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How to use templates and subheadings

Advice for writers and bloggers

The most useful tools in the toolbox?

In this series of posts about writing every day, I’ve talked about various tools you can use from timetables, to rewards, from your kitchen timer, to the things lying around your room. Now for two of the most useful tools in my toolbox: templates and subheadings. How can you use them to get the job done more quickly? Now, I’m talking particularly to nonfiction writers and bloggers here, but this skill is also useful for report writers and students writing essays. If you’re interested in applying the technique to fiction, then I suggest you take a look at Randy Ingermanson‘s work on The Snowflake Method, which applies the concept of fractal planning to writing. (In fact, check this out even if you’re not writing fiction – it’s fascinating!)

What’s so good about subheadings?

Subheadings break a subject down into its component parts and, crucially, allow you to get more specific. I wrote my PhD using subheadings. I pitched (and wrote) my nonfiction book on time management using subheadings. They provide a framework and a guide to writing and they’re flexible, because you can, of course, change them at will. They also make what you’re writing easier to read if you decide to use them in the final version. Some magazines and blogs actually require you to use subheadings, so you might as well use them to your advantage. Here is a blog post I was paid to write on Agatha Christie’s plot twists. Take a look at how I’ve used subheadings to structure the post. I also made extensive use of subheadings in this post on finding time to write that I did for the Alliance of Independent Authors.

How to use subheadings

When you’re going through these steps, keep in mind that you can change the subheadings later, so write whatever you like for now. If you’re not sure what to write, ask a question.

  1. Decide what your main title will be. In the case of the example blog post on Agatha Christie above, it was ‘How to Twist Like Agatha Christie’. Write your title at the top of a page.
  2. Brainstorm ideas by writing down everything you wish to communicate about the topic, then turn these into subheadings. Write your subheadings under your title. Try to make them as specific as you possibly can. You can make them more pithy and witty later if you want to! Be descriptive at this stage. My subheadings in the published version of the Agatha Christie blog post – ‘Knox’s Ten Commandments’ and ‘Pick a Rule and Break It’ etc. – are similar to but shorter than the originals.
  3. The number of subheadings will depend on what you’re writing. Perhaps use four or five for a blog post or feature article and ten to fifteen for a chapter of a nonfiction book.
  4. Under each of these subheadings write up to five mini-subheadings, narrowing down the subject even further. You can see what I mean by downloading the first chapter of my nonfiction book on time management – because all the subheadings and mini-subheadings are still there. They changed a bit as the book evolved!
  5. Write 200 words under each of your mini-subheadings.

What’s so good about templates?

A template – as far as a piece of writing is concerned – uses a pre-organised framework for you to drop your ideas into. You can probably find some online being offered for free or at a premium if you take a look around, but it’s fairly simply to set up your own. Here’s one from blogger Michael Hyatt. How you organise your template may depend on the topic or your call to action if that’s relevant but the following general advice will still help. Templates are useful because they make the writing much quicker – once you have the broad topic, you don’t have to think about what you’ll write or how to structure it. Templates use subheadings, which is why they go together!

Batching

A fairly well-known time management technique, batching is when you do similar tasks at the same time rather than repeating them over the week or month. For example, batch cooking your dinners for the week or batch writing several blog posts in one go or writing pitches for several feature articles in one afternoon. Templates are handy for batch writing blog posts or feature article pitches. By the way, The International Freelancer website is a good source of advice on pitching feature articles if you need one. And here’s Michael Hyatt again on batching.

Want the low down on batch writing blog posts? Read this.

A simple template to start with

One of the simplest templates, which you may have learnt at school, is What? Why? How? Where? When? Who? (not necessarily in that order). Take a topic you would like to write about and expand each of those questions until you have a subheading relevant to your subject matter. What? Why? How? Where? When? Who? is a good template to use to begin with as it is flexible and easy to see how you might rewrite it and play around with it.

How to use templates

  1. Set up your own template, based on what you want to communicate, by coming up with a series of subheadings that you can use again and again. You could do different versions of your template, depending on the subject matter. A ‘how to’ template would look different from an inspiring story template.
  2. Save your templates as Word documents with space for you to write about 200 words under each subheading.
  3. In general, your template is going to be broken down into three parts, the beginning, middle and end, as follows.
  • Beginning: What do I want to say about this topic? What will the reader gain from reading this article / post? What will they know by the end that they didn’t know already? Why are you qualified to tell them about it? A quick win: what can they do now that will prove your point?
  • Middle: An inspiring story or interesting detail. The steps in a ‘how to’ article. An interview or quotation or resource they can go to. Information they need to know. Your call to action. A link to your lead magnet. A practical exercise or example – something they can do.
  • End: Tell them what they’ve learnt. What’s the next step? What can they do to take things further? What else do you have to share with them? What’s your conclusion?

Let me know in the comments if you’ve set up your own templates or if you find any good templates online.

What next?

  • Have a go at planning and writing a blog post or article using subheadings that you set up in advance.
  • Create a What? Why? How? Where? When? Who? template for a series of blog posts or feature articles
  • Create a template for a ‘how to’ blog post or feature article.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about freewriting – which may well be the secret sauce your pudding has been missing all this time!

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