The Do's and Don'ts of Great Headings

It’s the start of a fresh year, and maybe you’re thinking about making writing a serious goal. Whether you’re pursuing freelance opportunities or gearing up to start an indie project, like a blog or a book, there’s a key element that will drive visibility. Know what it is? Here’s a hint: it’s probably the same thing that brought you to this page – the title, The Do’s and Don’ts of Great Headings.

A wise mother once said, “Don’t go to school acting like a fool. Your name is the only thing you own forever, and the character attached to it is how people remember it.” The logic of this advice applies to many things, but today, it applies to your writing career.

Momma’s Philosophy

Just like your name, your writing requires an introduction. Ideally, you will earn a reputation that precedes you.

Imagine a random stranger running up to you on the street and shouting, “JOHN DOE” in your face. How would you react, and would that reaction come before or after phoning the police to report a freaky, weird disturbance? Now, imagine a little boy with round glasses, a lightning bolt scar and a wand running up to you and shouting, “HARRY POTTER!” 7 out of 10 people would know exactly who he is because his reputation precedes him.

A complete stranger has no idea who you are and no reason to assume you’re important, especially if they’ve never heard of you – a fact all too true in the field of writing. You have to build a name, something content marketing gurus commonly refer to as branding.

My name is Anita Lovett, and I’m a content marketing consultant, copywriter and developmental editor. I work with a lot of independent authors and self-publishers, and it’s shocking how many believe branding only applies to big businesses. Branding, even if it’s just you, is one of the most powerful digital tools available to indie authors and freelance writers. One of the strongest ways to build your brand is through written content, and the headings you use can make or break whether people see you as the loon shouting, “JOHN DOE” or the familiar little boy shouting, “HARRY POTTER!”

So how do you apply momma’s advice? How do you attach character to your name – to your writing – to build a recognizable brand? Believe it or not, you follow three basic steps.

Step #1: Write Gripping Titles

Titling a blog post, a white paper, a press release, a book, anything that’s written, is a lot like naming a baby. You’re momma, and you can pick whatever name you want. The sky’s the limit, and it’s your sky, no one else’s. Titles, also called main headings, are what introduce you (the writer) and your baby (your words) to your readers. They make the all-important first impression.

Anyone can achieve the John Doe impression. I liken it to clickbait.

Did you know “clickbait” has been added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary? It’s defined as “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink.” People despise clickbait because the headline or title they click often leads to an irrelevant piece of content or, as Merriam-Webster says, “…to content of dubious value or interest.”

A title that fools you into clicking your way to something you don’t want to see is clickbait. It’s like walking down the street, minding your own business, taking a right at the corner because a sign says the destination you want is that way, and suddenly, you hit an unexpected dead end where a scary, loud person jumps in your face and yells, “JOHN DOE!” Just what are you supposed to do?

The Harry Potter impression is markedly different. It’s gripping and accurate. It’s like walking down the street, taking that right at the corner and arriving in front of the sign for Platform 9 3/4 where a familiar little boy pops out and says, “Hi, I’m Harry Potter.” Even if you don’t know exactly who he is, something is intriguing and begs the reply, “Really? And just why are you important?” That’s the reaction you want as a writer. You want readers to see titles that pique curiosity, grip attention and make them decide they need to know more.

Step #2: Prove Your Titles’ Worth

Getting people to click-through to your blog or website is only a third of the battle. Gripping titles will win you views (maybe even downloads), but they don’t command long-term attention. Titles work hand-in-hand with what you write, and from the moment a potential audience member lands on your blog (or downloads a sample of your book), headings prove your title’s worth.

55% of visitors read your work for 15 seconds or less. They skim, and the first things they see are the subheadings beneath your main heading. The value presented in these headings will determine whether they decide to read your words.

You have a fraction of a minute to prove your title’s worth and capture a reader. If your headings fail, you might as well be John Doe.

Step #3: Write Something Worth Reading

Titles and headings define the character of a piece of writing. They structure it, but they also mold it.

If someone asks me to define or describe my character, I would say I’m passionate, kind and driven with a healthy side of crazy because you can’t go through life 100% serious 100% of the time. But I can’t just tell someone I’m passionate, kind, driven and a little nuts; I have to show it for it to mean something.

Actions are louder than words.

Let me repeat that because it’s important; actions are louder than words.

Actions prove words, and the content found between your title and subheadings is where your actions define your capability as a writer. In other words, write something worth reading between those big, bold headings or risk losing your audience for good.

The Must and Must Not of Writing Great Headings

Main headings and subheadings lay the groundwork for capturing readers. Their purpose is to define the character of a piece. Not only do they keep your content organized, but they also provide a preview – a toe dip, if you will – of what readers can expect when they dive into your word pool. They can make or break the goal of building a readership, and they are vital to branding via content. What must you do (and not do) to earn an Emmy for Best Headings?

Do: Use Sassy Adjectives

People like personality. I take that back. They don’t just like it; they love it.

When I consult with new indie authors and freelance writers who are starting to brand, one of the most vital topics I cover is finding and nailing your voice. As you strike forth with the goal of your writing working for you, it’s crucial to decide which voice will represent you. The words you choose must rep your voice, and the headlines you create are an extension of this. Killer headlines use sassy adjectives, the kind that creates a reaction. A great headline will do at least one of the following:

  • Pique curiosity
  • Shock or wow
  • Deliver a precise idea
  • Present a simple fact
  • Highlight a call to action

The more lively the words, the better. But remember, people hate to be misled. Make sure your snazzy headings preview what’s written beneath them; otherwise, you’ll risk alienating your audience when your actions (the content) don’t match your words (the heading).

Do: Remain Consistent

Repeat after me: Consistency, consistency, consistency!

I cannot stress the importance of remaining consistent with your headings enough. You can’t start with a strong, eye-catching heading and flip-flop to the mundane and boring. There is no quicker way to lose an audience. The main heading sets the tone, and the subheadings that follow need to support it, not just from an informational standpoint but also in pace and quality. For example, if your title is spunky and fun, the rest of your headings should fall in line with spunk, pizzazz and humor. In contrast, if your title is somber and serious, the headings beneath it should reflect the same tone.

Consistency in headings also applies to books and novel-length works. Have you ever wondered why the title of a book is important? It sets the tone for what lies beneath the cover. Everything from chapter titles to the storyline needs to reflect it; otherwise, you risk presenting readers with a title that screams zombies but a story that lacks them.

Consistency, consistency, consistency!

Do: Hit a Homerun

The main heading of a piece of writing gets loads of attention. You already know it needs to be snappy, catchy and snazzy. It needs to pique curiosity and demand attention, but the title is not the only important heading on the page. The final or concluding headline can be the most impactful and hit a homerun if you craft it well.

The last heading in a piece of writing is like the last piece of a puzzle. It completes the picture and provides immense satisfaction when finally placed because it creates a work of art to admire. Closing headlines should always do at least one of three things:

  1. Give a Call to Action: Go out with a bang by encouraging your readers to take action. The key to a compelling call to action is holding a steady pace throughout the piece, sprinkled with just the right amount of inspiration, before closing with sheer, unadulterated motivation. Your closing headline should make readers want to do something.
  2. Verify the Title: Strong conclusions often sum up the title, especially if the title happens to be a question. In such cases, the final headline should verify the title, perhaps by providing a precise and concise answer.
  3. Be a Little Human: Closing headings need humanity, and the average person doesn’t like to be given harsh commands. Sit! Stay! Go! If you’re writing for dogs, those might work, but people aren’t four-legged furry friends. A little humanity is important, and this means it’s okay to be subtle. Maybe your conclusion doesn’t need to make the reader jump off their seat and do something. Maybe you don’t need to summarize and verify the title. Maybe you just need to leave them with a thread of humanity, a burst of emotion designed to trigger thought. That’s fine, just ensure your final heading is sprinkled with something they can connect to.

Don’t: Tell Mistruths

We’ve talked about the top three do’s of writing headlines. Now, let’s talk about four important don’ts, starting with avoiding mistruths.

Misleading headings, whether in the form of clickbait or plain inaccurate subheadings, are bad. Honesty is the best policy, and accuracy is paramount.

You may have noticed the current controversy surrounding terms like “fake news,” and while it occupies its own spotlight, false or dishonest content is nothing new. As a writer, it’s your job to write as accurately as possible. That means researching and verifying your research. Nothing damages a reputation and loses readers as quickly and catastrophically as beguiling, concocted, delusive copy. Start with honest headings and carry through within the copy, and if you happen to make a mistake and unknowingly write a mistruth, own that puppy by way of a correction and apology.

Don’t: Misspell Words

To err is human. Almost every piece of content out there has at least one spelling error because oops, you missed it. Even heavily edited novels have a handful of misspellings at times. But the one place you absolutely cannot and do not want to have a misspelling (unless it’s intentional and clearly illustrates a point) is the headings. So buy a dictionary. Better yet, use one of the many online. If you don’t work with a flesh-and-blood editor, you might want to look into aggressive software like Grammarly to ensure misspellings never hit your all-important headings.

Don’t: Be Redundant

As a developmental editor, unwarranted redundancy is one of my biggest pet peeves, and as a writer, it should be one of yours, too.

Sometimes it’s okay to incorporate repetitive elements into headings. For example, you may have noticed the repetitive do and don’t in this blog post. These redundancies serve a purpose. In the 15 seconds the average viewer will spend on this page, they can quickly see exactly what they should and should not do when crafting headings. It could verify something they are questioning, and it does so quickly, allowing them to jump back to their project without wasting time. But that same person might stop to read this blog or bookmark it for later. Even better, they might follow. And it all started with headings.

In contrast, there is a difference between consistency and redundancy. If the title of this blog were not The Do’s and Don’ts of Great Headings, the do’s and don’ts in the subheadings might then be inconsistent with the title and redundant. As a writer, you’ll have to be the judge of whether your headings are consistent or redundant, but remember, redundancy without clear purpose annoys the reader.

Don’t: Be Rude

I’m going to throw two words at you:

  1. Rude
  2. Condescending

These are two things your headings cannot be. Never, ever “dumb it down” for your audience. It’s rude and condescending. Humans are creatures of knowledge. We like to learn. We like to be challenged. People who don’t want to learn and dislike being challenged are the rarity, which is why dumbing down content doesn’t work.

Sometimes we get into a mood while writing. This is especially true for freelance writers. When you freelance, you write to pay the bills. You take jobs that aren’t necessarily your preferred cup of tea because as of the 1st of the month, you’re responsible for a list of bills that won’t wait because there isn’t any stimulating writing work available. When you feel yourself getting a little moody over topics that feel mundane, take the time to self-edit carefully. Headings that come across as condescending or rude will kill your writing, and they do no favors in building a professional reputation. Check yourself. Make sure a bad attitude or temporary disgruntlement doesn’t seep onto the page.

It’s a Home Run, Folks!

Creating headings can seem overwhelming, but when you spice it up with tone and style, you can own them. The elements of writing are many. Knowing how to craft and wield headings to elevate your work is a crucial tool made for building your name. Use this tool well, and you’ll be the Harry Potter of headlines, not the John Doe.

You are now sufficiently educated on the craft of creating great main headings and subheadings. You have an actional list of do’s and don’ts to apply. Go forth and write home run headlines that captivate, encite and pack a punch. I’ll be listening for your name as I round the corner…

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