Are Subheadings a Blessing or a Curse?

Stopping the dreaded skim reader

Hi writing family. Kelly Eden here.

Let’s talk about a subject we often overlook or undervalue in our writing.

Subheadings. I never thought much about subheadings when I was magazine writing. They were just boring descriptions of the next section, right?

But subheadings with online content need our attention.

Why?

Because they can mean the difference between a reader making it to the end of a piece, snuggling up with our words for that coveted “long read time”…

Or simply skimming and fleeing like a restless lover.

A place for us to play

I’m sure you’ve read that we need to be less “artsy” and more clear in our story’s titles. Our readers like to know what on earth we’re promising them.

And—if you’re anything like me—that’s a challenge. I wish we could use word play or some subtle two-word title where the reader gets to the end of our piece and goes “Oh! That’s why it’s called that. How clever.”

Sadly, we can’t get away with artsy very often when it comes to online titles, but there’s GOOD NEWS…

We can in our subheadings!

In fact, we should get as creative and artsy as we can. There’s a good reason for this.

Creative subheadings between paragraphs not only breaks up that big wall of text, it also catches back in a reader who may have lost interest.

Your quirky subheading makes them curious. And, while you celebrate your cleverness, they read on.

Side-stepping the dreaded skim reader

Subheadings can also be our enemy. If you’re too descriptive, what stops a reader simply skimming your headings and thinking, “okay, I get the point they’re making.”

There’s no incentive to read the whole paragraph. They feel like they already know what you’re going to say.

So, descriptive in the title, creative in the subheadings. (And not all pieces need subheadings, of course.)

Lure them in with your weirdness or your word play. Use the subheadings to ask your reader a question that you will then answer in the paragraph below. Or to continue a theme.

Have fun,

Kelly

P.S. My Personal Essay course is open again. Feel free to check it out here.

P.P.S. We will be starting “How to Pitch Editors” next week in the Creative Nonfiction Academy and you are welcome to join in. It’s just $20 to subscribe for the month including feedback on your pitch email.