Link to this page

Write Great Headlines With One Simple 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.

Posted 4.5.24

Every writer wants — no, needs — to write great headlines.

Headlines are the gateway to your content. Perhaps you’ve heard of the 80/20 headline rule: 80% of the people who read your headline will not click or read the content that follows. Just 20% will open up your masterpiece. (That goes for email subject lines too.)

Even the most insightful content won’t engage readers if you can’t pull them in and get them to read the piece in the first place. “The headline is our one chance to reach people who have a million other things they’re thinking about,” says Peter Koechley, co-founder of storytelling website Upworthy. He should know. Tests show that traffic to content at Upworthy can vary by as much as 500% simply because of the headline.

You understand the power of a headline because you’re a reader as well as a writer. You sift through headlines to manage the information deluge and choose what to read. So ask yourself this: what kind of headline moves you to click and read the subsequent content?


The search for how to write a great headline

To answer the question, I did a quick search for information on writing great headlines. There are plenty of answers out there — including these article titles that appeared at the top of the query results:

  • 50+ Headline Formulas and Templates to Make Writing Easy
  • 100+ Secret Headline Formulas and Templates to Skyrocket Your Response
  • 22 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas that Work
  • 60+ Catchy Headline Examples You Can’t Help But Click

To be honest, those titles discouraged me. I felt overwhelmed at the thought of wading through all that content to create a compelling headline each time I write a piece of content.

That’s not to say that formulas don’t help me write great headlines and other content. I use them. I write about them, for goodness’ sake! Writing formulas make content writing simple.

And I’m all about making content writing simple. Can writing great headlines be simple too?


Use the classic formula to write great headlines

Thankfully, A-List copywriter Gary Bencivenga offered a solution years ago. You capture a reader’s interest with a headline that includes both a benefit and a curiosity. He pointed out that readers pay Attention when you offer a Benefit combined with Curiosity.

The result? A = B + C. Write great headlines with a simple one-two punch — a benefit plus a curiosity. And since this formula is made of the first three letters of the alphabet, it’s as easy as A-B-C to remember. It’s become what copywriter Bob Bly calls “THE classic headline formula.”

Use more than just a benefit to write great headlines

This is a stark approach to what I have long believed to be “the headline solution.” I used to think that the magic bullet for writing great headlines lay in offering a benefit. By offering your reader a compelling reason to open your article or blog post, she would automatically click and absorb all your yummy wisdom. And to be clear, benefit-oriented headlines are powerful. You must show the reader what’s in it for him, or he won’t click.

A benefit-oriented headline example might be …

  • “Write Great Headlines” or
  • “How To Write Great Headlines”

Naturally, that headline offers a benefit — an advantage for the reader. Read on, it declares, and you’ll learn how to be a headline-writing guru!

But if I was a young writer — or an experienced writer who wanted to hone my headline-writing skills — would that banner pull me in? Nope, I’m afraid not. It’s a generic promise, even if the content unpacks this benefit thoroughly. Plenty of writers offer the same benefit, as demonstrated by my unscientific search query. Offering a benefit alone is risky business if you want readers to keep reading.

Use the secret sauce to write great headlines

The pivotal factor in writing a great headline, says Gary, is curiosity. Novelty boosts response. “When an article promises something of interest and the title leaves me wondering, “How could this be?” — in other words, when its content is unpredictable — it inflames my curiosity,” says Gary. “And I have to read it.”

Data bears this out. Take subject lines, for instance. Those that create curiosity have a 22% higher open rate, say the good folks at Gitnux, a business and market trends tracker.

The element of surprise entices a reader to learn more and open up the article. An astonishing fact, an unlikely claim, a random thought — an idea completely off the reservation yet tied to a benefit — prompts the reader to keep reading.

And why not? As a reader, the surprise factor draws me into a headline. AI generates humdrum content in seconds. But an unpredictable variable paired with a benefit is unexpected.

Predictability kills curiosity. Unpredictability raises it.

Raise attention with a benefit and a curiosity

Use A = B + C to write a slew of headlines for your piece of content. Then ask yourself 2 questions about each one.

  1. The benefit: what will your content do for the reader?
  2. The curiosity: why does this headline seem unpredictable, intriguing, unlikely?

The key is to make sure your headline includes both. Here’s an example.

Write Great Headlines With One Simple Formula

  1. The benefit: what will this content do for the reader?
    It offers a solution to help you write great headlines — one that won’t require you to slog through dozens of headline templates that may or may not work for your content. This content will help simplify the process for you.
  2. The curiosity: why does this headline seem unpredictable, intriguing, unlikely?
    This content could save me time and help me write better headlines. But one simple formula? I’m not sure it’s possible. I gotta see this. Click.

Try different ways to rouse curiosity

To rouse curiosity, you can …

  • Use numbers in your headline
    Write Great Headlines With One Simple Formula
  • Answer a how-to question with an offbeat or outrageous solution
    Write Great Headlines With One Simple Formula
  • Write short headlines — 55 characters or less
    Write Great Headlines With One Simple Formula (45 characters)
  • Make an unpredictable claim.
    Write Great Headlines With One Simple Formula

To write great headlines, use a simple formula

Writing great headlines is a top-priority skill for writers. Like any other skill, it can take time and practice to develop. But you can accelerate your learning curve. Grab attention when you offer your reader a benefit. And slip in a bit of curious unpredictability.

The result is easy to remember: A = B + C. And like the first three letters of the alphabet, it’s a classic.

More Headline Writing Tips

When Do Question Headlines Work?

Writing Better Headlines: Simple As 3 + 3 ...

How to Write How-To Headlines That Pull in More Readers ...

Try these 5 proven headline formulas ...

The 4 U's: use this checklist for writing powerful headlines ...

Get more tips on our Writing Headlines Pinterest board...

Return from Write Great Headlines to Nonprofit Copywriter home

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Powered by SBI! Learn more here.
Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

Search This Site

Share This Page


Named to 2022 Writer's Digest list

Get Free Writing Tips

Stop Wasting Time!

Grab your exclusive FREE guide, "5 Simple Writing Tips You Can Put to Use in 10 Minutes or Less"

XML RSSSubscribe To This Site
  • follow us in feedly
  • Add to My Yahoo!