Subheds in the main text give readers clues about where to jump in
Beyond a clear, informative, and clever HED, DEK, and LEDE, another service you can provide to readers is to write subheadings that indicate what each section is about. Subheads allow readers to skim the article for parts that are most important to them (it is all about the reader).
Because people do not always begin reading at the top of an article and finish at the bottom, and because some readers will skip parts of an article that others will read first, articles should be easy to navigate. Subheads are like road signs on the information superhighway. And if your readers read anything like I drive, those road signs had better be clear.
Good subheads can begin the information delivery process one step earlier
Subheads can be either labels or sentences. Sentences are more interesting and informative than labels are. They are also harder to write. Labels list the elements of an article, sentences can summarize information or set the context. Labels are often vestiges of the outline; sentences are an upgrade of that.
Consider if the subheads that I wrote above were labels instead of sentences. Sentences deliver the bottom line up front.
What they do
Beyond a clear, informative, and clever HED, DEK, and LEDE, another service you can provide to readers are subheadings that indicate what each section is about. This allows readers to skim through the article for the parts that are most important to them…
What they say
Subheads can be labels or sentences, sentences are usually more interesting and informative than labels are. Labels list the elements of an article, sentences can set the context. Subheads can begin the info delivery process one step earlier than a label can…
Labels delay the information delivery process. By lowering the level at which information is delivered, you waste the readers time. Some labels are so cryptic that the reader must read the text in order to know what the subhead means. That is backwards.
Subheads work with the other elements on the page
Subheads usually begin as bullet points from an outline. Those bullet points make great placeholders, but don’t be satisfied with them. After writing the section, play around with what the subhead might say. Look at the subhead in the context of the other entry points on the page or spread: Hed, dek, photos, captions, illustration, headlines for illustrations/photo panels, sidebars, etc.
Subheads shouldn’t repeat what is already stated on the page; rather, they should do a job that the other elements aren’t doing. For articles with intricate layouts, the final subheads may not be written until the layout is finalized.
Subheads on opening spreads can dare readers to dive in
One of my favorite examples of a great subhead is on the lead spread of a Fine Homebuilding article, Framing Big Gable Walls Safely and Efficiently. The article is aimed at professional house framers and remodelers.To build these complicated pentagon-shaped walls, framers usually draw a full-scale model on the subfloor.
Builders usually snap chalk lines on the subfloor to represent every stud as well as the top and bottom plates. It is a time-consuming process, but careful framers do it because these walls are important.
The subbed on the opening page could say A simple layout process. But that would be the easy way out. It could get a little bit better by saying Snap lines on the subfloor or Draw a full-scale model. Both of these are better than a label. But this subhead is on an opening spread, positioned to deliver critical information to potential readers. Instead, of taking the easy way out, or the slightly better way out, this subhead throws everything that is sacred to framers into their faces with the declarative Don’t snap lines for every stud, snap one line at the bottom.
If you are not a framer, this idea probably does not blow your mind, but it blew the mind of every framer who read it when this article was published.
This subhead goes beyond informing the reader. It goes beyond inviting the reader. It even goes beyond daring the reader to dive it. This subhead forces a deeper dive.
And that is a damned good service to readers.