The Secret Language of Editors: All About the Hook

Abigail GreenEvery published article has to have a hook—something that draws the reader in and keeps their attention. Sometimes, your hook will be obvious. Say, new research has just been published, or a new book or movie has just come out on your topic.

Other times, you may have to invent a hook. This may strike you as silly. If it’s a good story, it should stand on its own, no gimmick necessary, right? Sure, if you’re writing about an injured hiker whose life was saved by a courageous dog, that may be enough to pique the interest of an editor and a reader. But in most cases, editors will want to know, “Why will our readers care about this story now?” Let’s repeat the key words in that statement: “why,” “our readers,” and “now.”

Anniversaries and observances are common hooks. Every year when May rolls around, headlines trumpet Mother’s Day-related stories. In July, it’s Independence Day. October is breast cancer awareness month. In September 2006, it was the fifth anniversary of 9/11. If your story is related to a bicentennial, you’ve struck gold.

That answers the “why now” question. Another way to hook readers is to spell out in your query letter or your story’s lead what’s in it for them. For example, I recently wrote an article for a doctors’ magazine on places like MinuteClinic that are popping up in supermarkets and pharmacies to treat people with common minor ailments without an appointment. Doctors are busy people, so I had to make clear immediately why they needed to read my article: “Quick-access clinics are becoming a reality. Better learn to compete.” Why should the magazine’s readers care about my story? Because they may be losing patients to these types of clinics.

Now, we’ve all seen published stories that have no apparent hook. These are often the evergreen articles I discussed in the May column. So why would an editor purchase an article that’s not pegged to a specific time of year or to any new information? Packaging. Just like a beautifully wrapped package can entice us to open it even if we know it’s only socks from Aunt Millie, an attractively packaged article can sell a tired topic.

Bridal magazines are masters of packaging. They cover the same topics over and over and over again. I once pitched an article on bad bridesmaid behavior. A topic as old as time, right? Except I packaged it as “The Five Most Common Bridesmaid Personality Types.” Suddenly, an old topic became fresh again. Thanks to a clever hook, a potentially dull article became interesting again.

Get creative when trying to come up with hooks for your articles. Repeat to yourself, “Why should readers care about this story now?” What would make someone in a supermarket checkout line read your article instead of the six next to it? What would make an editor buy your story immediately instead of filing it for later? The answer is your hook.

Abigail Green (www.abigailgreen.com) is a freelance writer in Baltimore. Over the past 10 years, she has written about health, travel, weddings, business, education and more for national, regional and online publications including AOL, AAA World, Bride’s, Baltimore Magazine, Cooking Light and Health. Her latest project is raising her first child, which she chronicles in her blog: http://diaryofanewmom.blogspot.com/.

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