6 Secrets to Effective Subheads

You see subheads in magazine articles, direct mail, newspaper pieces … but maybe you never knew they had a name:

This is what they look like.

They act like miniature headlines, introducing a new section of copy.

But a word of caution: a few words set off in bold above a paragraph do not an effective subhead make. In fact, when tossed into a manuscript as an afterthought, one of these headings can actually weaken the piece.

Follow these guidelines to give them zing and add value to your copy.

1. Use them to offer substantive content. Whenever possible, use details. Consider the contrast between …

“Vaccuum cleaners”

and …

“78.7 percent of all homeowners use one”

Both can appear over the same section of copy. But the second one narrows the slant of the content to follow (the widespread use of vacuum cleaners) and is more likely to keep your copy focused.

Tip: steer clear of generalities. Entice the reader with interesting specifics – an unusual fact, idea or statement.

2. Use them to contribute to a condensed outline. Readers today like to skim, especially on the web. Good subheads summarize your article or letter.

Tip: read through them consecutively, omitting the copy in between. They should communicate the gist of your piece.

3. Use different constructions. Try active verbs, word pictures, questions and descriptive language as formats. These create interest and lure the reader into the copy body.

Tip: avoid “be” verbs.

4. Use them to break up copy. Readers are subconsciously overwhelmed when they’re faced with an entire page of unbroken prose. They may just give up.But little headers give the eye relief.

Tip: a good rule of thumb for double-spaced manuscripts is 1-2 subheads per page.

5. Use them to guide the reader. A series of mini-headlines can announce the next topic and lead the reader through your thought process. They help the brain compartmentalize.

Tip: use the previous sentence as a transition.

6. Use them to communicate a benefit. Use these little titles to indicate a specific advantage that you’re about to expound upon in the copy that follows. For instance,

“Change of direction”

… could mean a medical discovery, a late-in-life marriage or a job change – and doesn’t address the pluses of changing direction.

But …

“Interactive picture books signal a profitable change of direction”

… suggests that a publishing house has found an ingenious way to capture the preschool market – one that the reader most definitely will want to learn more about.

Tip: re-read your subheads to make sure they communicate a particular advantage, plus, fact, outcome or benefit that interests your reader.


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