How to Write Better Headlines by Ripping Off Every Book Ever

Creativity is hard. And trying to be original just makes everything worse.

So if you’re having trouble creating a fiery headline, just do what everyone else does:

Plunder and pillage from every available source.

Authors and editors spend days agonising over the titles of their books. And you can cash in on their misery with a quick bit of thievery.

Let’s take a look at a few classic gems and see why they work:

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

A headline in the form of a question does a lot of the work for you.

On a sub-conscious level, your readers are already considering the possible answers – which means they’re already engaging in the topic before they’ve read the first line of your content (or even clicked through to the page).

But Philip K. Dick’s influential novel (the one that inspired Blade Runner) is doing a whole lot more than that.

In just six words, he’s managed to:

  • Ask an intriguing question
  • Give us specific hints about the content of the book (androids and their psychological behaviour)
  • And introduce an intriguing new concept (artificial dreams).

And added together, these things create some serious interest.

So how can you bring this to your own headlines?

It’s not enough to just rearrange a normal headline into the form of a question. You need to spice things up.

You need to ask a question that prods their imagination. An open question with no easy answer – a question that demands that they read on if they want to uncover a secret.

Because if you present your readers with a question that has an easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, that’s the end of it. Before they’ve clicked on your content or even thought about whether they want to read more, they’ve resolved the issue – they don’t need any more from you.

2. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

If I made a list of titles I never thought I’d see on a published book, this would be somewhere on that list.

Just like the story of the novel itself, the title is a mash-up. It’s the marriage of two completely opposite genres and settings, and this disparity creates something truly unique and attention-grabbing.

Even if you hate both tropes – period dramas and zombie attacks – it’s hard not to be intrigued by the wackiness of two ideas that should never have been pushed together.

If you’ve never heard of this book, I bet you’re already looking it up. You’re either outraged, incredulous, amused, or curious. And if you can evoke any or all of those reactions towards your own content, you can call that a success.

So how can you replicate it?

That’s simple. Take whatever topic you’re writing about, and mash it up with something else that doesn’t seem connected:

  • ‘How Accounting Software Saved My Marriage’
  • ‘5 Lessons in People Management from Game of Thrones
  • ‘Why Every CEO Needs Ice Cream at Their Board Meetings’.

But there’s one condition here:

You need to respect your audience. If you’re going to marry two estranged concepts to make an attractive headline, you need to make sure your content actually follows through on that promise.

It doesn’t have to become the entire thrust of your message – but at some point, you’re going to have to show your readers exactly how accounting software saved your marriage.

3. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

We’ve all heard of ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’.

So when we see a title that’s the mirror image of an established phrase, we’re intrigued and amused. We’re drawn in by the familiarity of the construction – but we’re hooked by the twist on a classic set of words.

You might think this is a bit of a cheap ploy: piggybacking on the fame of a book title that you’ve appropriated for your own gains.

And there’s some truth in that. But in reality, everything ‘original’ is a modification or combination of things that have gone before. It just so happens that this method is particularly transparent.

If you’re able to twist a well-known title into something funny or surprising, most people will appreciate the parody. You’re giving them a chance to participate in the collusion, and that participation can act as a powerful hook on its own.

So how do we make it work?

You already know how it works. Take a well-known title (or slogan or quotation) and flip it around: turn it upside down to make it fit your own agenda. That could mean:

  • A negation – ‘Why the Customer Isn’t Always Right’
  • A modification – ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Taxes (But Were Afraid to Ask)’
  • Or an opposite – ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Useless People’.

The closer your new twisted title is to the original, the better. But the difference needs to be clear (as in the ‘How to Lose Friends’ example) – and it needs to make sense (would anyone really be afraid to ask questions about taxes?).

4. A Clockwork Orange

If you didn’t have a few curious questions when you first saw this book title, you’re probably a clockwork person yourself.

Anthony Burgess hasn’t just created a piece of intriguing imagery. He’s brought together two unrelated concepts in a new and unique way to create something totally original (just like the ‘electric sheep’ and ‘artificial dreams’ in the example above).

And before you’ve opened the first page of the novel, you already know things are about to get weird.

So how can you steal it?

In the content world, a three-word title that consists of a single image probably isn’t going to get you the attention you want. It’s too abstract and minimal for the audience and interests you’re trying to target.

But if you can weave something like this into one of your more everyday titles, you can create the kind of headline that grips a visitor’s eyes and doesn’t let go.

You could try:

  • ‘Do You Have a Creep Nose Working in Your Company?’
  • ‘How to Turn Your Marketing Campaign into a Wiry Wheel
  • ‘Looking for More Clients? You Need to Increase Your Vein Range

I don’t know what any of these mean. But don’t they sound interesting? Wouldn’t you want to click on a piece of content that promised an explanation of one of these new terms?

Even though I know these examples are nonsense pairings of words, I’m intrigued. The gears are in motion, and I think I already have an idea in my mind of what kind of person a ‘Creep Nose’ might be.

5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Dave Eggers’ memoir is – I hope – titled with a sense of humour.

It’s self-referential. It breaks the fourth wall. But besides its silliness, it’s also shamelessly selling itself.

It’s a story about a man looking after his younger brother after his parents die of cancer. So it’s probably heartbreaking. And it’s a book that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize – so it might not be a stretch to call it a work of genius.

But regardless of what you think of the book, that’s a title that demands attention. And it’s a great example of the kind of shameless self-promotion that you can bring to your own content headlines.

So how can we use it?

It’s simple:

Don’t settle for the mundane. Add a little excitement to your headlines. And if you’re feeling cheeky, inject some exaggeration and hyperbole along with it. Instead of going straight to your default headline (like ’10 Tricks to Help You Get More Sales’) you could try:

  • ‘The Only Guide to Closing Deals You’ll Ever Need’
  • ‘The Most Exhaustive Compendium of Sales Tricks on the Internet’
  • ’10 Industry Secrets from Millionaire Salesmen They Begged Us Not to Reveal’

But you need to be careful. As these examples show, it’s easy to start creating headlines that border on the ludicrous. You need to maintain a healthy level of dignity and respect for your audience – you don’t want your professional website to start sounding like tabloid clickbait.

Does any of it really matter?

Book authors spend a lot of time on their headlines. And you should too.

Just like a book-lover perusing the shelves in Waterstones, the people you want to attract are browsing through social media feeds (or scrolling through the first page of Google).

They’re overwhelmed with options and offers of articles and blog posts to read. And that little extra bit of hard work spent spicing up your headlines can mean the difference between a headline that’s skipped and a headline that gets clicks.

How to Keep Coming Up with Ideas for Your Blog Forever

Let’s be honest: running a blog probably isn’t your passion.

You’ve got a business to look after. And that means you’re more worried about making connections, developing new products, and pushing your sales numbers as far as they can go.

So if you’re someone who feels like they’re stuck with the task of creating content (rather than someone who does it for a living), it’s all too easy to run out of steam early on.

And that, my friends, is what kills a blog.

So to help you out, I’ve put together a few quick tips to help you approach your brainstorming from a different angle. Instead of staring at a blank page, searching your tired mind for any hint of a fresh nugget of inspiration, we’re going to take a few shortcuts.

(And for the most part, we’re going to get brand new ideas from the old ones we already have – no creative juices required!)

Ready? Let’s start with something simple:

1. Zoom in

The first batch of ideas you have for your blog will usually be broad. And that’s fine. You need to get these broad ideas out first so you have something to work with later.

They could be things like:

  • ‘How to Attract More Customers to Your Business’
  • ‘How to Cook like a Professional Chef’
  • Or ‘The Best Free Plugins for WordPress’.

But there are two problems with creating blog posts around broad topics like these:

They quickly exhaust your supply of topics – and they’re not usually all that helpful or deep.

To a first-time reader, posts like these reek of ‘basic’. When I land on a site and see that their most recent post is ‘How to attract more customers to your business’, I immediately assume that they haven’t been blogging for long.

But if I see a blog post called ‘How to get CEOs interested in your B2B business’ – I assume that blog is a little more mature.

And if I see ‘How to increase your response rates from retail CEOs when cold-pitching in your B2B email campaigns with MailChimp’, then I know that’s a blog that probably has a long history of in-depth ideas.

So what does that mean?

It means that the further you zoom in – with a pin-point focus on one specific situation or problem – the more different ideas you’ll be able to squeeze out of one single broad topic (attracting customers).

But wait. There’s more:

As you go deeper and deeper with your microscope, you’ll be forced to dig down to the extremes of the particular cases and obstacles that come with that specific topic. And that means your blog posts will naturally become more rich, useful, and dense with practical tips and relevant content.

2. Branch out

Most businesses have a clear focus. They help people with a specific problem, or they create products for a specific type of person or situation. And that’s fantastic. It helps your business to stay focused on a small number of services and improvements.

But your blog doesn’t have to be so narrow in scope.

People come to your business for one reason. But they have all sorts of related interests and problems that you can solve.

As a copywriter, I mostly write about writing. I write about advertising and marketing, communication and tone of voice.

But the people I want to attract (businesses, marketers, and agencies) have all sorts of problems. In fact, just about any problem that businesses, marketers, and agencies have would be appropriate for this blog.

I could write about SEO, web design, DIY software, or accounting. I could offer some commentary on the latest news that affects businesses – or even look at some free learning courses, software, or bargains on business tools.

There are limits, of course. I don’t intend to start sharing my cooking recipes. Or waffling on about my personal life and the pets I don’t have.

And if I do decide to have a bit of fun with a critical rant (which is highly likely), it’s going to be about something relevant.

The important thing is to realise that – whatever industry or niche you might be in – your blog isn’t as limited as you think. Your visitors are complete human beings with a range of desires, interests, and problems – and there’s a whole world of related topics you can cover.

3. Cycle back

If you looked at the first list of broad topics and saw some of your own early blog posts in there, don’t worry:

They’re not done and dusted just yet.

As long as there’s plenty of time between them – ideally, at least a few months – most people won’t notice or care that you’re exploring the same topic you’ve covered before.

But there is a caveat here:

You need to take that old topic and do something new with it. That might mean taking one part of an old post and expanding it (‘zooming in’), or taking that idea in a new direction and applying it to other areas of interest (‘branching out’).

This blog post is about coming up with new ideas for a blog. But that doesn’t have to be the end of it. There’s nothing to stop me coming back in a few months with a new spin on the same subject. I could easily cycle back with a whole list of new titles around the same topic, such as:

  • ‘How to Use Keyword Research Tools to Get New Ideas for Your Blog’
  • ‘Five Offline Places to Find Inspiration for Your Blog’
  • Or ‘How to Trick Your Social Followers into Giving You Ideas for Your Blog’.

The list goes on. And so will your blog.

4. Break it down

Long-tail keywords aren’t just useful for SEO experts: they’re fantastic for content creators, too.

Sites like Keyword Tool or AnswerThePublic can give you a huge list of suggested keywords based on a quick search (such as ‘blog writing’). In the case of Keyword Tool, you won’t be able to see details like the search volume and the cost-per-click unless you sign up – but you can still get plenty of ideas from the keywords themselves:

From a simple search for ‘blog writing’, you can already see a few keyword suggestions that you might not have thought of by yourself. And without leaving the first suggestion – ‘blog writing and earning’ – you could create an entire batch of new articles around one specific part of blog writing (the money).

You could start planning posts like:

  • ‘How Much Does a Blog Writer Charge per Hour?’
  • ‘Should You Charge Every Client the Same Rate for Blog Writing?’
  • ‘Why You Should Never Pay a Blog Writer by the Word’
  • ‘Writing Blogs for Clients? Here’s How You Get Them to Pay on Time’.

5. Reach out

If you’re not using other platforms to help bring traffic to your blog, you’re missing out.

We all (hopefully) use social media sites to link to our blog and generate some discussion. But you can take things one step further:

Ask your prospects and customers what they’re interested in. Find out what important information they need to know, and which difficulties and obstacles they’d like help with – and then write about them in your blog.

This approach isn’t just a sneaky way to get free ideas. It’s also a way to guarantee that you’re covering the right topics for your audience. And as a bonus, the social media discussion around their problems and needs gives you free and easy visibility and activity on that platform – before you’ve written a single word of your blog post.

Ready to give your blog eternal life?

If it seems like keeping a blog fresh forever is impossible, don’t worry.

Everyone feels the same. But remember this: there are websites out there that have been publishing new content three or four times a day for ten years.

So if they haven’t run out of steam yet, you’ve got no excuse.

Unless, of course, you’ve hired a professional to do it for you.

That’s a pretty good excuse to stop writing. And I recommend you take it.

Why Is It So Hard for People to Write in Plain English?

People are proud of their pomposity.

I’m already proud of that first sentence – even though I know it might put some readers off.

And if I’m being honest, it’s fun to use rare words.

You might think I’m being imperious. Or haughty.

You might think I’m a bombastic braggart whose orotund ostentation belies his naïve and narcissistic nature.

And I wouldn’t blame you. But know this:

People do it all the time. And it doesn’t help anyone – including themselves.

Whatever you’re writing or saying, there’s always a simple way to go about it.

And the first step towards making things simple is understanding why we love to make things hard.

Shaking off the academic rigour

If you’ve ever had to read an academic essay or a thesis, you’ll know just how horrible that experience is.

I wrote a few pompous student essays myself, once upon a time. And when I read them now, I don’t know who I was trying to impress.

Except I do know: I was definitely trying to impress the teachers and professors.

(Or I was trying to trick them into giving me a higher grade.)

Just like with any business jargon you’ll find today, students and teachers use complex words and phrases as a set of shortcuts.

If they tried to break everything down into plain English, it would take them hundreds of words just to get through a few sentences.

But there’s also a definite element of camouflage involved:

Students and pupils who are unsure of what they’re saying can use complex language to try and hide their lack of clarity.

And when those same people start working in businesses, they don’t usually move on from that student mindset. They keep on using the same sort of jargon for the rest of their lives.

They use the kinds of complex language that they hope makes their business look more ‘professional’ – even if it makes their message harder to understand.

Here’s a quick example that I managed to dig up from my first year as a philosophy student (with the pompous phrasing in bold):

It is apparent that every action or effect in nature is preceded by a connected cause. This necessity, and the mind’s natural inclination to infer between cause and effect, suggests a categorical incompatibility with the idea of free will. If our will is free, we make our own choices and lead our own lives. But it is undeniable that there is a uniformity in human actions that makes many events predictable based upon prior circumstances, even when ‘chosen freely’.”

What a load of rubbish.

Here’s how it looks in plain English:

“We all believe that everything that happens has a cause.

But if we can find a cause in the past for everything that happens, it’s hard to explain how we also have free will.

Everyone feels like they have free will. And everyone feels like they make their own choices in life.

But we can often predict what others will do by understanding their personalities and the experiences they’ve had – and these are already set in place by the time we make a choice.

So if our ‘choices’ rely on things that happened in the past, that means we make choices based on things we can’t control.

And that means we’re not really choosing freely.”

It’s a little longer. But it’s a lot more pleasant.

When you saw it in its first form – full of pretentious words and overly complex phrases – you might have assumed that it was saying something profound.

But when you see it laid out in plain English, you realise that it’s not really saying anything revolutionary.

Without changing the meaning of the content, it’s gone from a 50 on the Flesh-Kincaid reading ease score to an 80. That’s like taking a Financial Times article and turning it into a passage from Harry Potter.

Would this sort of language and phrasing go down well if it were submitted as a university paper?

I can’t say for sure.

But I can say with confidence that this kind of jargon-deconstruction can work wonders for a business that wants to get its message out to the general public.

So in which manner ought we to act so as to consequently curtail our dependence on such perplexing communication?

I’d love to say that it’s easy.

But it’s hard to change habits that have been reinforced for years.

Those pompous essays get people good grades.

And those highfalutin cover letters and CVs get people into good jobs.

Your pretentious language has helped you to achieve your earliest goals. And that can make it even harder to learn to let go of it.

So all you can do is remember this:

You’ve already got your qualifications and your job – so you don’t need to keep trying to show people how huge your brain is.

You’re in the real world now. And the things you write only have one goal:

Putting ideas into people’s minds.

In your day-to-day job, you write things so that you can inform, instruct, persuade, or convince the people you work with and the people you work for.

Sometimes (depending on your audience) it might be useful to throw in a few fancy words to impress.

But for the most part, you’re writing for people who just want to understand what you’re saying.

They want your information to help them achieve their own personal goals.

So if you can give it to them in a plain and simple way, they’ll be grateful. And everyone will be able to achieve more.

Learning from your peers

If you’ve spent most of your career as an employee inside a big company, you’re probably overflowing with business jargon.

You’ve read countless reports and emails, sat through countless meetings, and attended countless training sessions and seminars.

When every person above you and around you is using the same sort of language, you start to use it too.

And I don’t blame you.

Everyone adapts to their surroundings: we all naturally try to fit in with the people around us.

But when you spend too much time with one crowd, it’s easy to forget that most people don’t speak and write that way.

“It’s critical that we ensure we’re identifying the stakeholders before undertaking any initiative,” says the office manager. “So for every new project, I want you to draw up a document enumerating those impacted, and distribute it amongst your colleagues.”

“What?” says the new kid, looking up from his notes.

The manager sighs, and tries again.

“Before we start any project, we need to know about the people that project will affect. So for every new project, I want you to write a list of those people, and send it to the team.”

“Oh,” says the new kid. “I can do that.”

You can see why this is a problem.

But the worst part isn’t during the exchange between managers and their teams.

It’s when this convoluted phrasing starts to bleed out beyond the grey walls of the meeting room.

Work buddies who normally chat by the water cooler start to use this dense language in their emails with each other.

They then start to use it when they email their suppliers and their clients.

And worst of all: they start to use it in their company blog posts, on the website’s home page, and in their social media marketing messages.

Their poor customers, who just want to read and understand, now have to sift through a wall of impenetrable industry jargon to get to the basic information they’re looking for.

All because a few people in that company like to use fancy words for no good reason.

So how can you fix it?

You’ll be happy to hear that this one really is easy:

Before you write anything – an email, a blog post, a presentation, or a set of instructions – you need to spend a few minutes thinking about what you’re writing and who it’s for.

Think back to your first week on the job, and all the ridiculous new words that threw you off when you first saw or heard them.

Then strip them from your vocabulary (or save them for the times when no other word can replace them).

Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is start writing as if you’re one human being talking to another human being.

It’s so crazy it just might work.

Leaning on your crutches

There’s a curious dilemma when it comes to choosing between complicated language and plain English:

Complicated language is harder to read, but it’s easier to write (if it’s available to you).

And plain English is easier to read, but harder to write (even though it’s available to everyone).

Why?

Because convoluted phrasing is the default setting for our poor modern brains.

Jargon and buzzwords are shortcuts to ideas that we’re used to seeing in our professional spheres. And longer words usually point to a complicated concept more efficiently than a bunch of short ones.

That means it takes time and effort to reduce a message down to plain and simple language.

And it takes even more time and effort to say the same thing simply without bloating your message with too many extra words.

For anyone who writes often, this isn’t really new information.

You can ask a scientist:

“I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.”

– Benjamin Franklin, 1750

Or a philosopher:

“I will not deny, but possibly it might be reduced to a narrower compass than it is … But to confess the truth, I am now too lazy, or too busy to make it shorter.”

 – John Locke, 1690

Or even a President of the United States:

“That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

 – Woodrow Wilson, 1918

Since our advanced (lazy) human brains have evolved to complete tasks by taking the most efficient path, we end up relying on long and complicated language – regardless of who our audience is or how it might affect them.

So what’s the fix?

It takes two people for successful communication to happen.

But as the creator of a message, the bulk of the responsibility lies with you.

So don’t be lazy: look beyond the path of least resistance.

Look for the path that has the least resistance for your audience, and find a compromise somewhere between them and you.

(A compromise which hopefully lies in the reader’s favour.)

Are you of the opinion that you’re currently qualified to deliver accessible communication to your most important stakeholders without obscuring your intended meaning?

No?

No problem.

I’m right here.

5 Opening Hooks from Fiction You Can Totally Steal for Your Content

They’re going to ignore you.

A thousand careful words, sculpted from the deepest roots of your hard-won experience and wisdom.

All wasted, of course – because you didn’t know how to hook ’em.

I’m not going to regurgitate statistics about the first few seconds. And I’m not going to waffle on about how first impressions count.

Because the reality is much simpler than that:

People just aren’t that interested in reading other people’s stuff.

You need something that grabs them from the first line. You need something that says ‘Hey. This is worth it. Keep going and you’ll see.’

And no one knows this better than fiction authors.

They spend entire careers being routinely ignored and rejected – by literary agents, magazines, publishers, and the millions of readers who have thousands of other things to read.

So if anyone knows how to grab people by the eyelids, it’s fiction writers.

Here are 5 of the simplest ways they do it:

1. Start with a juicy bit

‘They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the colour of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chawk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tyres. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallised hexogene and flaked TNT.’

Count Zero, William Gibson

I have a friend whose dad was a fiction author. And he used to say this:

No one starts eating a slice of cake at the crust. They go straight to the middle to get the best part first.

In academic circles, they call it starting in media res (‘into the middle of things’). And in the case of Count Zero, William Gibson doesn’t muck about.

Before you’ve finished the third sentence, there’s already a kamikaze cyborg dog hunting down the story’s hero and blowing him to pieces.

If that doesn’t make you want to read more, I don’t know what will.

So what’s the lesson?

When you’re writing a sales page or an article, there’ll never be anything as exciting as a kamikaze cyborg.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t skip most of the exposition and jump straight into something interesting.

There is something interesting in your content at some point, right?

Good. Now put it front and centre – why were you making people work for it?

Forget the meek and humble introduction.

Forget the bit where you welcome your visitors, and forget the bit where you lay down context like a teenager writing a padded-out essay.

Cut straight to the chase, and throw your readers into the action from the very first sentence.

Less of this:

‘In recent years, many smartphone users have begun to move away from established premium products (like the iPhone) towards more affordable alternatives from overseas – such as the latest offerings from Chinese manufacturers, Huawei.’

And more of this:

‘We all saw it coming. The iPhone is dead.

But we never thought Huawei would be the ones holding the pillow.’

2. Start with a twist

‘It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.’

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

There’s a reason why people get sick of reading blog posts and web pages.

They’re predictable and formulaic – so much so, that you could probably guess the second sentence after reading the first few words of the opening line.

With Catch-22, Joseph Heller starts with something simple, mundane and cliché. But by the second line, he’s already completely subverted our expectations.

It wouldn’t work today, of course. There’s nothing unusual about men falling in love.

But back in 1962, that would have been a jarring juxtaposition to start a mainstream novel with. And you can apply the same theory to your own content.

How does it work?

It’s simple.

Except it’s not. (What a twist!)

But really, it is.

Start with a straightforward first line that puts your readers into one mindset.

And then follow it up with something that’s completely at odds with that mindset:

‘Looking for a web designer?

You’ve come to the wrong place.

Our customisable site builder gives you the power to create your own unique website – even if you have no idea what you’re doing.’

3. Start with a weird word

‘Limp, the body of Gorrister hung from the pink palette; unsupported – hanging high above us in the computer chamber; and it did not shiver in the chill, oily breeze that blew eternally through the main cavern.’

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison

Just try and find another short story or novel that starts with the word ‘limp’.

Go on, I’ll wait.

We’re so used to the conventions of speech and narrative that we expect any piece of writing (whether it’s fiction or marketing) to start off with words and phrases like these:

  • When I
  • There’s a
  • It was a
  • Back in the

When you start with basic phrases like these, you’re already nestling your readers into a familiar and comfortable position.

Sometimes that’s a good thing: it can help to ease your readers in and gently set the scene.

But when every blog post starts in the same predictable way, their minds begin to wander, and they lose interest.

How can we make it work?

If you try to start every bit of content by shoehorning in a word like ‘limp’, it’s going to feel forced.

Instead, you can try to work a spicy word in at some point during the first sentence. Like this:

‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

‘When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.’

The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R Tolkien

‘The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.’

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

These unexpected words aren’t just there to add artistic flavour. They shock your reader out of their complacency.

They force your reader to wake up and pay attention, and they hint at more to come: more spicy phrasing, more of your lively tone of voice, and more of your unusual perspective on things.

4. Start with a story

‘Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.’

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

Most people have limited attention spans.

(Or it could just be that your content is boring.)

Either way, they won’t usually want to plough through your 2,000-word narrative to get a satisfactory conclusion to the topic.

They’ll use your opening lines as a taster to see whether it’s worth reading more. So if you want to give them a warm, fuzzy feeling before they give up, you need to give them a pay-off as quickly as you can.

How does it work?

It’s simple:

Just take a shortcut to an early conclusion.

By starting off a blog post or an article with a mini-story, you can give your readers some scene-setting intrigue – and a satisfying resolution – in just a few short lines.

Before they’ve had a chance to get bored, they’re already enthralled. And they’ll be far more likely to give the rest of your article a chance.

You’ll have seen this technique in newspapers and journals plenty of times.

An article about immigration starts with the plight of one particular family of refugees. Or a piece about prison injustice begins with the tale of one particular mistreated prisoner.

It needs to be brief, and it needs to be instantly compelling. There’s no point aiming for immediate satisfaction if you let your introduction stretch to cover half of your article.

5. Start with deliberate mystery

‘The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.’

Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

A tower that shouldn’t be there? That needs some explaining.

And how are we going to get that explanation?

By reading further, of course.

Deliberate obscurity has been a staple of suspense in books and films for decades. But it needs to be handled with care.

If it’s too heavy-handed, the attempt at manipulation becomes obvious. And if it’s too subtle, there’ll be no sense of mystery imparted.

Annihilation handles this perfectly. The mysterious clause (‘which was not supposed to be there’) is tucked into the sentence as an aside – as if it’s a throwaway addition to the main thrust of the sentence.

You don’t have time to stop and think about it, because you’re already reading the rest of the sentence.

But the seed has been planted, and it’s had an effect.

So how can you use this?

There are plenty of different ways to add a little intrigue to your opener. You could try:

  • Playing the pronoun game – (‘She walks onto the seminar stage with an arrogant confidence. She’s smiling, but we all know she’s just been forced to resign.’)
  • Making a bold statement, and delaying the explanation – (‘If you’re an employee anywhere, you’re getting ripped off. You might think that sounds dramatic, but…’)
  • Making an enticing promise that you’ll get to later – (‘I can save your business thousands of pounds a month. Now, you’re probably wondering…’)

Are these cheap tactics? Probably.

Do they work? Definitely.

The important part (just like with the Annihilation example above) is that you’re able to handle them carefully.

You need to make it feel natural, and you need to be able to hold your reader’s attention with the rest of your message until you finally reveal the answer to the mystery you’re dangling before them.

Ready for a new beginning?

The first few lines of any piece of writing are crucial.

And with a few of these tricks, it’s easy to start hooking more readers from the first few words.

But if you don’t have the time (or the patience) to craft the kinds of content that gets people reading, don’t worry:

Your friendly neighbourhood copywriter is ready and waiting to help.

How to Write for People Who Didn’t Grow Up in English

The game’s rigged.

The rules are inconsistent, and the tools are counter-intuitive.

There’s no intelligent design. No system that’s completely predictable. There’s hardly any logic, and the path is full of traps.

Welcome to the English language. It’s not an easy thing to break into.

But if you’ve got a good grip on it, you’ve got the power to make things easier when you write.Continue reading