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Five Tips to Writing Great Subheads
by Kristina Springer

Return to Polishing Your Prose · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Skim through a nonfiction article online or in a magazine and you'll likely notice that a major difference between nonfiction writing and other types of writing, such as academic and creative, is the inclusion of subheads. When writing nonfiction articles, it is good practice to break big chunks of text into smaller, more digestible chunks by inserting good, clear subheads. Many readers skim through articles to see what piques their interest. Subheads can quickly tell your reader what you will discuss in each section and help readers decide whether they want to read all or part of your article. Other readers are just looking for an answer in a hurry (for example, how do I get my baby on a set feeding schedule?) and will likely just skim your document to find what they need. Providing good, clear subheads will help your reader get the information they are looking for fast. Here are five quick tips for writing great subheads:

Make Your Subheads Complete

Your reader should be able to tell exactly what each section is about just from reading its subhead. Your subheads should be as clear and concise as possible so that there is no question in your reader's mind as to a section's content. For example, a subhead like "Migraines" is vague. Your reader might ask himself, "What about migraines?" A more exact subhead is needed. A subhead like "Dealing with Severe Migraines" is appropriate. This tells the reader exactly what will be discussed in that section.

Use Subheads Frequently

If you find that you've gone over a page without a break in text, then you've probably gone too long without a subhead. Look over what you wrote. Can it be broken into two sections? Did you perhaps talk about the benefits and risks of taking aspirin daily on the same page? If so, split up the information and place the benefits information under one subhead, and the risks information under another. This will save your reader time by allowing him to go right to the information he is interested in.

Make Your Subheads Active

With a lot of nonfiction articles, especially how-to articles, you are asking your readers to do something, to perform some kind of action. Because of this, it makes sense to start your subheads with an action verb. For example, when writing a piece on how to perform various actions using Microsoft Word, I would change this vague group of subheads:

New Documents

to a clearer group of subheads that open with an action verb:

Opening a New Word Document
Inserting a Table
Inserting a Picture

Use More than One Level of Detail

If you have first-level subheads throughout your document, then you are off to a good start. Even better, however, is to add another level of detail: second-level subheads. It's a busy world and if you can help your reader pinpoint what she is looking for in a hurry, she'll thank you. For example, if you have a subhead that says:

Setting Up an Exercise Program

you can break it down further by adding these second-level subheads:

Setting Up an Exercise Program
Choose a Time to Exercise
Select the Type of Exercise
Gather your Workout Gear

Make Your Subheads Parallel

Parallelism between your subheads is key to producing a professional piece of writing. Creating unparallel subheads is a mistake amateurs quite frequently make in their writing. Take a look at this group of subheads from an article on how to find a literary agent:

Talk to Other Authors
How Do I Search Online?
Writer's Conferences

Read these subheads in succession and you can probably hear that the flow is off. The first subhead begins with a verb. The second subhead asks a question. The third subhead is a noun. To make these parallel, you need to choose one style and carry it out for the entire grouping of subheads at that same level. By beginning each subhead with a verb, I've now made these subheads parallel:

Talk to Other Authors
Search Online
Attend Writer's Conferences

Any of the styles of subhead are fine, just as long as you carry it out for the entire level. If you want your first-level subheads to ask a question, then all of your first-level subheads should ask a question. Second-level subheads under each group of first-level subheads must also be parallel with each other but do not need to be parallel with the first level.

When writing nonfiction articles, you want to make your writing as easy to digest as possible for your readers. Today's readers live fast-paced lives and want to get the information that they seek fast. One way of making your writing easier for your reader to use is to break it up into chunks with the use of subheads. Keep these five tips in mind when working on your next article and you'll create subheads like a pro!

Copyright © 2005 Kristina Springer
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Kristina Springer is a freelance writer and writing instructor at DePaul University in Chicago, IL, where she received a Master of Arts in Writing. Currently, she is working on a young ydult fiction novel as well as a number of nonfiction articles. She lives in a west suburb of Chicago with her husband, Athens, and children Teegan and Maya. Visit her web site at http://www.KristinaSpringer.com.


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