Hooking the Reader: It’s Not Rocket Science

I hate to contradict Rodgers and Hammerstein, but the beginning is not a very good place to start. Whether you’re writing a biography or describing a bird, the best place to start is with the most interesting features.

Before naturalist Roger Tory Peterson came along, a typical description of a robin started at the tip of the beak and ended at the tip of the tail. It wasn’t until you were halfway through the description that you learned a robin has a red breast. Peterson changed that. As the inventor of the modern field guide, he used descriptions that focused on distinguishing characteristics, so birders could accurately identify different species.

Likewise in a biography, start out with what makes the individual unique. Here’s an example of a rather uninspiring biographical note from a portrait at the San Diego Air and Space Museum:

Wernher Von Braun
Rocket Scientist
Born Wirsitz, Germany, 23 March 1912. As chief scientist at the Peenemunde
Rocket Center in Germany, developed the first long range ballistic missile, the V-2.

Before I even get to the interesting part (that he invented the first long-range ballistic missile), I’ve already stopped caring. Impatient readers might stop reading. I’d rewrite this note as follows:

Wernher Von Braun
Rocket Scientist
Developed the first long range ballistic missile, the V-2, while chief scientist at the
Peenemunde Rocket Center in Germany. Born Wirsitz, Germany, 23 March 1912.

In the very first sentence, give readers something to care about. Capture their imagination. Propel them into the second sentence, then into the third. Today’s readers filter the mass of material that confronts them. You have a few seconds to convince readers that your story, article, or paper is worth their time. Don’t waste a sentence. Don’t waste a word. Compel them to read.