Bait your headline and intro to catch fresh readers
My Dad loved the tranquility of boating on a rippling lake, his rod and reel in hand; I preferred my Sega Mega Drive. I mean, for most kids, stinky fish is less exciting than Sonic the Hedgehog, Echo the Dolphin, and Earthworm Jim. When he finally convinced me to accompany him, I got bored quickly. While we waited for bites, baking under the midday sun, my fidgeting fingers seized upon a shiny new tin in the tackle box. I hadn’t noticed it when packing the gear. The initials BB were printed clearly on the lid.
“Don’t open that,” my Dad said sharply.
Being a curious eight-year-old, I completely ignored the old man and prized open the lid. Inside was a sizable fishing hook and a rusty old key.
Speaking of hooks…
What is a hook?
In terms of writing, a hook is quite simply something that gets the reader’s attention and motivates them to consume more — the whole damn article if possible.
How we present a hook depends on the context of the writing. For an Instagram post, we only have a few words to hook the reader into clicking ‘see more’ and reading the post. Literary agents judge fiction submissions on the first 300 words because that’s what bookshop browsers read before deciding to buy the book or return it to the shelf. Attractive headlines and subtitles almost always include hooks. Nowadays, the reader is faced with endless content, so how else can they choose what to read?
Essentially, a hook must generate curiosity. If it’s just something surprising or wacky, that might attract eyeballs, but it won’t keep the reader’s attention.
Yet we mustn’t fall into the trap of clickbait — crafting the perfect hook to entice the reader, then not delivering on our promise. Don’t worry, I’m going to get back to the fishing story very soon; otherwise, I’d fall foul of my own rule. My advice is to avoid impossible claims and exact predictions. If I told you that you will earn at least $4,870 per month on Medium after reading this article, there is no way I can guarantee that. You’d likely skim the text, groan at not receiving what you were promised, then make a mental note never to read my articles again.
Hooks come in many shapes and sizes. Headlines must generate some kind of interest, or no one will click and no one will read. Simple. But first, titles must include two things: a ‘clear topic’ and a ‘get’ for the reader.
Let’s look at three recent examples from The Writing Cooperative (at the time of writing):
- I’ve Been Writing Online For 600 Days — Here’s What Works (and What Doesn’t)
- Writers Should Open Up a Separate Bank Account for Their Writing Income
- The Pros and Cons of Attending a Writers’ Conference
All three of these titles are clickworthy. The topics are crystal clear and well-defined (professional writing online, finances for writers, writers’ conferences). Plus, as readers, we know what we will ‘get’ by clicking (what works and what doesn’t, the reasons for opening a writing bank account, advantages and disadvantages).
Effective titles are usually 6–15 words. It’s hard to include a clear topic and a ‘get’ in fewer words, and if you write more than 15 words, you risk losing readers to a snappier title. Essentially, you are asking people to put their hand into a box they cannot see, so tell them what’s inside and make it something they want!
Other tips include using strong verbs. Avoid be, have, do, make, put, and other versatile everyday language.
e.g. Don’t Type a Word Until You’ve Nailed Your Plan (not ‘Don’t write until you have a plan’).
Include ungradable or superlative adjectives to make what’s in the box more exciting:
e.g. Razor-sharp writing: 7 Clear-Cut Methods to Trim your Sentences (not ‘Sharp writing: 7 methods to reduce your sentences’)
And of course, be specific. Discrete information like numbers or money provides a juicy hook because we know exactly what to expect.
For some types of writing, the introduction is worth more than the title. Imagine opening an email with an attractive subject line, only to find a long, boring block of text talking about a product you’ve never heard of. You’ll unsubscribe faster than speeding cannonball.
The same is true with personal writing and deep articles (not listicles and how-tos). A great introduction will use one of the following methods to generate curiosity:
- Hidden information
There are a few game-changing Chinese spices all amateur chefs should know about, and you won’t find them in the supermarket.
(what are the spices?)
- Current events
Yesterday, the latest major AI lawsuit landed on the desks of Microsoft and Google.
(how does this news impact me?)
- A great quote
Writing is like a box of chocolates. You never know which simile you’re going to get.
(n.b. not a real quote)
97% of working writers in America are two paychecks away from living on the street.
(it’s probably more like 99%)
Would you be mad if you woke up and your computer had turned into a strawberry cheesecake?
(I wouldn’t be mad, but my boss might)
- Shocking facts or opinions
Vegans are the healthiest group of people in the world, and I have proof.
(the proof is NOT in the pudding because puddings use eggs)
My Dad loved his rod and reel; I preferred my Sega Mega Drive.
(Oh yes, my story, where was I?)
So, back to the lake... Minutes felt like days waiting for a bite, but now I had a mission. I was going to find out what in the hell that rusty key opened. I search the tackle box, checked inside the cooler, and stuffed it into every orifice on the boat that looked like it would fit a key. Try, fail, try, fail. There were several padlocks about, but it didn't unlock any of them.
After a while, my Dad got up to pee over the side. That’s when I saw it, a gaping keyhole on the metal chest his legs had been guarding the whole time. I only had a few seconds to get at it while his back was turned. I jammed in the key and turned. Click. Open sesame — the lid creaked open. Inside, was a thick purple chord. It was fluorescent plastic, perhaps to attract the pondlife.
“That’s quadrohexalene,” my dad said, zipping up his flies. “0.3 inch monofilament diameter.”
“What’s it for?”
“It’s for Bad Billy. The mega pike that lives at the bottom of this lake. He must weigh nearly 150 pounds by now.”
I asked if Bad Billy was dangerous, but he cut me off.
“Put it away, son.”
He handed me the line and returned to the rods. I stared into the murky waters and shuddered at the thought of what lurked beneath.
So what?Polina Zimmerman on Pexels
Want to know if your hook is any good? Do the ‘So What’ test.
Most readers are thinking this half the time. When there are infinite articles on offer, people really need a good reason to continue. ‘Why should I care?’ their internal monologue screams. ‘What’s in it for me?’
Read your headline and ask ‘So what’? If the question stands, it’s not interesting enough to hook a reader. Now ask the question after the first sentence. Have you generated curiosity with every line in your intro? If not, you may need to rebait your hook.
What about this article? Did I grab your attention and keep it? Come on, we all love a father-son story, and this one even had a rusty key. Will we ever get to the bottom of the tale of Bad Billy?
What happened at the end of my trip to the lake?
Well, we reeled in a few tiddlers, but the afternoon passed without much excitement. The initialed metal box and bright purple line were burning a hole in my pocket.
“Can’t we just try?” I wined. “We haven’t caught anything over half a pound.”
Dad turned and raised an eyebrow. “Try what?”
“To catch Bad Billy. Think of how jealous Uncle Pete would be.”
“You sure?” he asked. “Rumour has it, he pulled more than a couple of boats under.”
“You can take him.”
Dad was already rifling through the tackle box. “Need a good weight to reach the bottom of this lake. Get that BB tin and the purple line.”
I held them out.
He stood up and dropped a one-pound weight into my outstretched palm.
We stood there looking out over the lake, the boat gently bobbing, me with a bunch of fishing gear in my hand and him with a malevolent grin on his face. “Son,” he said. “There ain’t no Bad Billy.”
“What do you mean?”
“The only whoppers in this lake, are the lies I’ve been feeding you about pike weighing 150 pounds.” He laughed and pointed at the fishing gear in my outstretched hand. “And you fell for it — hook, line, and sinker.”
Philip Charter is a writing coach from the UK who works with multilingual content writers. Download his free writing tips eBook, How to Become a Proficient English Writer.
He is the author of two collections of short fiction and Fifteen Brief Moments in Time, a novella-in-flash.
Please feel free to connect on LinkedIn or get in touch via email.