3 Ways To Write Useful Subheadings That Will Draw Your Readers In Like It’s The NY Times

woman reading newspaper

Web usability doesn’t sound very sexy.

And writing web content for your readers isn’t always easy. One of our biggest challenges is to write content that is read and understood by web visitors.

I recently wrote a post about how to organise your web content to accommodate different online reading patterns. The key is for people to quickly digest the information you share with them and for your readers to read your content with ease.

One way to do that is to break up your text with subheadings. Well-written subheadings in well-organised text help readers to get a quick overview of the page and make the information less dense and more readable.

Ginny Redish is the author of Letting Go Of The Words – Writing Web Content That Works. This book is  a fantastic resource and provides simple, useful tips on how to organise and present your content for an online audience. She is a consultant in usability and clear communication who has helped many corporations in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. In this article I share with you three ways from her book to enhance the readability of your subheadings.

1.  Use Action Phrase Subheadings For Instructions

Many people come to websites with questions. A common type of question people bring to websites are “How do I…?” If you have only one such question with many other questions on a web page, it’s fine to keep that as a question.

However if you have a series of questions all of which would start “How do I….?” people may have a hard time finding the one they want.

Which set of subheadings below is easier to scan and use?

How do I set up an account?     Setting up an account
How do I get help?     Getting help
How do I change my information?     Changing your information

 

Ginny says two good ways of writing action phrase subheadings are with gerunds (the form that ends in “ing”) or with imperatives (the “Do this…” form of the verb).

It’s best to use the “-ing” form when dividing web content into different tasks. For example, the list of tasks in the right-hand column above. A subheading such as “Setting up an account,” would probably link to its own web page and the specific steps on that page would probably each start with an imperative.

If you write “how do I….” over and over, take away the repeated words and start each heading with the action word.

Action phrases make great subheadings when providing instructions or procedure type articles , for example the classic “How To…” blog post.

2.  Limit The Use Of Nouns And Noun Phrases in Subheadings

Your subheading should be descriptive and provide context. So if you use nouns as subheadings, you risk alienating your readers because site visitors don’t know the nouns, don’t connect to nouns and don’t give nouns the same meaning as you probably do.

Not only that, a noun has to carry all the meaning of the headline in a single word, which makes it difficult.

Take this example:

Use Nouns In Headings Sparingly

The subheadings Order Confirmation and Tracking Numbers use nouns and there is so much information stuffed under each one that they should be in separate sections. Using nouns as labels doesn’t help to meet the needs of busy people who skim and scan for information.

So how should you write these subheadings?

Order Confirmation could be written as:

Getting Email Confirmation Of Your Order
If you gave us your email address when you placed your order, we’ll send you confirmation of the order by email within two hours. This confirmation will give you:

  • the order number
  • the total value of the merchandise

This is one of the three topics that were in the long first paragraph of the original. It is now split into three separate sections. You’ll also notice that the heading has been rewritten as an action phrase (gerund, “ing” form).

3.  Exploit The Power Of Parallelism

Parallel structures refer to word or phrase patterns that are similar. When ideas in a sentence or paragraph are similar, you can reinforce these similarities in meaning by creating parallel structures. Ginny says people are pattern-oriented. It’s faster and easier to read content when the same sentence structure is being used. Using the same sentence structure for subheadings helps people to scan and grab information – perfect for the busy web user.

Subheadings with consistent grammatical structure help your readers remember and compare successive portions of your web content. You want them to remember your content right?

Consider this example straight from Ginny’s book:

Do It Yourself: Wallpaper

    Do It Yourself: Wallpaper

Everyone loves wallpaper

    Getting ready

Preparation

    Preparing the walls

Removal of wallpaper

    Removing old wallpaper

Straight line marking

    Marking a straight line

Cutting the wallpaper

    Cutting the wallpaper

Wallpaper soaking

    Soaking the wallpaper

 

The subheadings on the right are quicker and easier to scan and remember.

Here’s another example:

Not parallel:     They rode to the shop, the market, and to the town hall.
Parallel:            They rode to the shop, the market, and the town hall.
Parallel:            They rode to the shop, to the market, and to the town hall.

Ineffective parallelism is the result of mixing up tactics and the result can be unsettling to the reader. Parallelism can relate to just about anything: nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, articles, and prepositions as in the example above.

These are just some tips to writing better headings but there are a lot more. If you want to know more get Ginny’s book. It’s full of simple and easy to remember tips (not an affiliate link).

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