An Ultra-Practical Way to Come Up with a Great Headline When You Are Struggling to Be Creative

I don’t know about you, but this is how most of the advice on writing headlines feels to me:

Source: Flikr

How are you supposed to come up with a perfect headline for a specific post for a specific audience by following generic tips?

For me, it has been a big problem, because writing headlines feels like torture. I usually can’t come up with more than 3 versions, and then my brain shuts down refusing to produce more.

I’ve been struggling with headlines for a long time. But then a couple of weeks ago my email newsletter had the lowest open rate ever, and I knew it was because of my clumsy headline.

So I thought enough is enough, and embarked on a quest to find an ultra-practical way, some kind of process to follow that will deliver me better headlines.

I remembered a post I once read from Henneke Duistermaat “7 Steal-Worthy Emails to Boost Clicks (and Blog Readers)“. And as Henneke always gives ultra-specific advice and examples, I decided to read it again.

It was then when I got an idea.

In her post, Henneke reviewed her blog newsletters she sent in the last 4½ years and described the ones that worked best and why.

She summarized her findings featuring 7 newsletters that had the highest open and click-through rate deriving a formula for each of them:

  1. How I’ve achieved a major goal
  2. Super-curiosity
  3. Empathy
  4. Learn something without pain
  5. The super-valuable resource
  6. Stop struggling
  7. What nobody gets (but is super-important)

Although she talks about newsletters in general, not only the subject line but also the content that should make people click on the link, I used this info to come up with a step-by-step process of creating a headline.

The idea is not to let your mind wander around trying to accomplish this huge task of “come up with a headline” at once but to break it up into smaller steps setting constraints for your creativity.

For this, I use an Excel sheet that I fill following these steps.

Here’s how it works.

An ultra-practical way to come up with a great headline when you are struggling to be creative

Open Excel and do the following:

Step 1: In the first row, write what your post is about using as many words as you need. This will help you achieve clarity and point out specific words you may want to use in your headline.

Example: This is what I wrote while creating a headline for this post:

An ultra-practical way to create a headline or email subject when you struggle to be creative. Small clear steps to guide your creativity.

Step 2: Try to come up with a headline for each of the 7 formulas. You can create as many headline versions as you like for each formula, but try to create at least one for each.

Here, I’ve made a small adjustment to Henneke’s formulas and exchanged “Empathy”, which originally referred to the content of the newsletter itself, with “Do it like this famous person” to reflect the kind of the headline she used.

You’ll be surprised how many ideas you’ll get just because you now have a clear direction of what your headline should express.

These are some of the headlines I came up with for this post:

  1. How I’ve achieved a major goal: Struggling to come up with engaging headlines? These 9 ministeps will make it a breeze
  2. Super-curiosity: Did you know that you can create a perfect headline just by filling an Excel sheet?
  3. Do it like this famous person: Creating engaging headlines: A step-by-step process stolen from a famous copywriter
  4. Learn something without pain: How to come up with a perfect headline without actually trying
  5. The super-valuable resource: Fill in this Excel sheet to create a headline your readers can’t ignore
  6. Stop struggling: How to come up with better headlines in less time; An ultra-practical way to come up with a great headline when you are struggling to be creative
  7. What nobody gets (but is super-important): Writing engaging headlines: Set boundaries for your creativity to create a better headline in less time.

Step 3: For each headline, calculate:

At the end, you’ll get a table that will look like this:

Writing headlines: Template
Click to enlarge

You can then sort it based on the average score and see what headlines scored the best.

Download this table as a template

(no opt-in required)

Why this works

I find that in this case, limitations give me focus. Coming up with a headline that conforms to a specific rule is easier than coming up with just some headline.

But the main reason this method works is creative limitation – an idea that setting restrictions on your final result will force you to be more creative and to try harder.

Or, as Robert McKee, a widely known screenwriting lecturer who’ve been mentoring Hollywood screenwriters for 30 years puts it:

The more difficult you make it for yourself, the more brilliant the solutions you will have to come up with or you fail.

Basically, the secret is to think within the box but to make sure it’s a really good box. And that’s where the 7 proven headline formulas come in.

Of course, you still need to put some effort into creating a good headline, one at a time. And you’ll immediately notice that some headlines will be better than others.

But you’ll be surprised how much easier this torturous task of writing a headline suddenly becomes when broken into steps and how many unexpected ideas you’ll get just because you have a “box” you need to fit your headline into.

How much can you trust those headlines analyzers?

Any serious copywriter you ask will tell you you shouldn’t trust the headlines analyzers. And I agree.

Like any machine that tries to analyze human behaviour, they won’t 100% reflect the reaction your audience will have to your headline. These are computer programs that have limited vocabulary who have no idea what your target audience is interested in.

So you should take the results with the pinch of salt, especially when your headline has ultra-specific industry terms that are most likely not a part of the headline analyzer’s vocabulary.

However, there is evidence of the statistically significant positive correlation between the number of sessions and CoSchedule scores.

Bottom line: Headline analyzers are great if you can’t decide what headline to choose and want a new perspective. But the final decision should be always yours, based on what your target audience needs.

After I followed this process, I’ve decided to go with the headline that scored second, because the headlines that scored first and third – “How to come up with a perfect headline without actually trying” and “How to come up with better headlines in less time” – are in my opinion less specific.

But if the headline I selected flops, I may reconsider and test one of the other headlines as well.

Care to try out this method?

I’d love to hear from you if you decide to try out this method next time you need a headline or an email subject. Would you let me know in the comments how it went? I always reply.

Leave a Comment

2 thoughts on “An Ultra-Practical Way to Come Up with a Great Headline When You Are Struggling to Be Creative”

  1. Hi Gill,

    I love the picture at the top about how to draw an owl – hilarious!
    But I get the point.

    And I like your headline creation tool too. Is it OK to add it as a resource on my post about headlines? [How To Write Powerful Headlines Without Becoming A Master Copywriter] – I think it would fit in rather well as I mention both the headline analyzer tools you use.

    – David

    • Hi David,

      The owl is the best! I saw it sometime ago in my Twitter feed and thought it summarizes 90% of all online advice out there! 🙂

      Glad you found this useful. Sure, feel free to add it to your post. The title sounds fitting. You really don’t need to become a master copywriter to use this method to write powerful headlines 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

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