Secrets for successful subheads

Keep readers reading, skimmers scanning

The other day, I received in one of my favorite association magazines a story of interest to me: “Maximizing student productivity: Tips for successful internship programs.”

Secrets for successful subheads

Heads up on subheads Handled correctly, subheads can communicate your key messages even to nonreaders. Image by Kristina Flour

My intern was scheduled to arrive in three minutes, so I decided to skim the story. I read the subheads: “Tip No. 1,” they said. “Tip No. 2. Tip No. 3.”

What were the tips? I’ll never know.

Subheads have magical properties.

What if I told you there was a magic wand that kept readers reading and skimmers scanning — even after their attention begins to wane?

Friends, there is such a tool, and it’s called a subhead.

“Write subheads that reveal, rather than conceal, your contents.”
— Ann Wylie, writing coach, Wylie Communications

Subheads are important because they help skimmers get the gist of the message. But label subheads — those that classify the topic but don’t say anything about it — don’t communicate much at all.

So instead of just labeling a section of your copy with the topic — “Mortgage services,” for instance, or “Tip. No. 1” — tell the reader something.

What about mortgage services? What is Tip No. 1?

Tip 7 is not a subhead

Tip 7 is not a subhead To say something with subheads, tell me what Tip 7 is. Image by Ann Wylie

To get the word out via subheads:

1. Make thinking visual.

Think of your subheads as the Roman numeral outline of your piece. What are your topics I, II and II? Those are your subheads.

When one of my clients wanted to lend support after some of its employees endured a fire, subheads included:

  1. Acknowledge the event.
  2. Listen. Don’t ask questions or seek details.
  3. Offer long-term emotional support.
  4. Offer practical support.
  5. Watch for reactions.

Any questions?

What's that you say?

What’s that you say? Write subheads that reveal, rather than conceal, your contents. Image by Ann Wylie

Write subheads that reveal, rather than conceal, your contents

2. Don’t write ‘read below’ subheads.

If your subheads say “Problem,” “Solution” and “Result,” you’re telling readers, “read below to find out what the problem, solution and results are.”

But there’s a reason they’re not reading. They’re skimmers!

Instead of trying to force skimmers to read, write robust subheads that define the problem, solution and results.

3. Answer, don’t just ask, questions.

If you raise a question in the subhead, answer it in display copy — a bold-faced lead-in, highlighted key words or a bulleted list, maybe.

If your subhead asks, “Why subheads?” for instance, you might answer the question in a list with bold-faced lead-ins.

You ask, you answer

You ask, you answer If you raise a question in the display copy, answer it in the display copy. Here, in the bold-faced lead-ins of a bulleted list. Image by Ann Wylie

Otherwise, your question is essentially saying “read below to find out.” And we know skimmers want to skim, not read.

Bottom line: If you ask a question in the display copy, you need to answer the question in the display copy.

4. Keep subheads short.

Aim for eight words or less. That’s the number of words readers can get at a glance, according to American Press Institute research.

And limit subheads to one line. Longer, and they’ll start looking like text, not display copy. And then you’ll lose the attention-grabbing power of subheads.

Don’t drop the subheads.

Finally, don’t drop the subheads. It’s a poor communicator who ignores this power tool.

  • Lift Ideas Off the Screen

    Reach nonreaders with display copy

    People spend 96% of their time on websites looking, not reading, according to a Xerox PARC critical incident study.

    Lift Ideas Off the Screen in Chicago

    “People read paper," says TJ Larkin, Larkin Communications Consulting. "They use the web.”

    Because even highly educated web visitors read, on average, just 20% of words on the page.

    Indeed, web visitors read, on average, 20% of words on the page, according to an analysis of 50,000 page views of European computer scientists, psychologists, sociologists, engineers.

    So how do you reach nonreaders on the small screen?

    At Writing for the Web and Mobile — our two-day hands-on web-writing master class on June 12-13 in Chicago — you’ll learn how to:

    • Pass The Palm Test. Improve reading time, comprehension and satisfaction with one quick trick.
    • Take five simple steps to write links that get scanned and clicked.
    • Use a six-step process to transform your bulleted lists into freestanding information packages that lift key messages off the screen for nonreaders.
    • Bust the myth of page view time: Measurably boost understanding, memory, satisfaction — while taking readers 50% less time.
    • Pass The Skim Test: Make sure even flippers and skimmers can get the gist of your message — without reading the paragraphs.


    Learn More.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!


Free writing tips
  • Get tips, tricks & trends for Catching Your Readers
  • Learn to write better, easier & faster
  • Discover proven-in-the-lab writing techniques