Against the Essay Hook

It feels like the most commonly taught wisdom in English classes, especially in the lower grades of high school.

Start your essay with a hook.”

Okay.  Interesting.  What’s a hook, exactly?

“It’s an engaging opening sentence that grabs the reader’s attention.”

Okay, sounds good, if a little vague.  How does it do that?

“It gets the reader interested.”

But…

“It engages the reader directly.”

Are you beginning to see why I don’t really care for this method of teaching essay openings?

Please don’t grab me with that. It looks painful.

Question-begging in the explanation aside, there are several reasons that I don’t like, and refuse to teach, the “hook.”  I suspect that, deep down (or maybe on the surface, who knows), most of you English teachers out there don’t really like it either.  Together, we can free ourselves from its tyranny!

The definition and purpose of the “hook” sentence are vague.  Clear, easy-to-follow examples are scant. And worst of all, your standard “hook” from a beginning or average writer isn’t engaging, it’s boring.  It’s a dull, boilerplate sentence that the student hated writing and that you will hate reading:

“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a world without books?”

“What does it truly mean to dream?”

“Being on an island without any adults might seem like harmless fun…”

If your goal was to “grab my attention,” you failed.  I’m already asleep. In fact, that’s one of the things I dislike the most about the essay “hook”:  It doesn’t work. Teaching our students that it works does a disservice to them and their writing.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to interest your readers from the start of your piece – you should!  As a writer, your job is to serve the reader, and not wasting the reader’s time is a very basic step in fulfilling that obligation.  But writing a really sensational opening sentence is hard.  It’s an art form.  Good writers struggle with it.  It takes time to learn to do. Trying to think of one can paralyze and inhibit even a very gifted writer.  We can teach our students techniques for engaging writing that don’t require one sentence to do such a disproportionate amount of the work.  I present here two strategies I like, both of which I consider far superior to the “hook.”

  1. Don’t Neglect the Title

Do you know how I decide whether I want to read a story or an article that has appeared on my Internet radar?  I don’t read the first sentence. I look at the title. The title is the make-or-break moment for the piece, the one that determines whether I even start reading in the first place, so I don’t allow my students to neglect the title.  Papers entitled “Essay,” “[name of book] Essay,” “Paper #2,” or simply “[name of book]” don’t earn as many points as papers with good titles.

Titles, done right, can be wonderful little jolts of personality in your paper.  They can be funny, touching, and clever. They can induce fear or dread. They can nudge a reader over to your side before you’ve even presented a word of your case.  In other words, they can do everything the “hook” claims to do, and they have a few big advantages over the hook: they’re easier to write, they don’t have to be complete sentences, and you can think of them after you’ve written the rest of the paper.

A little while ago, my Internet radar directed me to one of the most haunting pieces of investigative journalism I have ever read: Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of parents who accidentally left their children in hot cars.  It’s a devastating, sobering cautionary tale about good people who made terrible mistakes. Its title? “Fatal Distraction.”

Shudder.

2. Instead of worrying about a single-sentence “hook,” start your paper in media res.

In media res is a narrative technique, associated with epic poetry but commonly used elsewhere, in which the writer starts “in the middle of things.”  If you are writing a story about the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, you don’t start by introducing the key figures or showing the gathering of forces or the plans of attack.  You start in the middle of the battle, perhaps from the perspective of a young solider who might or might not make it through the carnage alive.

Weingarten uses this technique in his article: instead of asking us a glib and toneless question about ever wondering what it’s like to lose a child, or rattling off some statistics about causes of child mortality, or quoting Abraham Lincoln, or doing any of the things we tell students they’re supposed to do in their “hooks,” he begins by describing – in simple, unsensational language – the atmosphere in the courtroom during the manslaughter trial of one of the parents whose story he will tell in the article.  It sets the tone and the mood with surgical precision, and draws the reader’s sympathies uncomfortably towards the man on trial. It’s a masterful opening, and he does it using a technique anyone can learn. (You can read the full piece here, but be warned, you’ll be sad the rest of the day.)

Because I teach literature and composition courses, my students mostly write literary analysis papers, a genre not known for exciting the pants off most people.  But even such a cerebral genre doesn’t have to be a drag to read or write. Let’s say you were writing a paper on the theme of groupthink in Goldman’s Lord of the Flies.  How might you start this paper if you were trying to think of a “hook”?

“Have you ever noticed how easy it is to give in to peer pressure?”

“We might think we are individuals, but are we really?”

“[insert statistic about bullying or whatever]”

I have no desire to read any further.  I doubt you do, either.

Now suppose you started this way:

“By the time Ralph is desperately running for his life from Jack and his vicious band of followers in William Goldman’s Lord of the Flies, the novel has already used a series of vivid images to illustrate the destructive power of groupthink.”

Instead of racking your brain and wringing your hands to choke out a “hook,” you’ve made a very different and more successful choice: relying on the strength of your material.  You’ve stuck within the novel at hand, rather than trying to make this about me or about you, which it’s not. You’ve dropped us right into the climax of the novel, and shown us that you intend to illustrate how we got there.  You’ve made promises you can keep. I want to read more. Even if I don’t know the novel, I want to read more.

Lose the hook.  Don’t try to grab me; I don’t want to be grabbed.  Offer me something I want, and I’ll come to you all on my own.

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