. If a headline is 3 Tips for Healthy Eating, don’t add numbers (unless the tips are more or less relevant than each other or in an order of operation).

  • Don’t Eat Before Bed
  • Use Portion Control
  • Drink Lots of Water

Overall, making your subheadings engaging, informative, and clear will increase the overall value and scannability of your content.

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