Note from Julia: Ed, our Senior Editor, assisted me in rewriting our 15+ page Web Writing Guidelines for our team of 60 writers this week. One change we just implemented was teaching all our writers how to use Word’s Style menu to auto-format H2s and H3s. All of our blog content will now include this. I asked him Ed to write a post detailing why we did this change, and he kindly obliged.
Let’s face it:
People don’t read any more.
Especially online (or, more accurately, on-screen, when you consider ubiquitous the use of smart phones and mobile tablets have become), where such factors as screen size, resolution, visual cues as to page length, and eye strain play a part in our ability to focus deeply on the written word.
So what do people do online if they’re not reading?
They scan – or skim, glance, browse, graze…whatever you want to call it, it’s not the same as pure reading.
That’s why formatting for the web is so important. Everything from eye-catching headlines, to smaller-than-usual paragraphs, to bulleted or numbered lists plays a part in making an article, story, column post – any piece of content that’s predominantly text – more appealing to people.
And headings – more accurately, subheadings – are a big part of that.
What is a Subheading, Anyway?
According to the dictionary definition (thanks, Merriam-Webster), a subheading is:
“an additional headline or title that comes immediately after the main headline or title,” as well as a “title given to one of the parts or divisions of a piece of writing.”
It’s this latter definition that we’re focusing on.
Put another way, it’s the bold, stand-out text just above the preceding paragraph that says “What is a subheading anyway?”
Subheadings help break up large blocks of text. They can also break down a longer piece of writing into different parts or sections, serving almost the same role in an article that a chapter does in a book. Which, in turn, can help convince potential readers to keep reading…
For instance, what looks better to you in the example below:
It’s obvious which looks better, right?
Why Else are Subheadings Important?
Subheadings break up articles into different sections, which allows for easier scanning of the sections of an article. And it’s a lot easier on the eyes than large, uninterrupted blocks of text – especially when reading on a screen. All of that’s well and good, but there’s a more important reason to use subheadings in your articles and blog posts: Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
Search engines – we’re looking at you, Google (with some side-eye at Bing) – respond to subheadings because not only does it divide content into scannable blocks of copy, it also clues in the search engine as to the relevancy of the article, page, and section.
Only if you’re writing and using them correctly, of course (hint: they should contain your keywords and/or variations of those keywords).
Put another way, an H2 heading is a way of telling Google “pay attention, this is important.”
How Many to Use?
Most articles – and all blog posts – should have a subheading (H2) after the introductory paragraph(s).
They should also have a closing subheading before the final paragraph(s).
And they should use a subheading before numbered or bulleted lists (with some copy between the subheading and the list).
Additionally, numbered lists should NOT be auto-formatted as numbered lists by Word (more on turning Word’s auto-formatting feature off below). Instead, each numbered item should be its own subheading – but in this instance you should use an H3 heading.
Essentially, it will look like this:
H1: Headline of the Blog Post
Paragraph text (1-3 paragraphs, depending)
H2: Subheading for first major section
Paragraph text (1-3 paragraphs, depending)
H2: Subheading for second major section
H3: Sub-subheading for the first item in a numbered list, if applicable
Paragraph text for the first numbered item
H3: Sub-subheading for the second item in a numbered list, if applicable
Paragraph text for the second numbered item
H2: Subheading for conclusion
Paragraph text (usually 1 paragraph)
Longer is usually better for subheadings: they should be at least 6 words long. Don’t forget to use your keywords and keyword variants (synonyms, etc.)!
How to Tag a Heading as H2, H3
We recommend using Microsoft Word’s built-in “Style” menu for subheading text that you want to format as Heading 2 (H2) and Heading 3 (H3). The Quick Style Gallery is prominently displayed at the top of most modern versions of Word:
We began using Word to format our H2 and H3 subheadings for blog posts in part because it streamlines the physical blog posting process. Believe me, we’re well aware that there was a time that posting into WordPress from Word generated a lot of invisible code that was not only unnecessary, and that added to the “weight” (and hence the load time) of a page, but would sometimes even break how a browser rendered a web page.
In short, pasting from Word used to be considered a big no-no.
For H2 and H3 subheadings at least, that’s not the case anymore – believe me, before we began doing it this way because it was easier and saved time, we verified in a number of our client’s WordPress and other CMS installations that the code pasted from Word generated proper, ready-to-go H2, H3 headings, and not strings of gobbledygook formatting code…without having to use WordPress’ clunky pulldown menu:
What About all that Messy HTML Code Word Produces that I Keep Hearing About?
It’s true that if your Word document contains a lot of heavy formatting – such as tables, multi-column lists, custom style changes – it most likely will not be reproduced when pasting into the WordPress (or other web-based CMS) visual editor.
There are other variables that will affect how documents will look once pasted into WordPress, such as the version of either Word or WordPress you happen to be running. Suffice it to say that with older versions of either software, all bets are off.
But simple, straightforward articles composed in most modern versions of MS Word, and pasted into most up-to-date installations of WordPress, the results should be just fine.
Our New Blog Writing Standard: Implementing the Word Titles
One change we just implemented was making a standard rule for all of our writers to now use Word’s Style menu to auto-format H2s and H3s. It looks like this, in Word:
So when you receive your next blog, this header in your finished document (which Word automatically colors to a light blue), it will automatically translate to an H2 when copied to your WordPress blog or page, like so:
How cool is that?
It will save our clients a lot of time – ready-to-go, optimized H2s and H3s once you plug in your blog! All of our blog orders will now include this formatting, by default.
Saving Time = Saving Money
And if you happen to be managing a large volume of blog posts, the time savings from being able to paste from Word and NOT have to go back and manually reformat the blog post in WordPress – especially the crucial H2 and H3 headers – can be significant.
Take it from us: in addition to writing tons of blog posts for clients, we also manage the physical blog posting into WordPress and other popular CMS posting for many of our clients! See our blog plans here.