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.

Build a Pyramid to Make Sure You Have Only One Main Idea

Every trail has its end, and every calamity brings its lesson.” James Fenimore Cooper 

When I was in grad school, I wrote a paper on James Fenimore Cooper. My original idea was to talk about the humor in his books. This was, admittedly, rather an obscure idea and one hard to defend. But I thought I could do it. I wrote my thesis statement and set about building my argument from his major works.

Deerslayer_Cooper   As I pulled my argument together, I began to see threads of another argument that I thought I could blend into the first to provide stronger support. Instead, I soon found the paper extending from seven pages to fourteen to twenty, and yet I couldn’t wrap it up. I brought it to a hasty conclusion in the wee hours of the due date, and it was still a mess. Why? Because I had two main ideas instead of one, and if you’re familiar with the meaning of the word main, you’ll realize that I had a conundrum on my hands.

When is a main idea not a main idea? When you’ve got two of them.

It was a Sisyphean task, and quite possibly the worst paper I’ve ever written. In the years hence I’ve worked with many a subject matter expert whose online courses also suffered from competing “main” ideas.

How to tease out the single, most compelling, core idea for an entire course, book, report, blog, etc. has to be one of the most difficult tasks we face when we write.

So let me be straight with you here. My one core idea for this blog is to teach you how to use a pyramid diagram to sort out your one main idea for whatever you write.

How to Use a Pyramid Diagram to Verify Your Main Idea

You can work your pyramid from the top block down or from the bottom row up. Either way, your goal is twofold. First, to make sure that everything beneath the top block supports it; second, that the top block is truly above (not equal to) any of the blocks supporting it. And that means, by default, that you can’t have two “top” blocks.

Okay, roll up your sleeves and let’s get started. We’ll use my rotten literature paper as our playground.

Starting from the Top of the Pyramid

Let’s start from the top, with the statement of core intent. Ask yourself:

  • What’s the subject of this writing project?
  • What question am I answering about the subject?
  • What’s the answer?

Answer the questions. In the case of James Fenimore Cooper, the answers could have looked like this:

  • What’s the subject of this writing?
    • The subject is Cooper’s novels. (You can see how that answer alone is way too broad to be manageable. That’s why we have to dig deeper.)
  • What question am I answering about the subject?
    • Does Cooper demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor, and if so, how and to what end?
  • What’s the answer?
    • Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to…

And here is where it gets sticky. You’ve got to get that why into this statement, and it could be several things:

  • Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to add color and humanity to his stories.
  • Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to lighten up his otherwise heavy moral message.
  • Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to help tag the nature of his characters.
  • Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters, and examining these character descriptions will help us appreciate Cooper’s writing style.

Notice that all the statements will require proof that Cooper has a sense of humor. The first three require proof that the sense of humor does specific work in the novels. The fourth one requires proof that Cooper’s writing style is better than we might think because of his sense of humor, and it narrows the focus to character descriptions—whereas the first three could also include narrative passages and descriptions of the setting. Note, too, that the second one will require developing a position on Cooper’s “heavy moral message.”

The point of all that noticing is that there’s stuff to talk about in all four, signaling that each one is “big” enough to work as the main idea.

PyramidDiagram   All four statements can sit at the top of a pyramid, and you could even combine them in a single statement that would likely need a much longer development. But once you settle on the main idea, the supporting blocks below must develop only that one proposition. You can’t go mucking about in Cooper’s heavy moral tone, for instance, if you’ve decided to focus on how humor helps humanize the characters.

Ask “Why” to Build Your Major Points

As you move to the first row of major points, you’re again asking, “Why?” For instance:

  • Why do you say that he has a sense of humor?
  • Why will examining his sense of humor help me appreciate Cooper’s writing?

And so forth. You fill in that second row with these questions, and if you’ve got sufficient material, you should be able to ask at least two or three major questions. If you find that you have more than three major questions, you need to consider whether your one main point needs to be narrowed or how long your content will need to be to address all your major questions.

A longer work, such as a book or a 60-lecture course, will obviously address more than a few major questions and have a broad enough core idea to develop through such length. On the other hand, if you find that you don’t have at least two major questions, you need to broaden your one main point.

Ask “How” and Answer “Because” to Build Your Subpoints

The next tiers, down to the bottom tiers, answer “how” your statement at the top and your major points come to be true. Put another way, you might start every lower tier with “Because…” Those statements would go in the blocks on each level, with more blocks in turn supporting them as you unpacked them.

Effective Structure Is Both Vertical and Horizontal

But the pyramid isn’t just vertical—representing the connections between points and subpoints. It’s also horizontal, representing the ways that the subpoints work together to hold up the larger points and the main point.

All the ideas below the main point at the very top will always have both a vertical and a horizontal relationship to the other ideas in the material. Any idea that doesn’t, either doesn’t belong or is in competition with the main point.

How to Test Your Main Point and Supporting Points

As you add your supporting tiers, then, you can continually test the efficacy of your main point and your supporting points (both points and subpoints) by checking them against one another. How do you do that? Ask questions such as these:

  • Does this point help explain “why” and “how” for the main point, or does this point bring in a different idea that is unrelated to the main point?
  • Does this subpoint help explain “how” for the point or bring in a new idea that is different than the point and steers away from the main point?
  • Does this subpoint say the same thing as another subpoint?
  • Is another main idea emerging? If so, what is it? Is it stronger (i.e., more supportable) than the main idea I have?
  • Thinking about this visually, are you building too far out in one direction or another to create a solid pyramid? If you throw your points on sticky notes and physically lay this out on a wall or table, you will see clearly how it’s developing and whether you need to make some changes.

Use Deductive or Inductive Reasoning to Build Your Pyramid

In the example above, we started from the top of the pyramid and worked our way down to build tiers of our points and subpoints. This is the route of deductive reasoning (start with a thesis statement and provide supportive facts and examples).

But we could have built our pyramid with inductive reasoning by starting with that bottom row, listing all our examples. Then we could have examined them to see what they led us to conclude; those conclusions would build the next row up, and so forth, until we got to one final conclusion. That final conclusion would be the block on top of the pyramid.

Whether you build your pyramid from the top down or bottom up (and likely you’ll go back and forth, deductively and inductively), paying attention to the overall shape as well as each level will help you verify that only one main idea is truly capping off the whole affair.

If you build your pyramid before you start writing, and then revise your main idea according to your findings, you will have a much easier time writing because everything you write will have already been verified as belonging to your structure.

In my paper on Cooper’s humor, I didn’t have a strong enough base to support my thesis, so I kept broadening the base to have enough to write about. I failed to recognize (in time, anyway), that I had two competing capstones and needed to rewrite the main point. The tiers of the pyramid revealed this to be the case, however, and if I had been drawing out my organizational structure, I probably would have ended up with something that looked more like a lopsided steamship with two big chimneys.

steamship   So get out your Lego blocks and build a structure around one main idea. That would be a pyramid, not a steamship.

Did you enjoy this post? Please share it! Share on LinkedIn. Share on Twitter.

Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #32 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll talk about the role of titles in developing an online course.

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.

Recording Your Online Course without Losing Your Mind: What to Do When Things Go Wrong

I would like to see anyone, prophet, king or God, convince a thousand cats to do the same thing at the same time.” Neil Gaiman

Recording video—whether it’s for an online course or a simple promo—can be exhilarating. Or it can give you ulcers.

Cats crowded together.   Ideally, whether you are a crew of one or a crew of ten, you’re a practiced, smooth-running machine. More often, however, the recording session is akin to herding cats. Lots of random energy and too much thinking outside the box. The litter box.

Here are some of the things I’ve seen go awry in the studio and some ways to avoid or fix them. Doing a practice run will reveal most of them so you can solve them ahead of time.

The Top 9 Attributes of a Great Teacher

I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” Robert Frost

Who was the first teacher to make you like a subject you really weren’t that interested in before or didn’t think you could understand?

Frog in a jar during Biology_Class  Mine was Mrs. Putnam, my ninth grade biology teacher. I was convinced that I hated science and that I wasn’t any good at it. I was wrong on both counts, but it took Mrs. Putnam to help me see through my biases. How did she do it? Through the #9 attribute of a great teacher. But let’s work our way up to that.

If You’re a Great Teacher…

11 Business Books that Have Stirred Up My Thinking

The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.” Maya Angelou

Bulldozer plowing down middle of road.  For the last year I’ve been reading business books to shake up my understanding of:

  1. What a successful business is these days,
  2. How you run a successful business these days, and
  3. How you market a successful business these days.

In the process, I ended up rethinking what I want out of life as well as business and have changed nearly everything I was doing as a result.

Reverse Outlining: How to Save Your Butt when You’ve Screwed Up Your Content

A man of words and not of deeds/Is like a garden full of weeds.” Benjamin Franklin

Have you ever seen an overgrown garden? It’s a sad thing. You can sort of see the shapes of the beautiful peonies, coral bells, and unrecognizable maybe-flowers beneath the tangle of dockweed, pokeweed, and random weeds that have eradicated the shape and lines of the bed.

weedyGarden  To recover it, you have to weed ever so carefully. Your instinct is to save every plant and get back to the original design as best you can. You must first identify the good plants and then pull away everything around each one. Gradually, the shape and structure of the garden will emerge.

Then plants will need to be moved. Some will have grown too pathetic and will have to be dug out and replaced. Perhaps some need more water, others less, and they’ll have to be regrouped.

Today’s metaphor is about what happens when you’ve written like a maniac and then sat back to discover that you’ve got a mess on your hands. You’ve got words that don’t hang together, that have buried its best points, and that have no sense of pattern or shape.

Reduce Rework: 9 Tips for Editing Onscreen Text

So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” —Dr. Seuss

The first time I worked on an online course that had multiple video editors, I knew by the second lesson I reviewed that we were in trouble. We were on a ludicrously tight timeline, and so everyone was pitching in.

Slide1 Using his or her individual style.

Making his or her individual mistakes.

This meant that some bulleted lists used diamonds, while others used dots. Key words might be underlined in one lesson and bolded or capped in another. When I saw that some text was pink, some green, and some black, I knew that we’d gone too long without a style sheet.

Why is a style sheet so important? Four reasons:

Making Effective Online Courses with PowerPoint and Voiceover

There are three things to remember when teaching: know your stuff; know whom you are stuffing; and then stuff them elegantly.” Lola May

onlinecoursetemplates   In the last year, I’ve taken what feels like umpteen billion online courses. The main reason it feels that way is because most of them have been terrible. There’s a belief circulating that anyone can teach an online course, and the main reason to teach one is to make a bundle of money.


I want teachers to make a lot of money, I really do. They deserve to be paid well for what has to be one of the most important jobs on the planet. But to jump on a zebra racing to the bank is not the same thing as deciding to teach a course because you care passionately about the subject, the student, and whether the two get along.

This week, I want to take a look at how to make online courses using PowerPoint and voiceover, without boring your audience into a coma.

Two Writing Tips for Effective Organization

I pulled out box after box, setting them haphazardly around the room. My organization lacked something — like, say, organization… .”

―Richelle Mead

Have you ever moved? Of course you have. You remember what it feels like to be overwhelmed by boxes and crates crowding every room, so jammed together that you can hardly wend your way from door to door.

movingboxes   I’m in the middle of that right now, having finally dragged all my junk from one side of the country to the other. I can hardly bear the disorder. I can’t find anything. I can’t clean properly. I can’t think.

In many ways, everything you ever write is like having a house packed with boxes of ideas. You know you’ve got all the essential points—somewhere. But they’re hidden in the cardboard of your brain and need to be organized. (Shudder.)

Organization is the framework underlying your writing, the backbone that determines the order and shape of your points, and the way the whole is held together.

How-To Basics of Video and Green Screen Editing for Online Courses

Editing feels almost like sculpting or a form of continuing the writing process.” ~Sydney Pollack

I recently asked Alison Michel, a Sr. Producer at National Geographic, for her best tips for green screen postproduction. She said her best advice was to hire a good editor. We both laughed at that. It’s a logical reply, especially if you’re working on a long or complicated project.

cutting-room-floor   On the other hand, if you only have a few green screen sequences and straightforward shooting otherwise, it’s worth doing the editing yourself. (Especially if you don’t have the money for a video editor—but if you do, hire one—they’re worth every penny!)

Today’s column is for those trying to tackle editing their own video and green screen. I’ll walk you through the basics and provide some professional tips to make the process of editing green screen easier.