How to Create Exquisite Subheads

You have to capture and re-capture your reader’s attention every time they scroll their mouse. Here’s how to do it.


I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you know all that work you do to drive people to your blog posts?

All the content optimization (don’t you say SEO!), all the agonizing over your headline, even the nitty-gritty of your word choice and sentence crafting?

Yeah, well, most people aren’t going to read those words and sentences.

Certainly they’re not going to read the ones at the end, possibly not even the ones in the middle.

Unless you do this …

You have to capture and re-capture your reader’s attention every time they scroll their mouse.

And you do this with subheads — delicious, irresistible, exquisite subheads.

In this episode of The Lede, you will learn:

  • What most people do to your article as soon as they hit the page (hint: it isn’t read)
  • How to craft subheads that allow you to beat the odds and keep your reader reading
  • Why subheads serve the same purpose as your headline throughout your post
  • When (and how often) subheads should appear in your posts
  • Who, other than your reader, benefits from subheads
  • Where you need to read your post before publishing, to assess your subheads

And a whole lot more.

[episode no=”57″]

The Show Notes

[episode_ad] [episode_transcript]

Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

The Lede Podcast: How to Create Exquisite Subheads

Jerod Morris: Welcome back to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing by Copyblogger Media. I’m your host, Jerod Morris.

If you want to get a content marketing education while you’re making breakfast or on an evening stroll, this podcast is the way to do it.

In this episode, Demian Farnworth and I break down the sixth essential ingredient in a blog post, and this one’s exquisite.

By definition, something that is “exquisite” is extremely beautiful and typically delicate. Delicate, huh? It might make it seem a bit strange, then, to use the word “exquisite” to qualify the types of subheads that are essential to a blog post.

Sure, you want them to be beautiful in a sense, to capture attention and preserve readability … but delicate?

Debate all you want about whether that part of the definition applies to writing good subheads, but this much I know: Your reader’s attention span is delicate, and whether that reader is reading every single word in your post or just scanning breezily on through, there is a delicate balance that your copy must strike to draw readers in. And subheads play a huge role in keeping readers flowing on down the page.

Personally, I like to think of subheads as simply mini-headlines, like the prefix suggests. We know how important headlines are, explaining to you in episode one of this series how to make them magnetic.

So it seems to me, then, Demian, that subheads ought to serve a similar purpose — promise a benefit that the subsequent copy will fulfill — and that you ought not overlook them, just as you would never overlook the headline itself.

How subheads help you win the war of attention attrition

Demian Farnworth: Exactly, Jerod. The whole goal is to capture attention.

There are studies out there that demonstrate that only about 10 percent of your visitors are going to read every word that you write. The rest will simply scan. And this was beautifully demonstrated in an article by Farhed Manjou from Slate magazine called “You Won’t Finish This Article.”

It’s about a 2,000-word article, and he opens it up beautifully, talking about the state of online reading. As he’s going through the paragraphs, he’s describing the behavior of most readers, and by the time you get to the third paragraph he’s saying, “About 40 percent of you have probably dropped off by now.” And then as he moves to the fourth paragraph, he moves to a lower percentage. The point is that nobody really reads online unless it’s absolutely necessary and it’s absolutely got their attention.

He did some research. He asked the company ChartBeat, the web analytics company, to run some numbers to see how readers scrolled through Slate Magazine articles, and the findings are pretty revealing. Most visitors will read about 50 percent of what you write. There’s a huge percentage, though, who don’t even scroll. So they see the headline, and that’s about it, and they move on. And for the rest, you have this very natural bell curve.

The headlines, the subheadlines, those are for the scanners. Those people who are coming to the article, they’ve been attracted to your headline, they like your first sentence, but now they’re just going to scroll through and see if anything else captures their attention.

Jerod: Yeah, and to win that war on attention attrition, I guess you could say, you’ve got to have those subheadlines that capture people, that keep them there, that keep them moving down the page.

How creating subheads is like writing headlines (and even bullets)?

Jerod: So, we talk about how they’re like mini-headlines — then do the same tricks and techniques that you would use for writing headlines apply to subheadlines? I mean, is it as easy as telling people to go back and listen to our magnetic headlines episode to get a good idea for what they should be doing with subheads?

Demian: It really is. All the same tricks apply.

You know, we talk about the “four U’s,” asking questions, and it’s all about enticing, teasing; yet you want to be descriptive in what you’re writing. So going back, learning how to write headlines translates. And this is the beautiful thing about learning a fixed principle like writing a headline: it will translate across mediums. It will translate throughout your article from the headlines, to the bullets, to the subheadlines, but it will also translate from blog posts to writing Twitter headlines, Facebook posts, Google posts, et cetera. So yes, the same tricks do apply.

Jerod: And something else to keep in mind with subheadlines, and this actually harkens back to the last episode in this series with bullet points, where we talk about being consistent with them, and this idea of parallelism.

Talk about parallelism, what it is, and why it’s so important with subheads.

Demian: Just like bullet points, you want it to be consistent.

For example, with bullet points, if you’re starting it with verbs, then each one of your bullets should be a verb. Same thing with the subheadlines. If your first subheadline is starting with a verb, it’s good to keep it consistent. I would probably say this is one of those things where you can bend this; this is no hard-and-fast rule. This is something you can bend.

How subheads create rhythm within your post

But I think we’re sort of looking for that consistency, that rhythm that comes with good articles. You have that cadence that comes with a consistent, you know, verb, verb, verb, verb. So it’s kind of pushing and edging the reader down through the page. It’s the same as what’s effective with subheadlines.

Sometimes you’ll have posts that are, like — I mentioned this in a previous episode — four steps to washing dishes with vinegar before you get cholera, right? So the way you want to design those subheadlines, you’d want to be consistent with step one, step two, step three, and step four. With each subheadline you want to include a descriptor. So it would be, step one: Boil the water. Step two: Pour in a gallon of vinegar. And then step three and step four.

And this can be seen, too, like writing a post about mistakes or whenever there’s some sort of a sequence of events. So for example, Brian wrote an article called “Five Landing Page Mistakes That Crush Conversion.” And so in that post, what you could do too, is say you know, “Mistake #1: Describe that mistake.” Just really short descriptors. “Mistake #2: Describe that mistake.”

So again, what that does for the scanner, the person who’s just looking down the page, he says, “Okay, this is a mistake. I need to focus on this. I need to focus on this. I need to focus on this.”

The thing that we hate to talk about, or to think about, is when I talk about how not very many people are going to actually read your posts. So you have a scanner, they jump to your page, they like the headline, they start scrolling down … The first subheadline might not do it. The second subheadline, the third subheadline might not do it. But eventually they get to that fourth one, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and so they jump into that section, read that section, but realize that if they really want to understand what they’re reading they have to go back to the previous or the next section and read.

I don’t know about you, Jerod, but that’s the way I read online. I catch something, I’ll read a portion of it. Because what people are doing the whole time is evaluating whether they want to invest their time into that particular article. Or if they, at best, save it for later, whether they use Readability or put a bookmark on there.

So subheadlines are — think of subheadlines as being like hooks or burrs, in essence. They’re the burrs that stick to you in the woods on your clothing when you go through there. That’s what a subheadline is. It’s the burr to get people to stop, to hook them so they look.

And then finally, when you’re talking about subheadlines, say you’re not using a how-to post with steps, but you’re explaining something. Maybe it’s historical. You’re giving some sort of shape to an historical movement, or you’re talking theory. What the subheadlines do at this point is that they should summarize the article. So the scanner should be able to read and feel the flow of the story by your subheadlines. They should sort of feel like, “There’s the opening. There’s the middle part. And there’s the conclusion.” So the subheadlines should give them a quick and easy guide to seeing what’s going on with the story.

How subheads benefit you before the post is published

Jerod: So we’ve spent a lot of time so far here talking about subheadlines from a reader perspective, and how they can impact the reader. But subheadlines can actually be very useful for the writer before the post ever gets to the reader.

Tell me if you’ve had this happen, where you’re writing a post and you just put in placeholders for your subhead. You have an introduction, and then you have “subhead one,” “subhead two,” “subhead three,” “subhead four” …

Whereas, what you can do with subheads is plan them out in the beginning. Use them to outline your post. Think about them beforehand as opposed to just this afterthought that you slap in there before you hit “Publish.” It can really help you, I think, organize your thoughts. Organize your posts, from the beginning.

Demian: Yeah, exactly. What we’re talking about here is creating an outline.

You mentioned you have your headline, and then you’ll have your subheadlines. And sometimes it does help the actual writer, because sometimes I’ll sit down and, especially if I’m working on sort of a larger project, and I have tons of notes, I’ll start working through my notes and stuff, and as I hit key points I’ll set that aside as, This will be a subheadline.” Then I start compiling notes that are related to what’s underneath that. So it helps me gather and corral all the information that I’m gathering at that point.

It also keeps the writer on track as they are editing. I rarely start with the headline, and I rarely start with the subheadlines. Really, I’ve got an idea, I start writing. I start putting in research. And then when I go back shaping it, that’s when I get the first draft done. I go back shaping it, and then I’ll start putting in subheadlines. And what that does is that helps the writer to be clear and concise in what they’re saying. It keeps them on track.

Because when you’re reading through and you’re shaping it, especially if it’s a long article, you’re shaping the article, and you realize that you get to a point, and you’re like, “I’m not sure if this sits well in the rest of what I’m saying.” So you stick a subheadline on there, and then you gauge it with the rest of the headlines, and you say, “Okay, yeah. So point A is this, point B is that, point C is this, but point D is this, and it seems a little bit off. So how do I need to shape that and get that in there, or do I even need that?”

So I really find that, especially when going through the heavy editing portions of writing posts, creating the subheadlines helps me shape that actual article. I find places where it’s like, “Hey, this is a really good idea, to transition from big idea A to big idea B, and then put in the post subheadline, just to say this is a transition point.”

How often subheads should appear

Jerod: Okay, so here’s the million-dollar question for you, then.

We published an article from you earlier this week called “Thirteen Damn Good Ideas From Thirteen Dead Copy Writers.” A post like that, it is very, very easy to figure out where to put subheads and how many to use, because you’ve got an intro subhead, a closing subhead, and then you’ve got one for each of these 13 steps.

But in a post where it’s not that easy, especially a longer post, how many subheads should you use? Where should you put them? What are some criteria that you use to make those decisions?

Demian: That’s a great question.

This whole point about subheadlines and writing for the web …. I mean, I’ve been at this for over 14 years, but there was a comment in an article I wrote, “The 12 Writing Exercises That Will Transform Your Copy,” and there was an article that somebody wrote on there that said, they basically said “This was a 1,300-word article, and it didn’t seem like that at all.” And that kind of stopped me, and I went back and I looked through it, and it’s a very airy article. There’s a lot of white space, but there are a lot of subheadlines too, and the text between the subheadlines is also airy.

The point being is, yeah, the subheadlines have to be in there, depending on the length of what you’re writing. So a 100-word article, I’m not sure that needs a subheadline. A 200-word article, maybe. A 500-word, definitely at least two. But it really comes down to a gut instinct, and dividing the post into meaningful sections, right? Again, it goes back to that thought of helping you shape and organize your thoughts.

But what is a meaningful section? And when I say “meaningful,” again, it depends upon the content. So you just have to feel your way through there. But I think with the longer articles, the more the better. As a rule of thumb sometimes, when I’m working through a post and I’m scrolling through it on the preview mode, I will look at it. And if it’s a longer article and I don’t come across a subheadline every full scroll, then I know that I probably need to put one in there.

Because again, I’m thinking about the scanner. The person who’s scanning is doing exactly what I’m doing. They’re scrolling it. And so putting a subheadline in there helps keep their attention with what they’re reading.

Jerod: Yeah. And real quick, just a piggyback on that too from an editing perspective. I don’t think you can always tell where you need to subhead if you’re using WordPress, inside the WordPress “edit” screen. You really need to do a final preview on the site itself so you see how it will be seen by the users, and as you read through you start to get the rhythm of the post, and you see it how your reader will, and that, I think, will tell you: okay, right here, this spot … this has been going on too long … it’s too long a block of text … it needs a subhead … it needs to break it up. You’ll start to see that when you read it in a preview version like your readers will see it.

With all that said, Demian, any final thoughts? Any final tips when it comes to subheads that we can leave the listeners with?

How long your subheads should be

Demian: Yeah. So the length of your subheadlines … again, this is back to the bullets. Brevity reigns supreme.

Here’s something to think about, though. Outbrain, who has this huge article distribution network, ran a study not long ago and discovered that as far as headlines go, the ones that got the most click-throughs were headlines with 60 to 100 characters, or about 16 words. And if you think about that, that’s within the range of the sort of Upworthy-type headlines. So if you can get your subheadlines within the range of, say, 10 to 16 words, I think 16 words is probably a lot for a subheadline; so 10 and under, but again, it’s about being descriptive. It’s about enticing. Those are the types of lengths you want to look for.

Jerod: Thank you for listening to this episode of The Lede. I know we went a bit over our allotment of 15 minutes, but hopefully it was worth it. We’ll be sure to work on our brevity next time.

If you’re enjoying the show, please consider leaving us a rating or a review on ITunes, and join us next time when we seduce you into learning the seventh ingredient that every blog post needs. Talk to you soon.

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*Credits: Both the intro (“Bridge to Nowhere” by Sam Roberts Band) and outro songs (“Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart) are graciously provided by express written consent from the rights owners.