“You never get a second chance to make a first impression”: Writing a good hook
By Lisa Pfau
October 20, 2011
Have you ever been chatting with stranger at a cocktail party and noticed they have something in their teeth? You pretend to be listening, but really all you are thinking about is: “Should I tell the guy he has a piece of spinach in his teeth or just look away? Oh man, now he’s got some tomato stuck in there. What did he just say? Is he asking me something? I can’t concentrate with that big piece of greenery glaring at me…”
Although sometimes our first impressions can be incorrect (whatever spinach guy was saying could have been very enlightening), they still matter and stick in our brains. If you were ever to bump into that guy again, you probably wouldn’t remember anything he had to say after you spotted the spinach. In fact, you most likely wouldn’t be able to recall his name; and instead, would have filed him in your brain under “spinach guy”. The same principle applies when you are writing. Whether it is a personal statement, research essay, cover letter, or short story, you only have 1-2 sentences to get the reader’s attention and draw him/her into the story. More importantly, once the reader has finished reading your piece and puts it in the pile with the other 500 similar ones, if they remember anything about it, it will likely be what you wrote in the first few lines. Therefore, when developing a good hook, it is not only important to make the reader want to know more, but to compose something that sums up or clearly links to the main idea of your piece. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”, so make sure yours counts.
Now, you are probably feeling a little overwhelmed and anxious that you won’t be able to come up with that ‘perfect’ hook and doomed to be filed under “forgettable”. Don’t worry. Writing is an art, not a science. There is no right or wrong answer. Chances are you already have some ideas of what might appeal to your readers and all you have to do is try it out. In the meantime, I have some tips on how to increase the odds of getting a good hook down on paper.
The first thing you can do to reduce pressure and panic is to realize that just because the hook is at the beginning of the piece, doesn’t mean you need to write it first. If you have some great ideas, get them down on paper and save them for later. However, don’t worry about making a solid decision until you have finished the whole work. Most likely, throughout the writing process your ideas will change a little; hence, altering the message you want the hook to convey to the reader.
The second thing that helps is to get an idea of different types of hooks commonly used in writing. In many cases, you can borrow someone else’s wisdom to start off your own piece; rather than, worrying about coming up with the most inspiring first sentence ever written. Here is a list of ten common hook styles/techniques:
Quotation – Fortunately, there are numerous great writers out there, many of which have said some really profound things. When you can’t come up with your own brilliant sentence, borrow one from someone else (making sure to give them credit, of course). One way of searching for that perfect quote is either googling your subject matter (ie. love) on the Internet or looking in the index of a book of quotations for keywords.
Anecdote – Who doesn’t love a good personal story? A poignant story can personalize your work and also help the reader to identify with the message you are trying to convey. Take some time to think about how your subject matter related to you and if you have any interesting personal stories you can add.
Statistics – Too many statistics can be overwhelming, but a well-placed statistic that reveals information that the reader wouldn’t normally be aware of is both informative and interesting. It makes the reader want to know more about that particular topic. Are there any stats you found during your research that really stood out to you?
Question – Ask a question. Make the reader think about the issue for his/her self. Give them a moment to contemplate and become curious about what answers you might be able to provide. Think about what question(s) inspired you to write your piece.
Bold statement – Surprise the reader! Like a question, a bold statement is meant to make the reader think. “Friends are forever.” Do they agree or disagree with your statement? What makes you say that? It makes them what to know what you’re all about and where you are coming from. Note: Although you want your statement to catch the reader’s attention, be careful not to be offensive or inappropriate, especially if you don’t have a valid reason to be.
Funny fact – Did you know that…? How many times have you been somewhere where someone throws out a random fact that spurs up an interesting conversation amongst strangers? Like a statistic, a funny fact should both inform and interest the reader about what you have to say next.
Imagery – Start with a picture, sound, smell, taste, or feeling to kick start the reader’s imagination. Draw them into a scenario or introduce them to a character. Make them want to know what happens next.
Definition – Like a statistic or funny fact, a definition should inform and interest the reader in what is going to come next. It hopefully will get them to start contemplating a certain concept, which you touch on throughout your piece.
Joke/Humour – Make the reader laugh. Who doesn’t like to laugh? Chances are if you can make someone laugh in the first line or two, they will want to keep going and see what other amusing things you have to say. Just make sure they are laughing with you and not at you.
Name drop – Humans love gossip. By making a comparison between your message and a famous figure, it will intrigue the reader. Maybe you know something about that important figure that they don’t. It may help to make your main argument more identifiable or put it into context. Or, maybe the reader will just be curious to know how you came up with your link.
You understand the significance of a hook, what it entails, and have some ideas of styles you can employ to create your own, so how do you know if you’ve got a keeper? Why not just ask? Once you have finished the introduction to your piece, send it off to a friend (who has little or no knowledge about your piece’s content) and ask them to read it over. When they have finished it, take the paper away and simply ask them what made the biggest impression on them. Do they even remember what you said in the first two lines? Were they confused at any point? Did the hook draw them in, but they didn’t get the connection between those first two lines and the rest of the paragraph? Continue to get feedback and fine-tune your hook until it gives you the effect you are hoping for.
Coming up with a good hook often is the most challenging part of writing, but it can also be the most fun. Don’t sweat it! Enjoy yourself and be creative.
For more information and examples of hooks, take a look at these other articles I found: