Master Headline Writing With These 13 Proven Templates

Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

Ahoy and happy Monday!

Welcome to another week of Start Writing Online—where every week we dive into 1 of the 10 biggest problems all writers face:

  • Distractions
  • Over-editing
  • Perfectionism
  • Procrastination
  • Self-confidence
  • Generating ideas
  • Impostor syndrome
  • Writing consistently
  • Finding time to write
  • Loose feedback loops

(And, of course, if you want to crush all 10 of these AND master the fundamentals of Digital Writing in just 30 days, we'd love to have you in the next cohort of Ship 30 for 30!)

This week, we want to help you overcome the fear of the blank page with 13 proven headline templates.

As a Digital Writer, the headline is the most important part of your writing.

So today, we want to show you 13 favorite headline templates you can use to:

  • Write your next headline
  • Spark ideas for your next piece of writing
  • And capture the attention of your audience

And the best part about these headline templates? They are everywhere.

Once you see them, you won’t be able to unsee them. These formulas are used by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and every other medium publication on the planet. They work across opinion pieces, news stories, book titles, X thread hooks, LinkedIn posts—anywhere you are trying to grab a reader’s attention.

It doesn’t matter how good your content is—if your reader’s attention isn’t caught by your headline then they won’t vote with their attention and read your work.

Let’s dive in!

Format #1: BIG Numbers

Readers love reading about outlier situations.

When we read large numbers in headlines, we stop and think “ah, this is of consequence—I should read this.” But you don’t always have to use the biggest number you can find. A “small” number can still be “big” relative to its context.

As with all headlines, the specificity is what hooks the reader’s attention.

Here are some examples of numbers you can use in your headlines:

  • Statistics
  • Breakout data points
  • Unique/unconventional outcomes
  • Large compilations of the same object/topic/etc.

Here’s an example:

Format #2: Dollar Signs

Readers love reading about money.

Even if they are not interested in the topic of the headline, using a dollar amount is a sure way of hooking people’s attention. Again, the specificity of this is what’s attracting the attention of the reader. Mixing this with Format #1 will unlock an even more irresistible headline.

Here are some examples:

  • How much things cost
  • High net worth individuals
  • Rare/unexpected financial outcomes

Here’s an example where you might not be interested in the topic (cryptocurrencies) but it’s a large enough dollar amount for you to care, click, and quickly read the article:

But it doesn’t have to be a “big” amount—what counts is the specificity of the dollar amount (so even $0 works):

Ok, on to the next format!

Format #3: Credible Names

Readers love reading about content about or from someone they look up to:

  • Oprah
  • Elon Musk
  • Barack Obama

Here’s an example:

This is powerful if you’re just starting out as a writer: you can borrow other people’s credibility to hook the reader’s attention.

But it doesn’t matter what level of writer you are. You can always use this format to create credibility for the niche you are writing about. So if you’re writing about professional athletes, use the insights of a professional athlete. If you’re writing about the publishing industry, use the insights and opinion of a famous self-published author.

Borrow credibility for your writing until you’re able to use your own.

Format #4: "This Just Happened"

This is very common in news articles.

Readers love reading about things that JUST happened. They like to think they have their finger on the pulse in their industry or the wider world. We believe we can make better life decisions if we’re slightly ahead of the curve.

Here’s a rundown of the human psychology of this headline format:

  • JUST implies urgency
  • JUST implies it's worth keeping up with
  • JUST implies, if you're hearing about it, it's important

Here’s a good example:

This format is used for timely rather than timeless content, so this is for pieces of writing with a short shelf life. Even so, this format will always grab reader attention.

On to the next format!

Format #5: Question/Answer

Readers love it when they come across a question they are asking themselves with an unconventional answer.

This headline increases the curiosity gap. You have a question, you provide the answer, and now the reader wants to know how you have arrived at the answer. To really hook the attention of your reader you should use existing, “in demand” questions (which you can see from feedback on earlier posts or questions you run into all the time) and then give the reader new and different answers.

Here’s an example:

On to the next format.

Format #6: The Success Story

Similar to the Question/Answer format, this headline type is all about creating a curiosity gap.

In the headline, you briefly describe a transformation. You are starting at point A and reaching point C. To find out HOW something happened, the reader has to click.

  • "How I Made It From X To Y Without Z"
  • "How I Started With $0 And Ended Up With $X"
  • "How I Do X Without Needing Y"

And so on.

At the core of this headline format is someone (or something) successfully overcoming a conflict or unlikely odds.

Here’s a fantastic example:

This example also has a hint of the next format in its headline—you wouldn’t normally put a “bar room romance” and the King and Queen of Denmark together.

Format #7: Things That Shouldn't Go Together

Readers love to find out about things that don't typically go together.

  • Copywriting Tips For Blind Readers
  • Miley Cyrus's Favorite Fast Food Chain
  • Lavish Christmas Presents That Only Cost $1

Here’s an example:

This format is also a great way to make topics approachable and unforgettable.

The key here is to think in opposites. For example, if you are writing about math, you could reach for the complete opposite of the topic (like the reality TV show The Kardashians). A headline like “5 Timeless Math Concepts You Can See In All Seasons Of The Kardashians” makes math accessible and also stands out from the rest of the Kardashian articles out there.

Instantly clickable.

Format #8: For The Industry

Calling out a specific niche or industry in a headline does two very important things for you and the reader:

  1. It helps the writer address a specific audience
  2. It tells the reader who this content is and isn’t for

As we’ve said before, specificity in headlines is everything.  

Not only that, but these headlines are a great way for readers to go “down the rabbit hole" in your industry. The more you know about a niche, the more aware you should be of all the possible questions readers have. So, to make content that resonates, answer those questions one by one.

Here’s an industry-specific headline:

Format #9: The Topic Within The Topic

Readers love it when they feel like there's a "deeper reason" for why something is the way it is.

Anytime you can make readers feel like you're pulling back the curtain and telling them "the real reason," you'll have their attention. In this headline, you’re telling the reader what you will talk about AND offering them even more information on a related or semi-related topic. Again, you’re increasing the curiosity gap for the reader (so they have to click to find out how these two marry up).

Pro tip: include “Topic B” in parentheses (or “whisper”) to really heighten the curiosity.

Onto the next headline format.

Format #10: X Number

They might not admit it, but readers love lists. Period.

Listicles get a bad reputation (because of pop culture clickbait), but the format is terrific for organizing any information. It’s an easy way to promise something to the reader, and as long as you deliver on that promise, you aren’t writing clickbait. This headline format is used across the internet and the media industry, not just in those “clickbait” outlets we all know and love.

Here are some examples of content that can be put into lists:

  • Tips
  • Steps
  • Mistakes
  • Reasons Why

Here’s a great example:

Right, only three more left to go!

Format #11: Guess The Future

People crave certainty in a rapidly changing world full of surprises and unexpected events.

This means we like to read about what other people are predicting about the future. This could be the future of your industry, of the world of work, or any topic you’re writing about. The best part about this kind of piece is you don’t have to be right. These are more like opinion pieces, arguing a point of view rather than establishing the “facts”.

These headlines can be split into two categories:

  • Here’s what I think about the future
  • Here’s what all these experts think about the future

Here’s an example:

Format #12: Advice, Inverted

This is a good headline if everyone’s talking about the topic you’re writing about.

With this headline, you’re taking the accepted wisdom of a topic and inverting it to provoke curiosity in the reader and stand out from all the other “advice” out there. This is a good way of establishing your unique point of view with your audience rather than competing with everyone else. The aim of this headline is to be different, not better.

So invert accepted advice and turn it on its head:

People love to read about different opinions so they feel like they have a well rounded knowledge on a particular subject.

Format #13: Unexpected Opinions

This is when the author inserts their own opinion into the headline.

Doing this adds some character, some additional insight, and creates tons of curiosity in the reader. To 10x the impact of this headline, add something unexpected—because unexpected is interesting. And if something is interesting, people will instantly click on it.

Here’s an excellent example:

That's it for today!

Chat next week!

–Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

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