I've been spending all kinds of time both writing posts and reading other people's blogs. I've found that headings can make or break a good blog post. The title brings the reader in but it isn't until after reading the first couple headings when the reader can decide if the post is worth their time or not. Which is possibly why some bloggers tend not to use heading at all. I'm going to lay out what works in some types of posts, and why the opposite may be true in others.
This is what I feel works, what engages me. There is no surefire method of writing great headings but there are definitely some tips you can use to improve interest, and reduce the skim rate.
Picking the Right Tool for the Job
Headings can be great or they can ruin your post and it really depends on the type of post you are writing. The way I look at it, there are five types of blog posts. The amount of headings to write and the way you use them can vary greatly. The five types are:
- Rants and Opinions
- Reviews and Reactions
- Tutorials and How-to’s
- Lists and Roundups
I lump the five types into three different groups.
The first group consists of rants and options, reviews and reactions. These tend to be very freeform, long-winded, long paragraph posts, with the writer’s opinion bringing home the value to the reader.
For these types of posts, you tend to see few if any headings. Why? Headings in this case, can greatly devalue the content. If you give your interesting idea, fact, or snappy punchline away in the heading, why am I going to bother to read the copy that comes after it. I’m not, and I’m going to look for the next heading and see if anything below that is worth my time. If it isn’t, I am moving on.
When you give the reader the ability to identify and break out chunks of your post, you are giving them the option to skip over much of your hard work. And that can really be bad for you and the reader. You may have had another great point to make, but you made it at the end of your second paragraph, and the reader was never going to make it that far after your misuse of a heading right above it.
Heading can still be valuable in these types of posts. Heading break up content, and these posts can be in desperate need of breaks. Posts in this first group tend to be very long and you can lose your readers to fatigue before they reach the end. So the trick is to use headings that encourage the reader to continue reading, yet give nothing away, or word them in a way that requires further examination.
Even rants need to be broken up in some way. If you are writing a post about why you hate Facebook, the worst thing you can do is use your five main points as headings. You just give it all away and the reader didn’t bother to look at any of the paragraphs you wrote.
There are plenty of things to do with your headings, that will encourage reading further. For example, ask a question. “How Secure Is Your Facebook Data”. You can show the reader what the next couple paragraphs are about, yet require them to actually read the content to find your little nuggets of useful information hidden within.
Another great one for these types of posts is to say something totally off the wall or obviously untrue. To use the I Hate Facebook example, “Facebook Killed My Mother and Raped My Father”. Sort of funny,(probably) not true, and it gives you the ability to cool off a little bit, and sneak in some of the boring details you needed to validate your opinion. And it is little oddball headings like these that can bring in your readers who were just skimming the post. Catch your readers off guard, it makes for a better experience for everyone.
Interesting facts are also great for headings because you can spend the following paragraphs explaining them, demonstrating why they are true, or how you came to uncover them. Best part is, you don’t even have to make something up.
A Few No-No’s
Never give the answer to a question in a heading. Never have a heading be the conclusion to the last couple of paragraphs. If I can find the answer by skipping the content and just reading the headings, your readers will do that every time.
This goes more for titles but applies to heading as well. Stop try to be sensational. Don’t use the words “amazing, best, complete, ultimate, mind-blowing, extreme, perfect” unless your post is actually that good. “10 Incredibly Amazing Ways to Clean the Ring Around Your Toilet Bowl That will Blow Your Mind!”, is not a good title unless you can deliver. If my mind is not completely blown, I will be less likely to read or take you seriously next time. Being sensational without backing it up is being the boy who cried wolf. Eventually your readers will ignore you, no matter how hard you try to get their attention.
I’ve seen a lot of blog posts telling people to use sensational titles. Personally, I think they cheapen your message and when you can’t deliver you look bad. Not to mention, savvy readers are onto this technique. I rarely read list posts anymore because I know what the content is going to be, a waste of my time. If someone is using sensational titles I may take a look, but will be much, much, more critical of the quality of the content. It is far better to surprise your readers with a great post than try to live up to the expectations you set with your ridiculous title and headings.
The second type of post contains news, and tutorials and how-to’s. For these types of posts your opinion is largely irrelevant. It is your expert knowledge or timely news that is valuable to the reader. So for these, there is no hiding. Make your content as clear and easy to digest as possible. That means use lots of headings and make them as clear and concise as possible.
Depending on the length of the post you may need to break it up into multiple sets of headings. I tend to know what the larger headings are before beginning to write. I lay those out first, then drop in the point or steps I want to make for each. Every point or step becomes a sub heading and if those need to break down further, they turn into lists.
To be most effective with these types of posts, give the goods away right at the top of the post. If you are writing a tutorial about building a website with HTML5, show the final result right at the top of the page. Right under that, lay out the steps it takes. If you are writing about the latest San Francisco Giant’s trade, say who got traded in the very first heading. Don’t make the reader suffer through your entire article just to find out the information they were looking for isn’t there. If they really wanted to know about the trade they’ll keep reading to get all the details.
There are no tricks or gimmicks with these headings. Keep them short. Say exactly what is in the content below them, because the content is what holds the value. If you do want to improve the way you write headings for these types of posts, focus on the keywords you us. Write them clearly, but use terminology a person searching for your post would use. For example “Andres Torres Traded to the Mets”.
The third type consists of lists and roundups. They get their own category because they follow both sets of rules making them extra hard to write headings for. These types are meant to be light, entertaining or informative. Easy to read and digest. Though, they often can contain links to much more detailed information. Personally, I tend skip over these types of posts but they continue to be popular for some reason. These are really hard posts to write good headings for because you need to make it clear what the topics and points are, yet it can be very hard to get people to read the text in between each heading. Especially because people are aware these are meant to be quick reads skims.
When I read these posts I only read the heading and look at the pictures 99% of the time. You really have to flex the muscle between your ears to get anyone to read more than that.
One option is to make the headings lead-ins, maybe even have the text trail off… so that readers who wish to continue will pick up on the paragraph below.
Since these are light reads anyway perhaps limiting the amount of text is actually the optimal solution. Primarily, fill these posts with photos, quotes, lists and infographics. If you really want to be sneaky and trick your readers into reading, add captions inside the photos.