Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hook, Line, and Sinking

I've been doing a lot of editing & training of tutors lately…

When I see someone pounce on an introduction lacking a "hook," my first mental image is that hook that sneaks onstage during a Vaudeville show to yank off performers who have overstayed their welcome.

I know that's not the metaphor or image this piece of advice is going for, but I've seen it used so often - and often so generically! - that I want to yank this piece of advice off stage.

The idea for the "hook," as far as I know, comes from fishing.  You want to hook your slippery reader and reel them into make your point (which, hopefully, isn't to eat them for dinner).  That's all fine and well until you consider that fish don't bite down on any old hook.  Not if it’s the wrong size, and most certainly not if it isn't baited properly.

What I see in most of the "hook" lessons and comments, however, is an empty hook that gives no thought to what kind of fish the writer is looking to reel in.  I mean, just go to any sporting goods department in any cheap store and you've got at least one wall of different bait for different fish.  You're not going to use flies, for example, to hook a bottom-feeding catfish.

I see people and articles throw around advice like "use statistics," "use a rhetorical question," "use a poignant quote," as if they could apply to any piece of writing.  It's a gimmick, one size fits all, Abracadabra: You've got a hook!

Turn it into a late night infomercial!  With exclamation points and question marks!?!  (And if you read the rest of this paper RIGHT NOW…)

As for writing, a generic hook is at best, insufficient and at worst, will drive away audience instead of entice.

More important than any hook is knowing your audience.  Why on earth would your audience need to read this?  (You may remember that question from that post about self-centered writers.)  Especially for bloggers who have an audience already distracted by lots of shiny, stinky, wriggling, brightly baited hooks, ask: What do your readers want?  If you're giving readers what they want, you don't even need to gouge a hook through their poor cheek and reel them in.  They'll come willingly, hooked by the message and the point - not a dull, painful gimmick.  This goes for just about any writing, from the first line of a query to the first line of a novel to the subject line of the email.  It should be clear why your reader should care about the topic.

If you know your audience likes statistics or rhetorical questions (unlike Nathan Bransford), go for it.  On the other hand, your audience might like more of a narrative opening.  Or they might like getting thrown into the action.  Some might even like a combination of things! 

If you ask people who regularly fish for advice, you should grab a beer and sit your butt down.  You'll hear about different bait for different locations, good times for different kinds of fish, the best way to hold a fishing rod, and you may even see a lot of handmade bait or bait combinations.  Catching fish is serious business, and these folks know what they're talking about.

A good writer should be just as flexible.  I open a food trade article differently than I start a restaurant review.  Both of those have different introductions than my blog, which is also different from how I decide my first lines of fiction.

Hooking your reader - getting them to read what you wrote - is an entirely different animal than just presenting a hook.  It's a willingness to be involved and know your audience - to care about your audience - so they understand what you're writing is important to them.  You don't want them to just swallow a your message, hook, line, and sinker, you want them to be involved in the message because it matters.

Now, who's up for fly fishing?


Sunder said...

OK, let's see if this analogy can continue or will break down at this point. If you want to catch freshwater catfish (in the rural South), leaving beef liver on a hook on the bottom overnight will do it. Period. End of sentence. If there are no catfish on that line come dawn, there are no catfish in this body of water. What would be the readership analogy? That is, is there some type of reader who will always be caught by a certain type of hook?

Trisha Wooldridge said...

:) Definitely! One of the big things I see with Copyblogger ( entries is that numbered lists, for example, always bring in higher reader numbers. And, for me, bring up anything about women's rights, and you've got me hooked.

A Novel Friend © 2008 by para Você | Re-design Sweet Baby Girl