Four Tips for Using Titles and Subtitles to Focus Your Writing

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written out your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” David Ogilvy

My titles tend to be a bit on the clunky side. Between wanting to be clever and wanting to get picked up by SEO engines, I usually flub around until my writing is due, and then I toss out something that fails at both goals.

titleBlog   Clever is not my strong suit. Sadly, search engines are not either. But organization is. Here are four tips for using titles to help organization be your strong suit, too.

Tip #1: Write your title before you start your first draft to help you clarify your core idea.

Last week I wrote about how to use a pyramid to help you organize your writing project—specifically, to ensure that you have only one core idea. As I was putting subheadings into that blog, it occurred to me how often titles help me clarify my core idea, my main points, and my supporting points. Simply put, if I can’t come up with a concise title or subheading, I haven’t figured out what I’m really talking about yet.

Case in point—this blog has had the following titles:

  • How to Use Titles to Improve Your Organization
  • How to Use Titles to Help Organize Your Writing
  • How to Use Titles to Check Your Writing’s Organization
  • Three Ways a Title Can Help You Focus Your Writing
  • How a Title Can Help You Identify Your Core Point

You get the picture. Each of these permutations promised a slightly different development. The title should identify your topic in a way that clues the reader into what you’re writing about—but also what they’ll get out of reading it.

When I’m floundering, I play with the title to help me clarify my thinking. It took me a while to come up with a title for this blog before I began writing, because a title asks, “What are you really going to write about?” It forced me to answer that question, and then the writing was much easier because the core idea had been revealed.

Once you’ve written, a title asks, “What did you really write about?” so I revised mine after finishing the post. Use your titles to set you up for writing and to improve what you have written.

Tip #2: Use your title to test how your writing holds together.

You can also reverse-engineer this process. When you have finished your draft, write a title that captures in one pithy phrase what you have written. Don’t worry about word-smithing it right now, because initially the point isn’t just to title the darn thing and draw in readers. The point is to test what you have written to make sure it has a single idea at its core. Not two, not four, but one.

If you can’t come up with a reasonably short title (say, 10-12 words, maximum, although that’s somewhat arbitrary), then you probably have more than one main idea at work. And as I’ve pointed out in other posts, it’s not the main idea if there’s more than one of the suckers.

If you have a hard time coming up with a focused title that reflects your content, then you need to take a look at what you’ve written. Print it out, and highlight every “main” idea. (Changing from the screen to paper will help you see things more clearly, but you can also do this on your computer.)

Either craft a new title that can contain everything you’ve written, or start pulling things out until you can write a targeted, effective title. Then revise to accommodate your new understanding of your content, filling in the gaps and adjusting transitions that your surgery caused.

Tip #3: Use your subtitles to check your overall organization.

You can also list your subtitles without the text (just the subtitles) to examine the overall skeleton of your writing. You can then easily see if shuffling things around will improve your development. For instance, when I wrote my subtitles for this post, I originally had them in this order:

  • Tip #1: Write a title before you start your first draft to help you clarify your core idea.
  • Tip #2: Use your title to test how your writing holds together.
  • Tip #3: Use your subtitles to check whether each section works.
  • Tip #4: Use your subtitles to check your overall organization.

Do you see the problem here?

Once I saw the subheadings listed without the distraction of the content, I immediately realized that Tip #4 had to move earlier, to become Tip #3. Logically, “overall organization” should come before a more detailed idea (“checking each section”) because it’s a “larger” idea (higher up in the hierarchy of ideas).

I also noticed that my capping was inconsistent among the subtitles, so that was a proofing bonus.

Tip #4: Use Your Subtitles to Check Whether Each Section Works.

In the same way that you can use your title to test whether you’ve got an effective core idea, you can use subtitles to check how well each section is organized.

I typically put in subtitles as I’m revising, and that helps verify that each section has its own single idea at its core (that relates to the main idea, of course). As with the title, if you can’t craft a subtitle for a section that covers what you’ve written, you have a problem. It might be that you need to divide the section into additional sections. It might be that you have a jumble of ideas that didn’t gel. Whatever the problem, your subtitle can clue you in that you have one.

In the case of this post, I originally had lumped Tips #3 and #4 into one section, but trying to write a subtitle that could contain both of them made me realize that I actually had two sections, not one.

You can write your subtitles before you start your first draft, and this will help keep your writing focused within the sections. If you work this way, then it’s still a good idea to check the sections against the subheading when you are making revisions. Sometimes we start with one idea but end up with another during the draft.

Often I mix and match my techniques—I might write for a bit, add in subheadings to check how the piece is shaping up, and then write subheadings for the material yet to come. Then I go back and true up the subheadings and content, as needed.

In other words, titling is a sneaky form of outlining. But it’s more fun and sometimes easier than writing out a full outline. It’s an effective way to check your intention against your actual content, as well as how well your structure supports your intention.

When you wrap up your project, take one last look at the title for the whole thing to see if you can’t grab readers’ attention without misleading them about the content. When in doubt, choose accurate over clever.

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Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #33 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll wrap up this series on organization with a checklist for the steps you need to start from a solid foundation.

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course:

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Want to learn how to make online courses that teach outstanding content well? Sign up for your free copy of “12 Steps to Killer Course Content” and weekly tips, click here.

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