I love hooks. As a writer, I work hard on my hooks. As a magazine editor, the hook was often the best way for a writer to make a good first impression on me. And, as an agent, the hook is the first and one of the most important criteria I use in evaluating a book pitch, proposal, or manuscript.
“Hook” is a fairly flexible term in writing and publishing. It can mean:
- The overall unique appeal of an article or book
- The first page, paragraph, or sentence of an article, story, or book
- The short, punchy summary of a book idea in a book proposal
I often talk to writers who say, “I really have trouble writing hooks.” Or they’ll ask, “Why is it so hard for me to write a good hook?” It’s a good question (which usually means you’re about to get a lousy answer). I can think of several reasons it may be hard for you to write a hook:
- Lack of exposure
I often suggest to writers that they make a study of hooks. Once you open your eyes a little and look around, you’ll see that hooks are everywhere: in advertisements, movie trailers, book jackets, etc. Subscribe to BookBub’s newsletter and study the hooks they use to promote books. Read a lot of books’ back cover copy. Make a habit of noticing hooks everywhere you see them and dissecting their appeal. You may even want to start a collection.
- Lack of focus
Sometimes writers struggle to write a hook because they haven’t yet defined the unique appeal of their idea. It’s unclear in their minds so they can’t really put it into a few words. If you’re struggling to express what’s unique or compelling about your idea, it may be because you haven’t yet nailed it down or defined the takeaway.
- Lack of practice
It takes practice—and lots of it—to write good hooks. It doesn’t come naturally for many of us. However, like most things, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Sometimes when I’m working on a hook for a project, I’ll draft several different approaches and float them to a few discerning friends, like an optometrist testing a patient’s vision: “How’s this look?” Next idea: “Is this better?” Next idea: “How about this?” The process usually pays off.
These are just three possibilities, of course. But, as I say often, writing is an art, not a science, so you probably won’t come up with a formula that works every time. But lots of exposure, focus, and practice will help you to get better at writing hooks—and that’s one of the most important things you can do for your writing future.
Such a great blog post, Bob. Thanks for sharing!
As a back cover copywriter for a mid-size publisher, writing that hook is hard for me as well. Usually I must rewrite a few times. And often, I have discovered that my hook is literally within the first two paragraphs—or in the middle of the blurb.
My books on the other hand? Yeah. Same thing. Most of the time, I have a draft hook, then write the whole book, and then revise the hook along with the book proposal.
I’m encouraged to know I’m not alone in this struggle! Thank you for the tips. They all ring true as I’ve tried revising a hook for my book proposal many times. I’m still practicing, observing, and working through clarity.
I like what Tisha said above about having a draft hook, writing more, and revising the hook. That’s where I’m at and planned to proceed this way next week. I feel a little freed up to do the work I need to do. Thank you both!
Great article, Bob!
Thanks for your helpful post. “Here a little, there a little…” and now I have learned a LOT from you and others at your agency.
I’ve been hammering on my hook at times through the process of writing my novel. Building my proposal a little here and there so it’s not so tedious when it’s ready for submission. Most of my friends are lousy critics. I could draw a box house with a trapezoid attached to it and get nothing but praise from them.
“I love this house!”
“Dude, it’s a boat!”
“Really? Wow! Great twist!”
I don’t trust them with helping me with my hook. God bless them though. I’ll look a bit more at the hooks that are out in the wild and ask what makes them work.
Damon J. Gray
LOL!! Great dialogue Bryan. And once again, I shouldn’t read Bob’s blog posts while at work. You’re not supposed to laugh or have fun at work, you know. 😉
I appreciate that, Damon. I should have mentioned it was a boathouse somewhere in there. The editorial side of my head was on break
Damon J. Gray
Bob, I appreciated the point that hooks are everywhere. Anyone who is trying to sell me something, or grab my attention for any reason will be employing hooks – some good, some less so.
The hooks in the world are typically, money, sex, and power. Still I can learn from examining the way the world attempts to employ those and adapt them to hooks that are appropriate to our Christian context.
A hook can be so very tough,
a weasel bathed in grease.
You’ve got to hold him firm enough
lest he turn back, with teeth.
He can really shred your confidence;
you’re a writer, after all!
Is inability growing evidence
of a coming scriveners’ fall?
Fear not, my friend, you won’t be consigned
to literature’s outer dark
for hooks slipping dully out of mind;
a better metaphor’s ‘fed to the sharks’.
So bend to the task, and forge that hook
for it’s the lifeline of your book.
Sharp one, Andrew.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
A book I submitted last fall met all the publisher’s highly specific criteria and was my first that was even reviewed by another professional editor before submission, but a couple months later it was rejected with a form email. I revisited the cover letter I had sent with it and cringed at what I had thought was a great hook. It was buried in text about the unique circumstances that motivated me to write the book. The context had seemed so significant to me at the time– but really, who cares about that? Even a great hook needs a context that lets it grab attention. Maybe taking a little “away” time from a manuscript instead of submitting it while still in the euphoria stage after just finishing it would be wise–and finding a few beta readers for the hook as well as the book!
How’s this for a hook?
On a shark-fishing trip with his best mate, Bluey’s life changed forever when he misunderstood the captain’s call to throw the chum over the side.
Hooks are like potato chips. Can’t stop with just one.
On being kidnapped by aliens, Bluey quickly realized that figuring out how to use a dunny made for a seven-foot talking octopus would be the least of his troubles.
you are so off-beat I can’t tell you how many times I laugh at your jokes at horrible times, like drinking ice-water while reading these.
Claire, you just brought light to a really dark day…thank you so much!!!!!!
Maybe I’m weird (OK, not maybe), but I love writing the taglines that are the hooks for my novels. I play with possible taglines long before the novel is finished. They help focus me on the novel’s overarching theme while I write. But it’s good to get the input of beta readers and fellow writers. Hooks like “Sometimes you have to almost die to discover how you want to live,” “The chains we cannot see can be the hardest ones to break,” and (for my WIP that’s barely past outline stage) “When the honorable path isn’t clear, how do you find your way?” all started with a few rough ideas of mine and crystalized through the critical comments of my writing buddies.
Combined with a cover image, I find them extremely useful for marketing. They’re great for making memes to share on social media or for posting under the cover image in the sidebar of my history website with a link to Amazon. Long after they serve to hook an agent or publisher in a proposal, the possible marketing uses of a good tagline are limited only by our imaginations.
Sharon K Connell
You forgot the end of a chapter hook. That’s the one that I find fairly easy, but others have struggled with.
The first line hook is my problem. I’d love to see a blog done by all of you collectively at the agency to give us an idea of how to write those first line hooks for our stories. What gets your attention?
I like writing off the wall hooks at the end, too!
Is writing a hook so hard because we worry too much about what other people think, or is it because we don’t know how they think or because we overthink?
I think, more than anything else, for me it was because I second guess myself over and over again which seems to work okay for my editing the manuscript addiction. However, the hundreds of hook lines I’ve composed will only make good compost or kindling.
So for us hook-line junkies, how do we narrow them down? I tried consulting friends, and got as many opinions as I had hook-lines. Any thoughts?
If I have trouble with writing a hook, it’s usually because my book/plot isn’t very good. And so I don’t write it. I always start with the hook, before I ever write the first word of the first paragraph of the first chapter. That’s kooky, I know, but it frees up my time for more leisurely activities than writing (?!). I learned this early, writing an entire novel (or 1/2) and envisioning a hook that wasn’t there. Not a pleasant experience–but my fireplace would be wonderfully bright that Fall.
great post, and the hook, query, synopses are about as difficult as writing the book.
Mary L. Johnson
I loved the idea of looking for and collecting hooks. Now, I have a new hobby. Thanks!