Tips for Getting Readers Hooked With Your Openings

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“Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.” Ernest Hemingway told George Plimptonin an interview for The Paris Review in 1958. The series was called the “Art of Fiction,” but John McPhee—the wonderful octogenarian, non-fiction author still writing for The New Yorker—writes in his latest article that this most certainly applies to non-fiction as well.

Interestingly, that rule has never been as relevant as today—especially in niche publishing—given everyone’s attention span and skimming style of reading. Often, the subject lines or opening, two-sentence descriptions for a product, webinar or event session may be the most important lines we write. And who hasn’t had to shorten a PowerPoint presentation?

“…Hemingway’s Theory of Omission seems to me to be saying to writers, ‘Back off. Let the reader do the creating,'” McPhee writes. “To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost…Let the reader have the experience.”

Of course, clickbait headlines have taken this to a new level, but those writers are good at what they do, and to an extent, follow McPhee’s advice, though their “shocks” are not of the corn variety. We just had the D.C. Shorts Film Festival here, and I marvel at the descriptions those folks come up with for their films:

  • Paranoia takes over a reluctant senior when she is threatened by her bridge partner…
  • While apartment hunting, a couple accidentally discovers that they want very different things in life…
  • A teenage girl finds out the hard way that her mother is secretly a superhero.
  • A soldier is forced to grapple with her environment, shattering her child-like fantasy world.

That last description, about a film from Israel, works in many ways. Soldiers are interesting, especially female ones in Israel, where military is mandatory. And then we can all relate on some level to a “child-like fantasy world”—either from our past or our children’s present. In the description before, using “mother” and “superhero” definitely has us “clicking” to see more.

Niche publishers have the advantage of space on their websites to include everything they want. But still, the openings can be crucial for people to decide to keep reading. One problem I’ve pointed out in the past is that we don’t always take enough time to craft these openings, short descriptions or subject lines. And we don’t test enough.

Upworthy, one of the most successful aggregators, requires its staff to write 25 headlines for every story, and at Buzzfeed, a majority of writers’ time is spent on headlines and leads. The Amazon-influenced Washington Post created a team of 16 people focused on rewriting headlines to boost traffic. And we’re not even getting into social media, where these skills only intensify.

Robbie Kellman Baxter wrote the best-selling book The Membership Economy, and she and SIPA’s managing director, Nancy Brand, will only have a 50-minute fireside chat to address the most pressing issues publishers are facing today. In advance, they are speaking with SIPA publishers to gauge the topics of most interest to the members in order to filter out noise and zero in on value.

That’s a good lead-in to a final quote, from S. Mitra Kalita, managing editor for editorial strategy at the Los Angeles Times, and formerly executive editor at large of Quartz, The Atlantic’s digitally-native news site.

“We think about sharability with the headlines. We think about who is the audience we’re trying to reach, how, and why? I look for ways to make those headlines more accessible. Maybe it means knocking out use of terms like ‘government,’ ‘official,’ or ‘according to,’ things that feel distant as opposed to authentic. It’s just stripping it down to ‘what are we really trying to say?'”

Stripping it down to what are we really trying to say—or I’ll add “convey.” Those are good words to write by.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…