One Little-Known Factor that’s Slowing Your Readers Down

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Editor’s Note: When we’re talking about articles or blog posts, subheads are those headings within the text that help break up content so that a reader can move through a piece easily. But, if done incorrectly, they can slow your reader down. Read on to find out how to avoid this mistake.

Growing up, I used to live in an apartment block.

And there were these twins: Wayne and Dwayne.

As you’d expect, it was common for me to make a mistake. I’d call Wayne, Dwayne and Dwayne, Wayne. And sometimes I’d get it right without knowing if I got it right or not.

Writing subheads are a Wayne-Dwayne situation

You think you’re writing subheads, but in fact you’re writing a kind of headline instead. I say, kind of headline, because it’s not really a headline, but for the purpose of this exercise, let’s call them headlines and subheads.

When you force a headline into the space meant for a subhead, it’s kind of like mixing up names. If mixing up names isn’t bad enough, it slows down the pace of the stories without wanting to do so.

Of course, this is all gibberish unless you see an example

Let’s start by writing subheads the wrong way to begin. And let’s take a story like Goldilocks and the three bears.

Note: What follows is a story, not an article — we’ll deal with articles later. OK, let the story begin.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.

Her stomach was growling

At the kitchen table, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.

Now the fun part begins

“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. “This porridge is too cold,” she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. “Ahhh, this porridge is just right,” she said happily and she ate it all up.

Size Matters

After she’d eaten the three bears’ breakfasts she decided she was feeling a little tired. So, she walked into the living room where she saw three chairs. Goldilocks sat in the first chair to rest her feet.

“This chair is too big!” she exclaimed. So she sat in the second chair. “This chair is too big, too!” she whined. So she tried the last and smallest chair. “Ahhh, this chair is just right,” she sighed. But just as she settled down into the chair to rest, it broke into pieces!

Nap Time

Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom. She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. Then she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft. Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right. Goldilocks fell asleep.

The Bears Return

As she was sleeping, the three bears came home. “Someone’s been eating my porridge,” growled the Papa bear. “Someone’s been eating my porridge,” said the Mama bear. “Someone’s been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!” cried the Baby bear.

Did you notice what was happening in the subheads above?

They were being used almost like titles or headlines. One title announced that it was “nap time.” Another noted the “return of the bears” and so on it went, announcement after announcement. That’s not what the subhead is supposed to do. A subhead is supposed to soften the path between the previous paragraph and the next.

So let’s take the story again, and this time, chop off all the headlines and titles. OK?

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.

At the kitchen table, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.

“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. “This porridge is too cold,” she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. “Ahhh, this porridge is just right,” she said happily and she ate it all up.

After she’d eaten the three bears’ breakfasts she decided she was feeling a little tired. So, she walked into the living room where she saw three chairs. Goldilocks sat in the first chair to rest her feet.

“This chair is too big!” she exclaimed. So she sat in the second chair. “This chair is too big, too!” she whined. So she tried the last and smallest chair. “Ahhh, this chair is just right,” she sighed. But just as she settled down into the chair to rest, it broke into pieces!

Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom. She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. Then she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft. Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right. Goldilocks fell asleep.

As she was sleeping, the three bears came home. “Someone’s been eating my porridge,” growled the Papa bear. “Someone’s been eating my porridge,” said the Mama bear. “Someone’s been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!” cried the Baby bear.

As you can see, we didn’t need those subheads at all

The story ran just fine without any intervention at all. So does that mean we can write stories without subheads? No, that’s not what I’m getting at. Instead, you should find your subheads in the first line of each section.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.

At the kitchen table, there were three bowls of porridge.

Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.

“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed.

So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. “This porridge is too cold,” she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. “Ahhh, this porridge is just right,” she said happily and she ate it all up.

After she’d eaten the three bears’ breakfasts she decided she was feeling a little tired.

So, she walked into the living room where she saw three chairs. Goldilocks sat in the first chair to rest her feet.

“This chair is too big!” she exclaimed. So she sat in the second chair. “This chair is too big, too!” she whined. So she tried the last and smallest chair. “Ahhh, this chair is just right,” she sighed. But just as she settled down into the chair to rest, it broke into pieces!

Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom.

She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. Then she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft. Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right. Goldilocks fell asleep.

As she was sleeping, the three bears came home.

“Someone’s been eating my porridge,” growled the Papa bear. “Someone’s been eating my porridge,” said the Mama bear. “Someone’s been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!” cried the Baby bear.

Here’s an example of an article

Notice how the story mostly creates its own subheads. All you have to do is let the story run as it normally would and then highlight the subheads when you move to a new paragraph.

I graduated from the University in the spring of 1983 with a Bachelor’s degree in Technical Theatre. I began working, building scenery at a couple of small theatres. One was called The Empty Space Theatre and the other was The Bathhouse Theatre. Both were on-again off-again jobs… not really enough to live on. I was really hoping to get a full time job at one of them, but it was not working out. By the Fall, I was feeling frustrated.

Then, in mid-December I got a call from California

Richard, the Technical Director at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre had spoken to Jeff, who was the technical director for the Empty Space and not only did he offer me a job… he offered me the position of lead carpenter in the shop! It was a real job! I was thrilled and ready to start as soon as I could.

Except that he wanted me to start on December 26th

This was a bit sooner than I expected. My enthusiasm was treated to a bucket of cold water when I figured out that I would have to leave in a little over a week! I would miss hanging with my friends in Seattle for the holidays. It seemed a bit abrupt, but I really wanted the job, and I could see that the job market in Seattle was not working out. I told him I would do it.

I packed my possessions into a one way U-Haul rental truck and headed out

See how the writer simply used part of his article to create the next subhead. The flow was already in place. He didn’t have to insert anything new. All he had to do was highlight a line to create a subhead and that got the job done, and done well.

And that’s what you can do too. Before we end, let’s make a pit stop for a summary.

So what did we cover?

  1. Putting in titles and headlines where subheads should exist is not a good idea.
  2. A title or headline randomly used as a subhead creates an interruption when you just want it to flow.
  3. The way to create flow in a story is to simply use natural transitions to create subheads.

It’s more than likely that we may find ourselves in this Wayne-Dwayne situation

But in time, I found out who Wayne was and who Dwayne was. And you too will see that a headline or title stays at the top of the story. And subheads are located within the story itself.

When you do, you’ll see they’re different and the obvious will make you slap yourself.

I certainly did.

Have a few more questions about writing subheads? Ask us below.

About the Author: Sean D’Souza offers a great free report on ‘Why Headlines Fail’ when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Be sure to check out his blog, too.

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