Tools of the Trade

Don’t Forget the Hot Dog: How to Hook Your Reader


William Zinsser once said, “The most important sentence in any article is the first one.”  Though they’re the most vital part of a piece, hooks are often the most difficult to construct.  Sometimes the task of constructing a proper lead is so tough, I just dive right into the material. That or begin with a stock template out of sheer exhaustion from writing the body for so long.

But if we want our readers to listen to what we have to say, we have to entice them to read beyond the 1st sentence, the 1st page.  An uninspired “did you know?” style question or standard analytical-type statement of the kind you learn in high school will send one message to your reader: you don’t care.  And if you don’t care, why should he?

If we are writers, we are most certainly avid readers as well.  Imagine: you’re flipping through a magazine at the hair salon or skimming through articles on the Huffington Post- do you give equal attention to each article?  Do you dutifully read from cover to cover?  Of course not; you have other things to get to.  Instead, you carefully select which pieces are worth your time.  An article with a catchy title.  A blog post that intrigues you with an anecdote.  An expose that startles you with some troubling truth.  There’s no time for something that bores you.

So why remember that we are both readers and writers?  Well, if we can remember our status as readers, we’ll be more sympathetic to our audience’s plight because, at one time or another, it’s been our plight too.  Whenever we pick up a newspaper or flip through the glossy pages of Harpers or Vogue, we-too-are looking to be shocked and surprised, charmed and enthralled, instructed and simply spoken to.  “Pity the reader!” Kurt Vonnegut once implored and his words remain true.  Many readers (especially online ones) are looking for an escape, a momentary distraction from endless tedium.  Much like actors, our job is to entertain them.  No place is this more important than the first sentence.  If we fail in our one duty to captivate the reader with our first line, he will shut the covers (or close the window) and won’t read any further.  Most readers today are busy and impatient: they have millions of others things they can be doing and a million and one things competing for their attention.  A reader searching WordPress is just a search and click away from finding thousands of other posts all tagged under the same topic as you.  Why should they bother with yours?  Your lead (and title, for that matter) must provide an answer.  

One of my all-time favorite leads is by Zinsser himself.  In his article “Block that Chicken-Furter,” he opens with a simple but memorably humorous observation:

“I’ve often wondered what goes into a hot dog.  Now I know and wish I didn’t.”  

Two sentences.  Twenty-one syllables.  But if you came across these lines, it would be nearly impossible not to keep reading.  What, oh, what in a hot dog could be so disgusting that Zinsser regrets his former curiosity?  Our longing to know propels us to the next sentence.

So don’t forget the hot dog.  A strong hook will reel in your reader.


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