If you didn’t click to read this first sentence, I failed.
If we want to hook readers and hold their attention so they read all the way to the end, we have to generate an intriguing title or headline.
Lure Readers with Your Title
Books, chapters, articles, essays, poems: they all need names or titles that invite the reader to stop skimming and scrolling and think, “Hm. I wonder what this is about?” or “Oh, wow, I need this information.”
I opened up Feedly when I was preparing this article and stopped on an article at The Write Practice titled “How to Find the Core Message of Your Writing” because it was clear and seemed relevant to the kinds of things I like to read.
But I also stopped on an article by Emily P. Freeman: “How to Find (and Become) A Good Listener.” That sounded useful to help me as a coach and to help me improve relationships with family and friends.
Or consider James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. The main title intrigues me with that word “atomic” connected to “habits.” His subtitle is “An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.” Then he includes a tagline that clarifies it further: “Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.” That sounds like a doable approach to the topic of habits, doesn’t it? He hooked me with his title and subtitle combo.
We have to entice our readers to click on the link or open the book by capturing that first concept in a few words that hint at or outright reveal the subject, topic, theme, or problem we’ll address in the piece.
Hook Your Readers with Attention Grabbers
Let’s say you nailed it—you lured in your readers with the headline.
Now it’s time to hook them—to grab them by the throat, as novelists often say. Bring on the attention grabber: it’s that first line or two that will keep them reading.
When I taught composition to high school students, I’d offer attention-grabber ideas like:
- a startling statistic
- a quote
- a question
- an intriguing statement or claim
- a story (e.g., an anecdote that stands alone, a personal story, or someone else’s story)
That article about finding the core message of your writing starts, “Why do you write?”—a question any writer will instinctively answer, at least in his head.
So the author, Joe Bunting, has probably hooked us. Our mind is engaged with the question. It’s a good attention-grabber.
Emily P. Freeman’s article on finding and becoming a good listener has an epigraph—a quote from Dr. Larry Crabb about listening to each other—followed by the beginning of the actual article. She starts with a story:
It’s 2012, and there’s a stack of brochures in the little room I type in. I keep staring over at them, rereading their invitation, “To know more about you: If you would like to be informed of upcoming events…”
I reach over, and I turn the plastic holder to face the wall. I cannot keep reading that same brochure over and over again.
What’s going to happen? Why is this brochure featured so prominently in this story? Is she going to take action? Is it going to change her? What does this brochure have to do with listening?
You can see how stories are great for hooking readers—they’re great attention-grabbers. They awaken curiosity and open a loop that we must close. We want to know what happens and how it ends.
So Emily has hooked me.
You, too, can use stories. And here’s a bonus tip—if you start far enough into a situation, the action of a story engages and hooks the reader, but you can leave it hanging so that you complete the story in the conclusion. That provides closure that satisfies and gratifies the reader. It feels like you’ve come full circle.
But for them to get to the end, you’ve got to hold him.
First you hook them, then you hold them.
Hold Your Reader’s Attention
To hold the reader isn’t easy. We’re battling for his or her attention, and we all know the long list of distractions that can pull a reader away at any moment.
Here are some tips.
Avoid Superfluous Content and Phrasing
Don’t slow down the reader with unnecessary information or stiff writing with complicated sentences. You can write beautifully, but those beautiful words need to add to the story or ideas and not simply pad the project.
Keep your reader moving down the page.
Study Hemingway’s Choices
When Hemingway typed on his typewriter, he didn’t have ways to add bold or bigger fonts—that would come later, with the publisher. But he made choices that affected sentence and paragraph length.
In a sense it affected layout without relying on a graphic designer. By writing tight and breaking up paragraphs, he naturally left more white space. This helps the reader move forward because she’s not intimidated by a big block of text.
Short sentences free the reader from maintaining close attention, so in this age of distraction you’re making it easier for her to follow the storyline or take in the information when you offer it in smaller chunks.
For those drawn to classic novels, this can be frustrating. We want to emulate our heroes who write in a leisurely style of pre-television/pre-Internet/pre-social-media eras.
But we don’t live in those eras. We have television, we have Internet, we have social media. Play with variations to see if you can write the way you want while still holding your readers’ attention.
Once you’re known for a style and tone, you may get by with longer, cumulative, compound-complex sentences because your fans already love to sit with your words and soak them in.
But if you’re just starting out or you’re trying to move into new audiences and reach out into the world, you’ll have better luck hooking and holding readers if you write tight, focused sentences that lead the reader easily through the text to get to the point.
If you use the Hemingway App, where you paste in some of your content to be analyzed, the app will flag the long sentence. I recommend you heed that warning and rework that sentence.
Today’s online reader responds well to short paragraphs.
This doesn’t mean every line needs to stand on its own, but pay attention to how you yourself read when you’re online. See how you feel when you hit a big block of text. Do you resist? Scroll past it? Click away?
Sometimes we feel like we don’t have time to dig into it when it’s one big chunk.
That same content could be divided into smaller chunks, however, and when we encounter the same material divided up, we breeze right through it without stopping—never questioning if we have time to commit.
So online, especially, give your ideas space to breathe on the page.
In print, I think you can get by writing standard paragraphs because someone who picks up a book is already committed to spending time with the material.
Even when reading physical books, however, I find myself appreciating authors who deliver their ideas or stories efficiently. Every detail needs to earn the right to be there, moving the story forward or effectively illustrating a point.
Hook and Hold Your Readers with Easy Navigation
We have a lot of tools at our disposal these days to assist us that don’t rely exclusively on our words. Those of us who publish our own work as articles and blog posts have layout and design options to help us hook and hold our readers.
Use subheadings to label sections so your reader can easily skim through and decide if the information will be interesting or relevant to her. Subheadings are a tool in that way. A gift.
In fact, inserting subheadings can help writers find focus, organization, and flow as they draft.
Use Lists and Bullet Points
You’ll also hold your reader longer if he can glance down and see a list is coming, so use numbered lists and bullet points online and in nonfiction projects like books and articles.
Writers these days need to understand the importance of how visuals and images enhance how the reader interacts with our words.
The power of images is that they:
- break up blocks of text
- illustrate points and add context or interest to the written words
- can be photos (that you have permission to use) or images (like pull quotes on a color background)
- allow people to create an interesting pin on Pinterest, which lets your article live in perpetuity in a search engine, so people can find your content for a long, long time
Think like a magazine editor when you’re putting your project together. Ask what kind of image would help here. What will best fit? Play with sizing and placement.
If you can afford it, hire a graphic designer to do it for you or have the designer create templates you can use that fit your color and style theme and save you time down the road.
Hold Your Readers with Content
We can pull out all the stops with professionally designed images and bullet points, but if the content doesn’t deliver, who cares?
Solve the Problem
If we promise to solve a problem in the headline and dance around it without offering a solution, our reader’s going to lose interest and trust. Resist the urge to craft a clickable headline that you aren’t able to address in the content of your project.
Readers often turn to writers when the writer is an authority on a topic or an expert, but vulnerability will build trust and offers a different kind of ethos and a different kind of hook and hold.
When we open up about our own struggles, readers feel a connection—they’re curious to find out how we resolve our problem or deal with our challenges.
If they struggle with the same problems and challenges, they may not care all that much about how we ourselves solve it, but they’ll be searching for solutions they can apply to their own lives. So they read on.
Your Ideas in Your Voice
Inject your creative, original ideas to add meat and depth to a topic. Make connections others haven’t made and express it in your unique voice to offer value to your reader.
That keeps me reading when I’m trying to figure something out or I want to learn something new. Whether they’re using a lively, entertaining style or a thorough, thoughtful, pensive tone, I’ll stick with the writer who gives me what I’m looking for. They’ll hold me as a reader.
This is where your curious, creative, productive writer-self can bring it home. You’ve got great ideas—share them in your unique voice in ways that readers appreciate.
Do I Want to Read On?
It’s a simple question to ask. I sometimes forget to ask it:
Does this sentence make me want to read the next sentence?
Does one idea lead to the next? Does this paragraph make me want to read the next one?
If the answer is no, the reader may abandon ship. They may click away.
When self-editing, I need to remember this so I can liven up my prose and slice away the parts that drag down the text, to keep my readers engaged.
You can do that, too. Next time you’re writing—well, next time you’re editing—ask yourself, Does this sentence make me want to read the next one? Because if you don’t want to read on, your reader won’t want to, either.
Grab Your Reader and Don’t Let Go
I saw a cartoon the other day that showed a courtroom, and a witness on the stand is pointing to a man, the defendant, shouting, “Yes, that’s him! That’s the author of the book that grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go!”
We want to be that author, guilty as charged. Yes, we want to write books, screenplays, short stories, and articles that grab our readers and won’t let them go. So hook your readers at the very start, hold them throughout your piece, and deliver the goods all the way to the end.
- Hemingway App
- Emily P. Freeman’s “How to Find (and Become) a Good Listener”
- James Clear’s Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results: an Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (affiliate link)
- Three Pillars to Your Best Writing Life series
- A Writer’s Guide to ROI series
- Next-Level Writer series
- Write to Discover series
- All podcast episodes
You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
Daphne Gray-Grant says
Great advice here, Ann. I just want to add a dissenting view about the Hemingway app. Not EVERY long sentence is a problem. A far more valuable metric is your average sentence length. In other words, you can write long sentences if you balance them with shorter ones.
For this reason, I prefer to use Count Wordsmith, a free app that offers this calculation on the first screen (although not with the delightful colors the Hemingway app employs.)
In my experience, writers who pay too much attention to the Hemingway app end up sounding like authors of Dick and Jane readers (ie: See Spot run). But I’m dating myself with that analogy.
Thanks for the recommendation of Count Wordsmith, Daphne. And you bring up a good point, that varying sentence length is critical to crafting engaging paragraphs throughout a piece. Thanks for offering this advice to readers!
James Haney says
Interesting and it looks to be helpful in my writing.
Ann Kroeker says
So glad to hear from you, James!
Robyn Mulder says
Loved this one, Ann! Such good advice, and you hooked and held me with your writing. I was reading it in my email, but when you mentioned that you had to strip out the images, that hooked me and I had to go over to your site to see them (beautiful!). Now I’ll have to listen to it on the podcast, too, so I can hear your lovely voice sharing it.
Thanks for all you do to help our writing. I get so many words of encouragement and wisdom for you and your podcast.
Ann Kroeker says
Aha! My sneaky plan worked! 🙂
I’m honored you took the extra step to click through and read here on the website. Hoping you’ll be able to practice some of these ideas in your writing, and that your work is humming along.
Great to hear from you!
Thank you, Ann. I listened to your podcast on the way to church today but came back for more. FYI, you could write long sentences and block paragraphs–I’d stay with you!
Ann Kroeker says
Goodness, thank you! But you should be careful giving me permission to write long-winded. I can fill pages…..