Using Subheads and Lists to Make Articles Skimmable

Studies show that, on the Web, people don’t actually read content, instead they skim it and read less than half the words, even on short articles. Some of this is due to the greater distractions on the Web but much of it has been true since the age of the newspaper.

While this may seem to be bad news for writers, who have to accept that readers aren’t hanging on every single word, it can actually be used to the advantage of bloggers to help convey information more quickly and effectively.

However, to do this, you have to master two writing techniques that will make your writing instantly more skimmble.

How to Use Subheads Effectively

The first tool is subheads, which are mini-headlines that are sprinkled into the post to separate sections, usually every 200-500 words. They break up the content visually and also provide good SEO value if they are loaded with keywords and use one of the header tags (H1-H6).

Readers, when skimming the article, will often read subheads first and make decisions on if the article is worth reading and all and, if it is, what sections are worth delving deeper into.

So use subheads as you would any other headline, this means making them keyword-rich, usually 5-8 words long and descriptive of the content beneath it, this will make even your shorter works much easier to navigate.

Include Lists to Highlight Key Points

Another powerful tool to make your article instantly skimmable is to include lists. You can use subheads to do this, turning your entire article into a list such as the articles you routinely see on or you can integrate a shorter list using HTML to bring out key points.

Lists have three key advantages.

  1. They Organize Information Well: Humans naturally want information in and ordered fashion and lists provide that.
  2. They Draw Attention: HTML separates lists from the rest of the text, making it stand out and easy to attract attention to key points.
  3. They Build Interest: A well-written list will make readers want to go back and go through the rest of the text to see how the list was compiled. However, for those who don’t read more they still gain some bite-sized information through the list itself.

In short, a list is a great way to introduce the reader to the key points of an article in an appealing fashion and then encourage them to read more.

Writing for the Eye Isn’t Hard

In the end, though writing for the eye might seem to be difficult, it really is not that hard. It’s a matter of formatting text so that it can be quickly understood, at least on a surface level.

Fortunately there are many HTML formatting tricks to help with that and these are just two of the most important ones.

For more tips on this, you may wish to check out the writing techniques preached by advertising legend David Ogilvy as he was using many of these exact same methods over fifty years ago in his ads.

These methods are a major part of why he is widely considered one of the best copywriters and advertising geniuses to have ever lived.

This post was written by Lior who works for an online task management tool start-up from new york and also advises to a breastfeeding wear company.

44 thoughts on “Using Subheads and Lists to Make Articles Skimmable”

  1. Anton Hassan says:

    Good pointers. You’re right people skim rather than read. I tend to do that myself nowadays. Sometimes I wonder if I get any real benefit out of skimming, but then I thought reading at a slow pace is only good when reading novels; people tend to forget on many details after a few days anyway.

    1. d3so says:

      I do the same. I skim a lot of the articles I read but if it’s interesting enough, I go back and read the whole thing

      1. Yeah, skimming the article is the best way to know the article is interesting or not. I will skim the article as much as I want and will start reading properly when I think it is interesting. Furthermore doing this saves time a lot.

        1. Infact … today teachers also teaching their students of reading.

          This one is the best way to save your time.

          1. Vik Tantry says:

            I think skimming is not only the norm but necessary, especially when it comes to educational reading.

            Once you have read the main points of your subject matter and noted them, you are looking for details in an article that are new to you, so you skim over the bits of information you already know.

            I’m not sure about skimming when you are reading for entertainment though. The first paragraph should be well written enough to tell you what to expect from the article and if the writer is any good or not.

            Where as educational reading takes drive to motivate you through your reading, reading for fun is obviously more relaxed so the first paragraph should make me passionately want to read on.

          2. I don’t agree that people only do skimming and don’t read. At least not everybody skims all the time.

            All I have to do is look at those I know and at myself. IfI get captured by the firs paragraph then I often end up reading the whole article.

          3. Abhik says:

            Of course it does!!
            We webmasters are born lazy.. remember?

          4. I always want to get an idea about the article by reading the heading.

            After that I read those headings which are interesting.

  2. Abhik says:

    That’s 100% correct..
    I read the whole article only when that interests me. Otherwise, just the subheads and points.

    1. d3so says:

      I tend to get bored reading long articles and I too resort to quick skimming and focus only on important points and points that are in bold.

      1. Yes that’s why people started to add photos in their blog so that it can make their post more attractive.

        1. On the other hand I don’t always appreciate the format described in the post. It often seems contrived to me.

          Judging by the few posts on my blog in a similar format and their limited success with my readers I’d say that it’s better not to use this style often but rather sparingly.

      2. Abhik says:

        Yes!! That’s how it works for most.

        1. Being creative tends to work better than following strict formulas.

  3. Although I do not believe much in SEO, I never thought sub-headlines can be of use, since I always write every post with sub-headlines.
    Well, is true that sub-headlines can be eye catching, but you need to use intriguing words in it, in order for it to work.
    It’s sort of like writing a sales letter but, in this case you sell your content for the reader’s time.

  4. Adam says:

    Great post John.
    I couldn’t agree with you more about how well visitors like subeads. I think adding subheads every 200 words is the best idea because you need to get the readers attention somehow or they will just click off the page.

    1. Seems you skimmed the post a bit too much, it was not written by John 😉 SY

      1. Good point SY, And I’d add to that a question: If the article doesn’t interest you what is the point in reading the subheads and points?

        1. To find out whether this article have anything interesting or not.

  5. d3so says:

    I find it funny that I also skimmed this article.
    The points thatare bolded basically summarizes what’s being said.

    1. PPC Ian says:

      I agree! That is quite funny. I totally skimmed this article as well!

      1. This kind of proves my point. I have a much better success with longer posts in a different format.

        Changing the format and not just mechanically repeat what someone says works best is the route I like to take.

  6. I not sure if I am doing this right. But if I have a long article, I usually divide it into few parts and make a post for each part. I also linked the part that is connected to each other. And thus makes the reading to be a lot more faster for my user and psychologically this will invite them to read more on the article since it is very short and not time consuming.

  7. Interesting title.

    Connect whole article with each other perfectly so that readers keep moving from start to end.

    Diving whole articles with sub heads always work … this was working when I was in school and writing notes. 🙂

  8. Excellent points, Lior. I am doing the same, not only for blog posts but for everything else what I write / publish online. It is indeed very different to write for an online audience than for an offline / print audience like for example writing a book, SY

    1. Yes interesting title and interesting sub heads are quite important.

      But your titles and sub head should represent whats in your post.

  9. Pangeran says:

    I always use header and sub header when writing article in my blog.

    Sometimes using list helps to shorten the article and also because I’m lazy at the moment.

    But it give information more effectively.

  10. Great write-up, John.

    Another advice I’d recommend keeping in mind is keeping the wording (be it of a point on a list, or a subhead and conclusion) tweetable — preferably 120 characters or under (in case a Twitter user decides to also include your Twitter handle with the point).

    1. Sorry, I should’ve been more attentive, and notice that the post author is really Lior. My apologies.

  11. PPC Ian says:

    This is really helpful. One of my big challenges is I like to write and my posts can get really long sometimes. I have been getting better at this, but it’s something I continue to focus on.

    1. You will get all help about blog at John Chow … just stay tuned.

  12. Rich says:

    Another thing people like are images to break up text and make things more visually appealing

    1. I’d say that that is much better way to break the text than what is suggested in the post. What is in the post is successful quite often but not always. Images work virtually every time as long as they are related to the text.

    2. Yes images play vital role to keep your visitors in your website and this one also reduce your bounce rate.

      1. d3so says:

        Yeah that’s true, images are effective. Videos also keep visitors on your site longer.

      2. Dan Lew says:

        Yeah the power of infographics, love em!

        1. That’s great guys, it doesn’t happen very often at all if ever that we all agree on a point.

  13. Abhik says:

    I follow some simple rules.
    1. Attract your readers by a interesting title.
    2. Be to the point.
    3. Make it easy for your readers by skimming the post
    4. Stuff keywords wisely

  14. Dan Lew says:

    I find this very true for people who are just reading what they want to read, just so they get enough information just for a comment.

  15. Ramona says:

    I am writing long articles and this might make them easier to read. Excellent points.

  16. so true. one of the reasons is that there is so much to read nowadays..

  17. If the article catches a readers eyes, then they may actually read the information the article has to provide, but that is not the normal response. Instead they simply skim things. You just have to learn ways of keeping them focused in on the goal… Your affiliate link, sign up page, etc.

    Good read.

  18. Essays says:

    Visitors just read headings or subheadings, text written within the attractive pictures etc. They don’t have time to read long paragraphs. It is not just with humans, googlebot does the same. It gives high marks for H1 and H2 tags.

  19. Alex Campain says:

    Very True John, I do this all the time especially in this fast pace world, skimming through is what i do myself, when I read i always skim through, that’s why it is better to use video to get your point/product or what ever you want to deliver to your audience, I’m personally going to go more with video since that’s where the future of the internet is going and it’s already starting, video is the way to go because people pay more attention to graphics and video, since the startimg age of the moving pictures in the early 1900’s/ television people have always been more intrigued and fascinated with the moving pictures, Thanks for the Info John Great Job!
    -Alex E. Campain

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