Writing and Selling the Personal Essay: How to Write a Hook That Hooks

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

hook (v.) – to seize or make fast as if by a hook

The truth is, when you write an essay, you’ve got a single sentence to hook-to seize and make fast-your potential reader.

Not a paragraph. Not an entire essay. Not even, in most cases, two sentences.

Like it or not, one sentence.

Think of it this way.

You’re a writer in Shanghai, and your potential reader in Omaha, Nebraska, is hungry and late for a meeting with her boss. She needs to eat lunch and hightail it to the 3rd floor where her boss is anxiously tapping her foot.

Luckily, this potential reader also wants to read. She wants to feel connected. She wants YOU to seize and make fast her attention in Sentence #1 so profoundly that she forgets the growling pangs in her stomach and reschedules the meeting with her boss.

(Why else would she have opened the magazine in which your essay is published in the first place instead of wolfing down a candy bar on her way to the meeting?)

This potential reader is looking for something. Something that you, the hook-savvy writer, can give.

So how do you do it? How do you hook her? How do you give her what she needs to move from potential reader to reader?

Well, there’s more than one way to write a compelling hook. Here are six good ones!

1. Start with a personal anecdote.
“I kneel in the muskeg, bucket between my legs, cushion of sphagnum moss crimson beneath my rubber boots.”
(from Aleria Jensen’s “Gathering Berries,” Orion Magazine, September/October 2007)

2. Inform your reader.
“In 1993, life began to change for the young women of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.”
(from Teresa Rodriguez’s “Why Speak Out?” Skirt! Magazine, February 2008)

3. Appeal to a universal experience.
“It is not easy to love people when they’re lovable. It’s harder when they’re not.” (Yep, I know. This author uses two sentences here to hook readers. But the two are a team. See how they work together?)
(from Patti Digh’s “Loving Unlovable People,” Skirt! Magazine, February 2008)

4. Make your reader go, “Huh?” or “Really?” or “You’ve got to be kidding!”
“‘Honey, could you please bring me the tissues out of my bag?’ I called from the bathroom in the rundown backpackers’ hostel.”
(from Nicole McClelland’s “Sitting Pretty,” Orion magazine, November/December 2006)

5. Offer a how-to tip.
“First, fall apart.”
(from Kelly Love Johnson’s “How to Fall Out of Love,” Skirt! Magazine, February 2008)

6. Start with a quote.
“IN THE BEGINNING God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
(from Roger Pinckney’s “The Bare Boughs of Winter Trees,” Orion magazine, January/February 2007)

So what are you waiting for? Pull out that essay you’ve been tinkering with and write a hook that sings.

Personal Essay Marketplace: Editors at Orion magazine are looking for “thoughtful submissions concerning the collision of nature and culture, the commingling of people and place.” Sound like something you might write? If so, check out the submission guidelines and get started.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe moved to Shanghai, China, in April 2006 and has been writing about this incredible country ever since. Her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures (and misadventures) in Shanghai and garners the attention of readers all around the world. Her essays about the China experience can be found in The Baltimore Review and To Shanghai With Love (forthcoming). As a respected writing instructor, she has taught hundreds of writers over the past fourteen years and is currently teaching both fiction and nonfiction writing in Shanghai.

3 Responses to “Writing and Selling the Personal Essay: How to Write a Hook That Hooks”

  1. 1 John April 22, 2008 at 1:27 am

    Thanks for these excellent tips. It’s the small details like these that can often be overlooked when crafting the entire arc of a story.


  2. 2 theresa May 7, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Thank you for information on a good hook. I submitted an article which was rejected for lack of a good hook and the editor told me to research the subject. Your details are helpful.

  3. 3 W PP Erhenfor September 21, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Hey,I love your writing. Thanks for the good work.
    you know; I am trying to get an agent. These past week my mind is going nut trying to figure out how I will write a great hook but after reading your piece the sky is clearer.


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