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The SELWAB Formula

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

A Handy Guideline for Writing Leads and Headlines

The SELWAB formula is a self-check for writing leads for letters, but it applies to writing leads for articles, headlines, and emails, too.

It’s short for “Start Every Letter With A Benefit.”

And handy it is!

Why This Formula Is So Helpful

The SELWAB Formula with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter

The reason I use SELWAB is simple: I want my reader to keep reading.

It’s an easy guideline formula: as I begin to write any lead (for a letter, an article, a headline, email subject line, a blog post), I frame my opening sentence or paragraph with my reader’s needs in mind. 

Not mine.

“Start every letter with a benefit” – a benefit for the reader (not you.)

That’s what makes the SELWAB formula so pivotal.

How Do You Know You’re Writing a Benefit for the Reader (and Not for You)?

As you write and re-write the lead, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. What will be of interest or advantage to her and compel her to keep reading? Ask yourself questions like these.

  • Have I given her a way to solve a problem?
  • Have I shown that I understand her?
  • Have I helped her alleviate guilt?
  • Have I shown her how to save money?
  • Have I presented an opportunity?
  • Have I helped her save time?
  • Have I identified with her?
  • Have I made life more convenient for her?
  • Have I affirmed her?
  • Have I given a way to get organized?
  • Have I offered inspiration or motivation?
  • Have I given her information that is to her advantage?
  • Have I acknowledged her effort?
  • Have I helped her become a part of something bigger than herself?
  • Have I shown her some options for her situation?
  • Have I increased her awareness?

How to Use the SELWAB Formula: An Example

Version A

Tech4Friends needs your used cell phones and tablets for missionaries in southeast Asia.

Here’s what your reader is thinking: 

“<SNOOZE>. They’re only interested in what they can get from me. Throw this letter in the trash.”

Version B

You can recycle that obsolete phone or tablet gathering dust in your desk drawer and net a $50 tax deduction when you donate your device to Tech4Friends. We’ll refurbish it and give it people like Aron, a missionary in Cambodia, who right now can only check his email once a month. And we’ll even provide you with the shipping label to send your device to us.

Here’s what your reader is thinking: 

“I’m a bit intrigued by this version. I can save money (I’ll get a tax deduction); solve a problem (I’ll get rid of unused devices); be useful (I never realized they don’t have devices); it’s convenient (I’ll get a shipping label); and (yes) – I’ll alleviate a bit of guilt by helping those in need. This writer doesn’t mention what he gets out of the deal, other than working as a transparent interface between me and the beneficiary. I think I’ll keep reading.”

Same letter. Two different openings.

SELWAB: start each letter with a benefit.

Just make sure it’s a benefit for the reader – not you.

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