I teach writing. Mostly academic writing. And the one take-away from earlier writing courses that every student seems to comes into my class clinging to is the dreaded essay hook.
What a serious waste of writing instruction time. In this blog post, I'm going to outline why I think teaching (and learning) essay hooks is a giant misuse of valuable brain space.
I often tell my students that when they run into a piece of writing advice that varies wildly from source to source, they can usually conclude it's not worth much in the real world of writing. Good writing advice tends to be fairly consistent. When it comes to essay hooks, folks who are obsessed with them can't even agree if they're one sentence or more. One source will claim that opening with a question is a good hook. Another source will claim you should never open with a question. A third source will claim that you can open with a question, but only if you follow it up with two additional questions and none of those questions should be from a main point in your essay.
Sheesh. And we wonder why so many students hate writing?
Why is it so hard to define a good hook? Because writing can't be boiled down to a set of tidy rules that apply no matter what you are writing or what audience you are writing it for.
Imagine if we tried to establish specific rules for good first remarks when starting a conversation with someone. "You should always start a conversation by asking the other person a question about themselves" or "Every conversation should begin with formal introductions so the other person knows who they are talking to." Ugh. Do these things happen at the beginning of some conversations? Yes, of course. Do they happen at the beginning of EVERY conversation? No, and you'd come across as socially awkward if you opened each and every conversation you ever had with one of five predetermined moves.
Consider a recent conversation I had while in line at a department store:
WOMAN: I hope somebody is watching that little boy over there. He's going to get hurt here in a minute.
ME: I think his mom is more concerned with her cellphone than she is with him.
WOMAN: Well, to be fair, cellphones are more expensive to replace than children are.
ME (laughing): That was hilarious. Can I use that line in my writing someday?
WOMAN: Be my guest. You're a writer? What do you write?
ME: All kinds of stuff, but I'll probably use that line in a blog post on my website. Would you like me to cite you?
WOMAN: (laughing): Just describe me as a smoking hot, older woman.
ME: You got it.
This smoking hot, older woman's opening line was perfectly fine. She simply said what was on her mind. She didn't need to consult a how-to guide to ensure that I'd be hooked enough to respond.
My point is this: we start all of our conversations based on the contexts and situations and purposes and audiences within that particular moment. Starting a textual conversation should be no different.
It's Simply Not True
I think the thing that bothers me the most about the "you MUST always grab your audience with a good hook" lesson is that it's simply not true. I'll explain.
Your paper's hook must grab your reader's attention to entice them to read on.
Bullshit. First off, it's the title of the piece that initially grabs a reader's attention, yet I rarely see writing teachers spending any time on that particular skill. In any given term, more than half of the essays handed into me are titled "Paper One." If grabbing your reader's attention from the beginning is so freaking important, why aren't we teaching kids about the art of crafting a good title?
Second: Who stops reading a student's essay after the first line? Who does that? Geez, what I wouldn't give to be able to say to students, "I didn't grade your paper because that first line wasn't a solid hook, so nothing enticed me to read on. Sorry." Imagine all the time I'd regain by only grading the papers with first lines that enticed me to read on. C'mon. The readers of the world aren't THAT impatient (yet). And let's be honest here--for truly avid readers, the fact that there are words on the paper already has them hooked.
Finally, I have yet to find a group of people who can agree on what differentiates a good hook from any other first line. In peer-reviewed scholarly writing, it's not unusual to open with something like, "This paper reports the findings of a year-long study on why writing instructors still insist on teaching essay hooks to students despite mounting evidence that it displaces more valuable writing instruction." I don't know about you, but I'm hooked. And the line didn't even contain a question, quote, statistic, or personal anecdote. To many writing instructors, though, this perfectly acceptable opening line would earn a giant poop emoji sad face (if such a thing existed).
I've had this same conversation with many of my writing instructor colleagues, and they'll often parade out a bunch of sentences from Pulitzer Prize winning essays and say, "But look at this. You can't deny that the author skillfully hooked her audience here. Why wouldn't we want to teach students how to do that?" Because our students aren't writing their honey bee essays for submission to the Pulitzer Prize. Plus, if we knew how to expertly write Pulitzer Prize winning opening lines ourselves, I suspect most of us would not have much time to teach writing in the first place.
Look, I'm not saying that first lines can't be fabulous, and I'm not saying that anything goes for that first line. I'm just saying that far more important that a first line be fabulous is that it be there to begin with. For so many of our students, the ridiculous focus on getting that first line "just right" only makes writing intolerable for them. And besides, one person's "just right" is not another person's "just right," so we're making writing more subjective and painful than it needs to be. Stop it. Instead, let's just teach students to write their first lines based on the situation they're writing for.
Here's a recent exchange I had with a student:
ME: I think this is a great essay, but I think your opening line needs work: "From the beginning of time, people have been engaging in arguments, and nowadays is no different."
STUDENT: That's my hook. I tried to make a global statement. Is it not good?
ME: I sensed you were trying to follow a specific strategy here, but the rest of your essay so seamlessly discusses your topic that this line feels very different. It feels forced.
STUDENT: Should I take it out?
ME: Well, let's think about how you might tweak it. Who is your audience? Mainstream readers? Academics? Student peers? School newspaper readers?
STUDENT: Academics. Maybe political science majors.
ME: Is it important to you that you establish arguing has been around for a long time? Wouldn't they already know that?
STUDENT: Yeah, I guess so. What's important to me is that I'm trying to say that people just don't debate things like they used to.
ME: Couldn't you just say that?
STUDENT: I don't know. So...something like, "The way people debate has changed a lot these days."
ME: I personally think that's a much stronger opening. It feels more like the rest of the essay, and it prepares your reader for what your overall argument is. Just make sure you adjust the level of explicitness for your audience--"a lot" and "these days" are kinda vague, so you might ask yourself if it'd be even more appealing to your audience if you were a bit more precise.
STUDENT: OK. Cool.
See how painless that was? Instead of teaching students to select from an arbitrary and contested list of specific strategies, help them to identify what the situation calls for. Help them identify THEIR goals for what they've written, and not just our goals for the assignment. Teach them that their first line can always be tweaked in revision and that even if they end up with the shittiest of shitty lines, no one who needs to read their work is ever going to stop reading because of it.
Think I'm alone in my assessment that teaching hooks is a waste of time? I'm not.