Headings and subheadings in your book are a fantastic way to help the reader. ”Chunking” information like this makes the book easier to scan, so busy readers find the bit they need fast. It makes your key points easier to remember – each one is clearly signalled. It also breaks up the page for visual learners, who remember what pages look like. Brilliant headings do what they say on the tin, are brief and bold, are positive, paint pictures, and for true sparkle have a touch of poetry.
Does what it says on the tin
The golden rule: your heading explains instantly and clearly what’s in that section. Whatever other brilliant and clever things you do, always stick to the golden rule. This is equally true for chapter titles, titles of ebooks (especially short how-to ebooks) and blog posts.
Brief and bold
Keep it short: 5 words maximum, unless you’re using a familiar phrase (like “Does what it says on the tin”!) Keep the words short, too: look for the simplest word you can. Long Latinate words are harder to understand – say help not assistance, needs not requirements, ask not enquire. (We’ll have another whole blog post on that subject soon!) The easiest way to keep it brief is to make it bold: speak directly to the reader. Tell them what you mean. Those are both commands – but they don’t feel bossy. Don’t be afraid to tell the reader what to do in the headings: “Buy a diary”, “Plan your marketing week”, “Write brilliant headings”. All those headings also use strong, active verbs: buy, plan, write. Weak verbs are be, have, use, get… They don’t mean much. That’s why this heading is “Brief and bold” not “Be brief and bold” (weak verb) or “Write brief and bold headings” (too many words). Remember the story about Fresh Fish Sold Here Today: delete unnecessary words!
The headings spring out of the page – what effect will they have on your reader? Imagine a string of negative words: Anger, Disappointment, Frustration, Aggression… It’s depressing and I recoil. You might choose those if you’re writing a book on accepting negative emotions – and expecting the reader’s relief at acknowledging their true feelings. 90% of the time, though, look for the positive: what to do, not what not to do. Those emotions are negative words. Also avoid negative grammar, not, no, etc: ”not what not to do” is just confusing. Look for the positive word: not fast = slow, not confusing = clear, simple, etc. If you’re struggling for the word, try my amazing incredible links: half a dozen awesome word sites for the word on the tip of your tongue.
Concrete images are more memorable: go for things we can touch, see, and hear. “Paint pictures” does that; so does “Does what it says on the tin”. These images rarely come from furrowing your brow, head bent over paper. They come from the bouncy bit of your mind leapfrogging around ideas – on your coffee break, when you go to the loo, halfway down the stairs, walking home. Most people call this “right-brain thinking”, but actually it’s the much-maligned left brain that skips through language to make that logical leap for you. So don’t hammer away at it – wander to the window and munch an oatcake thoughtfully. Work fast and playfully. And remember the golden rule: it must still do what it says on the tin!
An extra splash of colour and word play makes headings even sharper and more memorable. Throw in puns – but avoid the groaners! Quote proverbs – we only ever need the first half. (Half a loaf…) Find some apt idioms. (Look for one that fits like a glove – my amazing incredible links also link to two idiom sites.) Avoid cliches like the plague, though: no blue-skies thinking and no thinking inside or outside boxes. Rhymes can be over the top (I’m a poet and I know it) but assonance, just repeating the vowel sound, sings (sweet dreams). Alliteration is lovely, lightly echoing a consonant: Brief and Bold. But don’t overdo it or structure around it: the 7 Ps, 11 Ms, and 29 Rs are the tacky stuff of the 80s. And don’t use a rubbish word just to get the alliteration: the reader can see you stretching, and winces. I could have gone for 5 Ps in this blog: Precise, Pithy, Positive, Paint Pictures, Poet’s Corner… but what’s the Point? And “Precise” is a stretch – I had to reach for the thesaurus and it’s still not a good match. Remember the golden rule: it does what it says on the tin!
A few final proofreadery pointers on brilliant headings. First, be consistent – within reason. Speak like a human and Avoiding Latinate words are inconsistent: I’d delete the ing from Avoid
ing and then they’re both commands. But I’m happy to switch between commands (Paint pictures), adjectives (Positive), and phrases (Does what it says on the tin) to find the best match between heading and content. Second, use sentence capitals: one capital at the start and the rest lower case. It’s just easier to read.
Your next step – pull out your work in progress and have another look at your headings and subheadings. Which ones do you want to tweak and fidget about with? Take them out for a coffee and have a play!