Have you ever read a line that caught your attention so fast, you didn’t look up until five paragraphs later? Props to whoever wrote it — they mastered the attention-grabbing hook.
For many writers, hooks (or ledes, as they’re referred to by journalists) are both tantalizing and infuriating. Out in the wild, we spot first lines that are startling and mind-bending and stoke our curiosity. But then we sit to write our own and all we can think of is “once upon a time” or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” or, worse, “imagine yourself…”
The truth is: every piece of writing can’t start with an explosion or a chase scene. Especially if you’re writing an academic essay or other piece of nonfiction that needs to stick with the facts. But there are better ways to start your essay than the sleepy “A recent study observed 300 chimpanzees in 50 habitats over seven years. This is what it found.”
How do you write a hook that grabs your reader’s attention right away? How do you make sure the hook fits the piece you’re writing? These are just a couple questions we’ll answer in this article.
But first, let’s talk about what you need to know before attempting to write that opening sentence.
What to Know About Your Essay (and Topic) Before You Write the Hook
Whether you’re writing a research paper on economics, an argumentative essay for your college composition class, or a personal essay for that blog you’ve been plotting, there are a few things you need to nail down before you settle on a first line.
1. Gain In-Depth Knowledge of Your topic
Name one thing under the sun. You could write an essay about it.
Before you actually write your essay, though, you need to know your topic — not just in name, but in-depth. You don't have to be a subject matter expert, but you do have to research.
Your research will help you narrow your focus, build an argument, and uncover the facts to shape the flow of thought throughout your piece. What you learn in the research stage should determine how you structure your essay — and should guide your choice of hook.
Did you uncover a shocking fact? A compelling anecdote? An interesting quote? Any of those things could be your hook.
Take action: When you’ve finished your research, go through your notes and think through your essay. Mark or make a list of anything you learned that’s compelling enough to be a good lead. Then, filter that list through your essay genre.
2. Type of essay
In academic settings, there are generally three kinds of essays:
- Argumentative: Making the case for a certain stance or route of action.
- Expository: Explaining the who, what, when, where, why, and how of some phenomenon.
- Narrative: Telling a true story as a way to explore different ideas.
The type of essay you’re writing is key to choosing the best hook for your piece.
A serious argumentative essay probably shouldn’t start with a joke. And a shocking statistic may not be the best way to set the stage for a narrative story.
Take action: Go through your list of potential hooks and cross out anything that doesn’t fit the type of essay you’re writing.
3. Audience and tone
To make sure your essay is properly engaged and understood, you need to keep your audience in mind and choose a tone that fits both your subject and your audience.
For an argumentative essay, you’re trying to convince someone who doesn’t agree with you that what you’re claiming is right or, at least, reasonable. You don’t want to turn them off with snarky or offensive language — but you do want to be authoritative. Your hook should match that tone and support your effort.
A narrative essay is likely to welcome more lyrical language, so starting with a colorful description or an anecdote might make more sense than, say, a bold claim or surprising fact. Whatever tone you choose for your narrative essay — comical or gentle or bold — should be used for your hook.
Expository essays can use all sorts of tones and be written to a variety of audiences, so think carefully about the tone that best fits your subject matter. An essay explaining how the human body shuts down when overdosed will likely require a different tone than one on the lives of circus masters in the late 1800s.
Take action: Look at your list. Can you write these potential hooks in a tone that suits your subject and audience?
Are you writing a 10-page paper or a three-page reflection? Or is this your senior thesis, pushing 100 pages?
If you’re writing a shorter paper, you’ll want to keep your hook quick and snappy. Don’t wax eloquent over three paragraphs about your childhood baseball league if your research paper on Little League is only four pages long.
At the same time, a long work — like a senior thesis or a term paper — could be enhanced by a longer hook. Just make sure your hook relates to and supports the core point of your essay. You don’t want to waste space describing a scene that ultimately has nothing to do with the rest of your piece.
Take action: If you write out the items on your list, how long will they be? A sentence or paragraph? Perfect. Two to five paragraphs? Unless your essay is on the longer side, you may want to save that information for later in the piece.
Now that you know the basic facts about what you’re writing, let’s look at some approaches you could use to catch those readers — and reel them in.
5 Enticing Essay Hooks (and How to Avoid Common Mistakes)
1. Shocking fact or statistic
Your research turned up a trove of information — some of it’s boring, some of it’s downright mind-blowing. Here’s a tip: If you lead with anything, lead with the mind-blowing stuff.
Your job as the writer is to either make the mundane interesting or point out what’s not mundane at all. That starts with your first sentence.
For example, let’s say you’re writing about the color of the sky. You don’t want to start with “the sky is blue”. But you could start by explaining how the sky got its color.
Making the mundane interesting: Sunlight is clear and colorless — until it strikes earth’s atmosphere. Then, scattered by air molecules, it colors our sky blue.
Not mundane at all: In 2020, wildfires up and down North America’s West Coast sent so much smoke into the atmosphere that, in California, the sky turned orange.
Whether you’re sharing a fact or statistic, make sure it’s shocking or unexpected. And state it as directly as possible.
2. Bold claim hook
Especially fitting for argumentative essays, this approach goes from zero to 60 in two seconds (or less, depending how fast your audience reads). The idea is to get to the point ASAP. Make your claim — and then dive into your argument to back it up.
Will your claim ruffle feathers? Hopefully. If your “bold claim” makes people shrug, you haven’t succeeded either in writing it or in choosing a claim that’s actually bold.
Avoid the mistake of making a claim that people already accept as fact.
Just like “the sky is blue” won’t work as a shocking fact, it won’t work as a bold claim. We know the sky’s blue. Tell us something we don’t know. Or better: tell us something we’ve never heard before and may even find hard to believe. (As long as you can back it up.)
What could work for our sky color example?
- Denver has the blue-est sky of anywhere I’ve lived.
- Climate change is making sunsets more colorful than ever.
3. Story/Anecdote hook
If your research turned up a wild example from a study that perfectly fits what you’re writing about, leading with that anecdote might be the best way to open your essay. Or maybe you have a personal story that relates to the topic — or permission from a friend to include their story.
The anecdotal lede is a favorite for magazine journalists and, let’s be honest, most of the writers in the room. It’s an excuse for us to play with words and work in more storytelling. As a bonus, well-told stories also have a knack for sucking in readers. Humans are storytellers. It’s like our radar is always pinging for another wild tale to first hear and then share.
But be careful you’re not wooed by a story that doesn’t fit the essay you’re writing. And if it does fit, keep it brief. The details you include need to be relevant to the essay, not just satisfying the inner gossip’s need for more juice.
A favorite writing tip that applies here: enter the scene as late as possible, leave as early as possible.
Consider these two examples:
Long and rambling: When I moved to Colorado in 2015, I’d never been here before and I didn’t know what to expect. I came from Illinois, where I thought the skies were big and the landscape was boring. I wasn’t expecting the Colorado sky to be bigger. And I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be more blue.
Direct and concise: The first thing I noticed when I moved to Colorado was the sky: it seemed bigger and more blue than the sky anywhere else I’d lived.
Either of these hooks could work fine if we were just writing a personal essay about a move to a new place, but if we’re specifically writing about the sky, the second example is better. It sticks to the point — the sky and the color of the sky — and doesn’t get bogged down in irrelevant details about where the person moved from, whether they’d been to Colorado before, or what they were expecting.
4. Question Hook
Do you remember the beginning of this blog? No need to scroll back up, because I just used the same hook style again: the question.
Starting your piece with a question is a great way to spark curiosity in your reader and set up what your piece is about. But there are plenty of ways to do this poorly.
Avoid any variation of “have you ever thought of…” or “have you ever wondered…” Questions like these try to put thoughts into readers’ minds that they may or may not have ever considered, and can be a major turnoff.
Instead, you’ll want to come up with a unique question that approaches your topic from a fresh angle. This means honing in on what was especially interesting or surprising from your research — and maybe even doing some brainstorming of different questions to find the most fascinating one.
What questions could you ask about the color of the sky? So glad you asked.
- Why did the sky turn orange in the middle of the day?
- If light is clear, why does the sky look blue?
- What do earth’s atmosphere and rainbow-casting suncatchers have in common?
5. Description Hook
Another favorite of the literary writers in the room, description is a prime choice for explanatory or narrative essays. But it takes some focus and intention to do well.
Like with story hooks, you want to keep descriptive hooks concise. Whatever you’re describing — historical figure, disease, sporting event, London in the 1600s — should be clearly relevant to the central purpose of your essay. Your description should either illustrate the point you’re making or serve as an introduction to your topic.
Mistakes to avoid:
- Relying on passive voice
- Choosing bland words
- Describing a scene that’s common to the reader
As with all hooks, your description needs to be specific and unexpected.
So what would make a good descriptive hook for an essay on the sky?
Describing a sunset is too cliche, so cross that one off the list. Describing the sky as it is on a normal day wouldn’t be shocking or unexpected. To reach something unique, you’d have to either zoom in on the air molecules (like we did in our shocking fact example) or take a totally different approach:
Only an artist, the kind that memorized the colors in the crayon box as a kid and uses words like cerulean and violet, could name the difference between the blue of Colorado’s sky and the blue of Indiana’s sky. But she saw the difference, first in photos and then in person. That richer Colorful Colorado blue reflected in her eyes. Not baby blue or sapphire or azure — or even sky blue. Blue bird, perhaps? That’s what Coloradans called it. We’re closer to the sky, they say, that’s why it’s blue-er here. Believe it or not, they’re right.
3 Approaches to Avoid
Every type of hook can be done poorly, but avoid these at all costs. These hooks are tired and overdone. They may help you start your first draft, but please — for the sake of your readers — do not submit an essay with any of these leads.
Abraham Lincoln probably didn’t even say that quote the internet attributed to him, but even if he did, people probably already know it. It’s not shocking or unique or unexpected. Leave it out.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines hook as “a thing designed to catch people’s attention.”
This approach doesn’t catch anyone’s attention — unless you’re defining a particularly unusual word. But even if you are defining an unusual word, there’s probably a more interesting way to start your essay than relying on someone else’s definition.
3. “Imagine this”
Here’s a hint: Cut “imagine this” and keep the rest. The hook will either work (and be an enticing description) or be painfully boring. Either way, you’ll at least avoid the most cliched approach to starting any piece of writing.
Our Go-To Trick for Writing Catchy Hooks
If you want a surefire way to write compelling openings, do this:
Go through your notes and either outline your essay or write the whole thing. This way, you’ll know the central thread (or throughline) that runs throughout your piece.
Once your essay or outline is complete, go back through and identify a particularly compelling fact, claim, or example that relates to that central thread.
Write up that fact, claim, or example as the hook for your essay using any of the methods we’ve covered. Then revise or write your essay so the hook leads smoothly into the rest of the piece and you don’t repeat that information elsewhere.
Does your hook spark curiosity in you? Did that fact surprise you in the research stage? Chances are, your readers will have the same reaction. And that’s exactly what you want.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.