When we think of written content, we think about what is there: the copy itself.
But what’s not there in your content—in other words, the white space that breaks it up—also has a huge impact on meaning, readability, SEO, and results.
Here are a journalist’s best practices for creating just the right breaks in your blog posts, articles, case studies, and white papers.
How to Use Space in Your Content
Want a quick overview of how to break up the copy on your content? Here you go:
- Vary your paragraphs. Alternate long and short paragraphs to keep interest high.
- Weave in quotes. Avoid running a quote on its own line, which is old-timey newspaper style.
- Use lists…just don’t end with them. Ending a section, chapter, or piece of content with a list items leaves your reader hanging.
- Don’t waste your subheads. Be sure that your subheads are consistent, they include SEO keywords, and they include enough detail to let a busy reader skim.
Now let’s dive into the details.
1. Vary Your Paragraphs
If your content consists 100% of long, winding paragraphs, readers will get overwhelmed just looking at it and move on. And if you rely on teeny, tiny paragraphs throughout, your content will look like that dreaded “LinkedIn poetry”—you know, that thing where posters use a series of one-sentence paragraphs in an attempt to make their content look insightful.
Both long and short paragraphs work well to convey different types of information and emotion—the key is to vary the lengths to keep things interesting. So, for example, you might have two medium-sized grafs followed by a one-liner, and then a longer paragraph. (Graf is journalism-speak for paragraph.)
2. Weave in Quotes
I see a lot of content creators separate source quotes out into their own grafs; for example, they’ll have one long graf, then a quote all on its own. This is a holdover from newspaper journalism, and it makes your content look—well, old-timey. Sure, put an amazing quote on its own line for impact, but otherwise try to weave quotes into the preceding or following graf.
3. Use Lists…Just Don’t End with Them
Bulleted or numbered lists give the eye something to grab on to as the reader skims a page, and the white space around lists help break up the text
But there’s a caveat: I’ve written a handful of Idiot’s Guides and Dummies books, and one important rule in their writer guidelines is to never end a section or a chapter with a list. When you end a section (or an entire piece of content) with a list item, you leave the reader hanging. It just feels like there should be something else there to wrap it all up.
So be sure to at least add a sentence or two at the end of the list before moving on to the next section, or before wrapping up your piece of content. A good trick is to take a bit of copy from the graf before the list and move it down to the end—which is what I do in the “Keep SEO in mind…But not too much in mind” section below.
4. Don’t Waste Your Subheads
Subheads are an important way to break up content so it’s easier to read; after all, no one wants to beat their brains against a solid wall of text
Many content creators understand the value of having subheads, but then waste this valuable real estate by writing basic, throwaway ones. Here’s how to get the most out of your subheads.
Support the skimming habit.
I know a lot of people love video content, but many—like me—prefer written content because they can skim to the parts that are relevant to them.
That’s why it’s crucial to craft the right subheads; they clue readers in to what each section is about so they can read only the sections that are the most interesting to them. For example, here’s a set of subheads I created in a post for a health community website, about how to handle curious questions about your medical condition.
- Know Your Limits
- Shut It Down—Politely
- Separate Curiosity from Rudeness
- Set Boundaries on Social Media, Too
- Educate People About Your Condition…
- …But Don’t Feel You Have to Be an Advocate
- Find Your Friends
A busy reader can skim through and know exactly where to start reading—and a super-busy reader can even glean helpful info just from reading these subheads.
Nothing is more distracting than subheads that morph from one tense, tone, or format to another throughout the content. If you use sentence style with a period at the end, do it with every subhead. Make all of your subheads commands/alliterative/questions, not just some of them. (You’ll notice here that my secondary headers are in title format, and my sub-subheads are in sentence format. I did that to differentiate between the two types, and they are internally consistent within their type.)
Keep SEO in mind…but not too much in mind.
While subheads won’t directly affect your SEO, there are indirect benefits, according to Yoast: “Using headings creates better quality, more easily readable text. Better text is better for users, which is better for your SEO. […] Headings give you a great chance to use your focus keyword (or its synonyms) prominently, to make it really clear what the page is about.”
Here’s a set of SEO-friendly subheads I created for a SaaS company’s blog.
- Digital stock management gives you more visibility.
- Digitising your stock makes it easy to know when you need to reorder parts.
- Digital stock management increases the efficiency of your entire workflow
- Digitalising your stock saves money.
- Digital stock processes save you valuable time.
- Digital stock management boosts customer satisfaction.
Notice how I used variants of the key terms in each one. We helped this client triple their organic search traffic in one year, so I must have been doing something right!
Use subheads to stick to your theme.
Using subheads the right way helps you avoid rambling or going off topic, and helps you keep the topic and theme consistent throughout. This is a boon for both you and your readers. For example, take this set of subheads I included in a post for another SaaS client:
- Home service customers want…to communicate on their terms.
- Home service customers want…to know who they’re talking to.
- Home service customers want…personalization.
- Home service customers want…shareable content.
When I was editing the draft, I was reminded that each tip should tie back into the theme of what home services customers want, why they want it, and how to give it to them.
Get creative with your subheads.
Brainstorming fun or unusual subheads gives your content a wow factor that piques your audience’s curiosity and keeps them reading—especially since so few writers bother. You can play with subheads that give structure to your piece, lead the reader through the steps to accomplish a task, and more.
- The Challenge/The Opportunity
- Subheads with the same number of words: Pop a C, Log Your Zs, Get Some Sun
- The Problem/The Fix
- Alliterative subheads: Feel the Fear, Stay Safe, Keep Calm, Jot in Your Journal
- Subheads that walk the reader through a process in order: On the Way, At the Appointment, After the Sale
- Numbered list: Hard Reality #1, Hard Reality #2, etc.
- What X Wants/How to Give It to Them
Also consider the industry you’re writing for to spur new ideas. For a client white paper about brand journalism, for example, I wrote subheads that matched the “4 W’s and an H” of journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
Hire writers who can do all this.
Looking for journalism-trained writers who understand that what’s not in your content is as important as what is? Reach out to schedule a free discovery call to see if we’re a match for you.