The Deceptively Simple Steps to Persuasive Writing That Works

A few weeks ago, I wrote about some ways you can keep your reader’s attention. But I didn’t mention one of the most important techniques — one that requires no particular writing ability, no creativity to think of a great hook, and no hours of research to find the most compelling facts to tell your story.

This easy technique is infinitely versatile. I use it in nearly every piece I write. (I even use it in email.) But it’s so deceptively simple, you might not be taking full advantage of it.

My super (simple) secret weapon is the lowly, underappreciated subhead.

Subheads make your work more readable

Direct response marketers (those who measure to the penny which techniques sell products and which do not) like to say “the more you tell, the more you sell.”

The more questions you can answer for your readers, and the more time you take to paint a wonderful picture of the benefits your customers enjoy, the easier you make it for prospects to realize they can’t live without your product.

This isn’t just true for sales copy. Blog and newsletter readers want meaty content, something that’s worth the time they take to read it.

But piling a mountain of words in front of readers doesn’t work too well. A page of solid black text looks like, well, work.

So in front of your 20-foot tall stack of words, you put a series of steps. You break your content into manageable pieces, separated by mini headlines or subheads. Each subhead is a step up the staircase.

Each time your reader comes to another subhead, she thinks, “Well, I’ll just read to that next little headline there.” Then she reads another section, and another.

Subheads break your copy into little potato-chip tasty bites. And we all know how hard it is to stop at just one potato chip.

Subheads control how your reader skims

Most readers skim. We just have too many words to read every day. So we glance through a page to pick out the highlights and see if we want to go further.

Good subheads, just like strong bullet points, let you control how your readers skim your copy. They let you evangelize what the skimmer notices first, rather than leaving it to chance.

One copywriting trick with subheads is to use them as a “second path” through your copy. Read through your subheads without looking at the rest of the body content. Do they give the highlights of your unique story? Do they hint at irresistible facts your reader must absolutely know? Do they spark curiosity about what you have to say?

Every effective piece of content has to answer the question So What? Strong subheads let the reader know you’ve got a good answer to that question.

Subheads aren’t decoration. A thoughtful progression of subheads forms the backbone of great content. Just like headlines do the critical work of convincing a reader to dive into your content, subheads keep that reader moving smoothly along.

Subheads can make writing easy

It’s a smart practice to write your subheads first, to get a good sense of the shape and structure you want to create. When you use subheads this way, they can make writing much quicker and easier.

Start with a working headline, then hammer out 3-5 subheads. Once you have them nailed down, there’s no law that says you have to start writing at the beginning. Pick whichever subhead appeals to you and start sketching in the details.

Just like subheads make the finished copy less intimidating for the reader, they also make the draft less intimidating for the writer, especially for cornerstone content. You’ll find that once you’ve established a solid structure with subheads, the rest of the body content doesn’t look so daunting.

If it’s hard to find time to write, set aside 15 minutes and just sketch out your post’s subheads. Then the next time you have a few minutes, fill in details. You can work on one section at a time, but just like your readers, you’ll probably find yourself moving on to the next section, then the next.

This simple system will save you time and aggravation, and your finished content will hang together in a very smooth, professional way.

When you’re working on putting killer content together, don’t neglect the lowly subhead. Don’t just drop them in after the fact; build them into your content right from the start. Like a lot of “beginner’s advice,” it’s important (and not that hard) to get this exactly right. Spend a little more time on your subheads and you’ll find yourself creating more gripping, useful and “sticky” content.

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Reader Comments (52)

  1. says

    Excellent and well-written article, Sonia.

    I was reading Joe Sugarman’s Copywriter’s Handbook not too long ago and remember him saying that the content of the subheads didn’t matter, they were there just to break up the copy, make it look less intimidating, and get the reader to read the first sentence.

    I don’t think that’s true online. The way people scan through an article is they often check the subheads.

  2. says

    Great tips. I usually start a piece by writing down all of the topics (those become my headings.) Then I break out my sub-topics. Then I put the meat on the skeleton with all of my detailed text.
    Lastly, I go back and put in any necessary graphics, formatting, and links.
    Thanks for a good refresher on the fundamentals.

    • Al spaulding says

      Excellent article on subheads and their importance by the author. Great tip and nice way to paint the picture of putting meat on the skeleton. Kudos

  3. says

    Great article, Sonia. I know that in the past, there have been some who have argued that persuasive writing is deceptive. How would you respond to these types of people?

  4. says

    Subheads are great if they are used properly and are not so big that they distract the reader from the content. Also subheads only work if the paragraphs are longer than one or two sentences, unlike this article πŸ˜‰

  5. says

    Yes, subheads are crucial online. Funny that we don’t pay much attention to them offline as Sugarman says.

    Nice visual, but that looks like one long article…

  6. says

    I’ve been using subheadings for a while (thanks to my husband, who sent me to Copyblogger for an example) but it has never occurred to me to write the subheadings first.

    I’ve always written the piece first and then figured out what the subheadings would be, either at the end, or while I was writing. I’m excited to try your method–coming up with the sub-headings first and the filler afterward.

  7. says

    I’ve taught Microsoft Word for many years, and one trick I show people is to use Outline View to write the headings first, then switch back to Print Layout View to fill in your content.

  8. says

    I actually used a similar technique to write my 120 page dissertation. I broke it down into subsections, and then wrote each of those individual. It was much easier than trying to write the whole thing at one go.

  9. says

    Great article, Sonia. I was really struck by the idea of subheads as a means to control how your readers read. Knowing that we all skim to a fault, that’s a terrific means to guiding the reader to the point you want to make. It’s something I’ll be trying out! Thanks :)

  10. says

    This is such a great tip, especially for new writers. It works for blogging and it certainly works for copy too. I am loving the reminder and will be sure to use this technique in all my upcoming posts and writing assignments! :)

  11. says

    Yup… I don’t use those often in my own blog and that’s a pretty smart tip. I find myself skimming all the time. Sub-heads would be a nice visual breakup and a reinforcement option for ideas. Thanks Sonia!

  12. says

    Hi Sonia,

    Sub-heads are a great way to break up text and allow skimmers to get the gist of your article quickly. Those interested with delve into the sub-sections to extract the information they want.

    The other trick I use (if I suspect skimmers will be a large part of the audience) is to bold text of important points. Like the sub-heads, they jump off the page/screen and give the skimmer just that much more information.

    Readers turn into customers. I don’t know the stats off-hand, but I would suspect that skimmers are less likely to become customers right away. However, you can turn skimmers into readers, if you write your copy properly. By boosting the number of readers, you should indirectly boost the number of customers too.


  13. says

    @MichaelMartine, I thought that was interesting in the Sugarman as well. It might be fun to experiment with subheads that were relevant & interesting but not completely logically tied to the body copy. That’s about as wacky as I’m willing to get. :) (Cool Word trick as well, I will try that.)

    @janelle, I see it as two very distinct issues. First, I want to be sure that everything I’m saying is truthful, ethical, and benefits the reader. Once I’m satisfied that that is true, I don’t hesitate to make it as persuasive as I can.

    @noell, I’m curious to see what you think of it! I resisted it for some time, but it really does make things easier. It feels a little awkward when you first try it out, or it did for me.

    @Graham, I’ve always wondered about that–are readers by nature more likely to become customers, or is it that the folks who are most likely to become customers are also more likely to read every word of a piece talking about their particular issue. But I agree–what you really want is to turn those skimmers into readers by signalling “this piece of content has the answers you’re looking for.”

    @Katie, I even write emails this way, if they’re long. I just might be unreasonably fond of subheads. (But my emails are nice and readable.)

  14. says

    Thanks for this tip. Would sure help me whenever I get writer’s block. You really made writing easier for me this time!

  15. says

    Obviously among those who pay attention to how online page copy is read — there are plenty of opinions. I completely subscribe to subheadings and depending upon the situation how much they are made to “stand-out” from the other page text.

    And I’m a staunch believer in bold text within page copy and bullet points (the online journalism world has already begun to embrace alternative story forms, a whole other topic in the realm of persuasive copy). Persuasive goes hand in hand with readable and scannable and there are plenty of eye-tracking studies out there that illustrate exactly what elements and parts of a webpage users “see” as well as those page territories that are complete dead zones.

    Thanks Sonia for giving continued encouragement to an on-page technique that when leveraged may keep readers on the page.

  16. says

    Oh yes. I am terribly long-winded, so subheadings are my lifesaver. They help me from wandering astray from my topic, too. A great idea about using subheads as a barebone outline.


  17. says

    Great advice. I broke a links post I wrote earlier this week into four sections with subheads because I realised that the mass of text, links and quotes was going to turn readers off otherwise( if you want to see it).

    I’m also totally with you on writing the subheads first; drafted a post this morning (6.30am, really was NOT in the mood to write) using this method. Once I’d got the subheadings in place, it was easy to persuade myself to write just one section, then one more. The potato chip method works for the writing, not just the reading. πŸ˜‰

  18. says

    That is actually great advice. I do use subheads in my blog, but I usually end up adding them in after I’ve written the content, which can get a little messy and creates extra work for me. I’m writing subheads first for my next post!

  19. says

    Excellent advice, thank you very much. I’m with Ebooks – in the past I’ve tended to put in the subheads either during or after writing the post. Your suggestion sounds a lot more organized. :-)

  20. says

    That’s the truth. A lot of times I don’t have time to read a whole article, and scan for bullets or interesting headlines to zero in on.

  21. says

    This is really excellent information, I have bookmarked it and will refer to it often.
    Thanks Sonia,

  22. says

    Sonia, I had to come back and tell you that I wrote today’s article using your method of choosing the sub-headings first. That was so much easier! It kept me from getting off-track and confused (a state I often go into when writing). πŸ˜‰

    By simplifying the process I was able to spend more time tightening my analogy and alluding to it throughout the article. Thank you!

  23. says

    Without thinking all this advantages I am using Subheads & skimmers in all of my posts(This habit of writing came from my school teacher ).

  24. says

    This is a good tip for writing works for the long articles or even the sales letters. Sub heads make things more organized and neat as well. I used them earlier but It makes sense to use them more.

  25. says

    Sonia, you caught me on this one.
    I got lazy and started using subs that just announced the sub-topic instead of writing compelling mini-headlines.
    Thanks again.

  26. says

    Sonia, you’re right when you say that readers start reading the text under a subhead in the same way that they reach into the potato-chip bag to grab a single chip.

    Keep feeding them subheads, and they’ll devour your entire article.

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