Strategy for headlines and subheads

Even though they make up a small percent of your overall copy, headlines and subheads are the most important real estate on the page. Get them right and you’ve won 75% of the writing game.

That’s because most readers merely scan the big copy first before deciding if they want to read on or skip the communication. If the few pieces of big copy don’t draw readers in, then there’s no chance they’ll read the little copy. You only get about one second to grab a reader’s attention and draw him in before he tosses the communication aside.

BLOT it! That means put your Bottom Line On Top.
If your readers only remember (or notice) one thing as a result of your communication, what should it be? That one point should be the first thing they read. It should be the largest copy on the document.

The largest copy is your headline. In an email, that’s your subject line. Give them the bottom line right in this top line.

For example, don’t start your customer letter off with, “Important Information about your account.” It’s not meaningful and does nothing to lure the reader in. Everything says “Important” these days. Your reader might roll his eyes, assume it’s another privacy disclosure, and toss it in the recycle bin — unopened.
Instead, tell him what’s so important. “Your payment is past due.”

“We’ve changed our payment terms.” Or “Here’s your new appointment date.”

Answer the reader’s question, “What’s In It For Me?”
This is especially important for sales and marketing pieces. We call them “WIIFM” statements. To craft a good WIIFM statement, you need to understand what motivates your audience. Remember, he’s asking, “What’s in it for ME?” not “What’s in it for YOU?”

Let’s say your client’s company is launching a new drill and they hire you to craft an ad. Your reader probably didn’t wake up this morning thinking, “I don’t have a drill. I think I’ll go buy one.” No, his wife has been nagging him to fix something and he needs a drill to do so. He doesn’t want to spend his weekend on this project. His friends are coming over and he wants to get ready for the big game.

He opens the paper and sees your headline about a fantastic new drill that comes in five amazing speeds and eight gorgeous colors. Then he turns the page and sees a competitor’s headline that says, “Precision Drills — Finish the job in half the time.” Bingo! Guess which drill he’s going to buy. HIS bottom line must be YOUR top line.

Summarize each new thought into subheads.
Remember, readers will skim the document. That means they’re reading the headers and subheads, but not necessarily the copy under it. Every time you add a new thought or concept, insert a new subhead to summarize what’s under it. Don’t worry if you have too many. Each new concept deserves a subhead.

I draft the document first before I attempt to write headlines and subheads. The process of drafting the subheads (or mini summaries) helps me to edit the overall document. I can now see how to improve the flow of content, and where I’ve inserted too much information or gone off on an unnecessary tangent.

Construct your subheads like this:

  • Use as few words as possible.
  • Put the most important (key) words as close to the front as possible.
  • Make them read like complete sentences.
  • Begin with a verb if you want the reader to perform an action.

Here’s a quick trick that I discovered after years of editing what other people wrote. The first sentence of the paragraph often makes a great subhead. Writers tend to say what they’re about to say anyway. Just pull it out, edit as needed and bold it. Do NOT repeat it in the body copy.

Make subheads flow like a complete story.
Your subheads need to serve two purposes:

  1. They should summarize the bottom line of that particular paragraph.
  2. They must work together to summarize the document as a whole.

If you delete all the “details” and leave only your subheads, they should flow as one continuous story or list of bullet points because that’s how most people will read them.

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Corporate freelancing defined

I always drive in the left lane — or as many people call it, the “fast” lane. That’s because the right lane is full of trucks that spew rocks at your windshield, disabled vehicles, nervous nellies, on ramps and off-ramps, and other dangers and pitfalls that can slow a driver down. I don’t get in the left lane for the purpose of being faster than everyone else. Fast is merely a side effect of not having to deal with all the drama that goes on in the right lane.

The same is true with freelance writing. With some types of freelancing, writers spend too much time shopping for their next writing gig and collecting overdue payments.

When you’re a corporate freelancer, clients come to you daily — without marketing — and pay you by direct deposit on the exact date as agreed. You’ll spend more time writing and earning, and less time on non-billable housekeeping chores.

Getting in the fast lane, however, depends on the kind of vehicle you’re driving. Or in this case, the kind of freelance writing business you start.

Corporate writing is not to be confused with technical writing, copy writing or business writing.

  • Technical writers write technical copy, such as user manuals and white papers. They’re usually written to a technical audience, not the general public. But many writers use the term a bit more loosely than that. Some people think of themselves as technical writers when they are, in fact, business writers.
  • Copy writers are often hired hands in marketing communications departments or ad agencies, but many are freelancers. These people write copy for sales letters and marketing collateral, such as product brochures. Here again, the term is often used loosely. For example, if you’re writing copy — any copy — you may think of yourself as a copy writer. But, to avoid confusion, let’s think of this category as sales and marketing writers.
  • Business writers write for businesses. Many business writers call themselves technical writers because they think businesses only write technical things. Although a technical writer does write for businesses, not all business writing is technical. Nor is all business writing about marketing. However, in the small business world, that’s what business writing usually tends to be — copy writing (marketing), technical writing, and blogging or web content. That’s because small businesses don’t have a budget to write anything that can’t produce revenues.

Corporate writing is different —from the types of clients and the way you get them, to the type of work you’ll do, to the amount and the way you get paid.

Corporate freelancers have mega corporations for clients — that’s Fortune 500 and other household-name companies. Business writers usually serve smaller, often local clients.

  • You only need one or two mega corporations to sustain a full-time freelance business. In fact, if you cultivate it well, a single mega corporation can keep you busy forty hours a week or more.
  • The process of getting a mega corporate client does not involve marketing the way you know it. And, once you’ve landed a mega client, you’re all set. Repeat business comes to you automatically, which means, no more marketing at all!
  • You may never meet corporate clients face to face. All work is received and delivered through email and can be from and to anywhere in the world. Your business is completely portable, even if you choose to move across country. And you’ll never need to wear a power suit.
  • As a business writer, you may be a topical generalist, but you’ll likely specialize in a particular medium –— such as copy writing or blogging. As a corporate writer, you’re the opposite — a medium generalist within a niche industry. You may be writing a marketing brochure one day, a video script the next and a customer letter the day after that. But you’ll always write within a specific industry.
  • You’ll earn more as a corporate writer. One large project can set you up for the year, as opposed to the nickels and dimes you’ll get from smaller businesses.
  • Big companies have procurement departments and purchase orders. They pay by direct deposit on a predetermined date. Small businesses write checks or worse, use credit cards or PayPal for which you might get stuck paying fees. You also sometimes have to pry that payment out of reluctant hands.

The biggest difference is that you have to build up to become a full-time business writer. Many never get to that point. As a corporate freelancer, on the other hand, you can be full time right from Day 1 of your freelance career.

A day in the life of a corporate freelancer
It’s a lot being a work-at-home employee of a mega corporation. I spend one day a month assembling and processing invoices. The rest of the month, my typical day looks like this:

  • Roll out of bed, grab some tea and start up my laptop
  • Check calendar to see what’s due today and unread email to see what’s coming in
  • Prioritize my work for the day
  • Start working
  • Break for lunch
  • Continue working
  • At 4:55 p.m. get dressed so my husband doesn’t think I spent the whole day in my pajamas

Jeanette Juryea gives tips on corporate freelance writing.