How to Write Exquisite Subheads

Something terrible is happening to your reader…

You’ve hooked them with your headline, and captivated them with your opening.

But this is a longer piece of writing. You’ve got a lot to say.

Somewhere along the way, an awful transformation has taken place.

You reader has become…

A scanner.

Stay calm. There is a cure.

Turn a Scanner Into a Reader With Subheads

The key to holding a reader’s attention is, of course, compelling subject matter and delivery. However, large blocks of text are inherently unfriendly to a reader’s attention span.

Emphasizing key points with the use of bullets and lists is one way to combat text fatigue. But often, breaking up large chunks of text at transitional points in an article or sales page with subheads serves a much more important role.

With subheads, you’re actually “selling” the reader on continuing to read with a mini-headline.

Keep Readers On Track With Benefits

With each sentence and element of our writing, there’s one main goal—to get the next sentence read and keep the reader engaged. At all times readers must feel like they are gaining continued benefit from investing their time in your writing.

So, just like we have to make a beneficial promise with our main headline, we also should spell out the benefits of each salient point we are trying to make. With longer copy, this keeps your momentum (and the reader’s interest) strong.

So, don’t think in terms of subheads, think sub-benefits.

Simply identify all of your main points, and at the transition point between each, write a headline highlighting the benefit of reading the next section. Apply the same methodology as you would to any headline, while realizing that it’s easier to keep an existing reader than it is to hook a new one, so don’t go overboard.

Use These 3 Subhead Techniques for Better Results

1. Express a clear and complete benefit.

As long as you think of your subheads as what they actually are (sub headlines), you should do well. Even people who have learned to write compelling primary headlines often slack off with subheads, and commit the sin of cryptic or cute headings that fail to communicate anything of true value to the reader.

2. Use Parallelism That Advocates Action

In the case of articles and blog posts, your overall flow will improve if your subheads all start with the same part of speech (parallelism), and that part of speech is a verb.

For example, the subheads from this post are:

  • Turn a Scanner Back Into a Reader With Subheads
  • Keep Your Reader On Track With Benefits
  • Use These 3 Subhead Techniques for Better Results
  • Win the Battle Against the Scanners

I don’t always follow the parallelism rule with sales pages. In that context, I’m usually more interested in using the most effective subhead possible to get the next section read, and will not try to “force” parallelism at the expense of the subhead.

3. Try Writing Your Subheads First

Just as it can be helpful to write your headline first to properly define the overall compelling benefit the piece has to offer, you can also clearly delineate the sections of your copy by then writing your subheads next before any body text. This will help you to optimally structure your content.

If it helps, think of everything you write as a list. How many points (benefits) are you trying to make in order to properly communicate your topic or pitch? List them out, and if you find that one or more of those points doesn’t really “fit” or provide a benefit to the reader, toss it.

Win the Battle Against the Scanners

The fact that people ruthlessly scan content, both online and off, is just a fact of writing life. It’s better to accept reality, and resolve to suck the scanners into your words by using beneficial subheads that are simply irresistible.


Want to learn more about this topic?

Then listen to this short podcast episode called How to Create Exquisite Subheads with Jerod Morris and Demian Farnworth. And don’t forget to subscribe to The Lede once you’re done!

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Comments

  1. What great advice. I used to do this more than of late, and should return to the practice.

    Here’s another reason to use subheads: if they are properly formatted, Google will love you.

    Here’s one scheme: your masthead can be an image replaced h1 header. Article titles: h2. Subheaders: h3 (not bold normal text, which I see all the time).

    Now you have a semantic document. Parse the the XHTML, and you should see a perfect outline of the content. Awesome. Easily indexed.

    Anything in the 400-word class or greater could likely benefit from a bit of markup. It’ll keep the crawlers happy and the scanners engaged.

  2. You never cease to amaze me with the valuable insights you offer. You ROCK! :)

  3. Is it wrong that I wound up scanning your subheads to see what you were getting at?

    okay okay, I went back and read the text afterwards…

  4. >>Is it wrong that I wound up scanning…

    Nope, expected. :)

  5. I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and found that I just keep reading, now I know why. You keep me interested in you writing with simple writing techniques like this. I really enjoy your helpful tips and suggestions. Keep up the good work!

  6. Using subheads can really help keep you on track as a writer, too. Thanks for another great tool.

  7. Great advice. Pull-quotes can also be a good way to break up great chunks of text. And stories. Sometimes if I’m reading a long article and my eyes have begun to glaze over, my attention is reawakened by an anecdote or story. Speakers do it–why not writers, too?

  8. I have a question – maybe you could consider doing a post about this topic in the future?

    Has there been any research done to see which method is more effective at getting leads to take the next step in the sales cycle: white papers (special reports, any one-shot download of a PDF) or multi-day email courses?

    I’m thinking of implementing one of these, and I’m just wondering which one would be more effective.

    Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. :)

  9. It sooooo cool! Thanks. #2 already used, its nice when your technic approved by Pro.

  10. A very useful lesson Brian, and one I just learnt earlier today so a very timely Copyblogger post!

    I noticed that the guys at http://www.informationarchitects.jp/ (no connection, I just enjoy reading their posts) use subheads to great effect in their writing. Being almost essay-length posts they served to break up the content very well.

  11. Thanks for the link mention, Brian! (And congrats on making Mike Stelzner’s Top 10 List – kudos well deserved!)

  12. It is important to be reminded that writing for the web is different and scanners comprise the majority of website readers. We tend to fall into old “school taught” habits , where the paragraph is the only breaking point.

    I suspect images may also keep the eyeballs with you—I’m thinking along the lines of a magazine article. Is there evidence to support the stickiness of images?

  13. It can also be effective to use “summary” or “synopsis” boxes to precede long articles. A List Apart does a nice job with these. MarketingExperiments also does a nice job splicing in “what you need to know” subheadings throughout their longer pieces.

  14. Hey Brian, this is a great subject.

    Another thing to think about is something a master copywriter named Jim Rutz said.

    And that is the first sentence after each subheadline should:

    1.) Be a “grabber” — something that immediately grabs attention. Just like your first sentence after your main headline should.

    2.) Be a one, two or maybe three word sentence.

    Something that is VERY easy to read, assimilate and digest.

    That way there is no excuse for the reader not to keep reading.

  15. Hey Ben, I also like the technique you use from time to time… the “reverse subhead” as I like to call it.

    That’s where the subhead is actually the final thought of the section above, rather than just a straight preview of the coming section below.

    That way you draw a scanner back up into the preceding section so they can see what they missed (a bit like a good P.S. does). Crafty. :)

  16. Hey Brian, yeah that’s a pure Gary Halbert copywriting tactic. He’s got that whole “greased slide” thing down pat. And I suspect that’s one of his secrets.

  17. Brian, this is another outstanding and extremely relevant blog entry. I also like your “reverse subhead” technique, mentioned a few comments back. Overally, this whole topic and set of tips is wonderful and extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  18. Great advice! I will try and make use iof it.

    Thanks.

  19. I am new to blogging and am eating up this and other tasty advice ravenously. At the risk of exposing my tech un-savviness, may I ask how to implement subheaders in my posts? Must I know HTML? Or…?

  20. Molly, it depends on your blogging platform and theme. But in many cases you simply wrap the heading in <h3> tags, like this:

    <h3>Subhead</h3>

    Give it a try and see if it works.

  21. I really liked the part about “Use Parallelism That Advocates Action”

    I remember reading something from copywriter Clayton Makepeace about wimpy verbs. Inexperienced writers tend to spruce up their nouns with frivolous adjectives while leaving their verbs neglected.

  22. I appreciate this advice. I really have not used subheads as often as I should. They never appealed to me, which is why I kinda avoided them.

    But I know better now.

  23. It’s great to go back and remind oneself of these basic techniques. It’s true scanners are everywhere. I’m one of them and using subheads helps me read articles or not all of the time.

    Thanks.