Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About Writing (Part 1): The Hook

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Guest blogger: Joanna Novins

What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About WritingPart 1 The HookSince I have over a decade of experience writing and managing analysis for senior US policymakers and another decade of experience writing novels, reviewing manuscripts, writing cover and catalogue copy for a publisher of commercial fiction, as well as blogging and tweeting, what I’ve learned about writing couldn’t possibly fit into a single blog. So I’ve decided to craft a series of posts with what I consider the most important lessons.

Number 1:
Always hook the reader with the first line.

Policymakers, book buyers, and college admissions officers have at least one key thing in common (besides their need to breathe oxygen). They’re busy people facing a lot of choices. Policymakers need to know why the issue you’re writing about requires their attention more than the all the other crises that have landed on their desk. Book buyers, scanning the cover jacket of your novel or the first page, want to know why they should choose your story over all the other books in the store. And college admissions officers want to know, why you?

What makes a good hook?

When you read the title of this blog did you wonder what the CIA and bodice rippers have in common? Were you curious about whether I might let national security secrets slip? Or were you simply intrigued? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then I hooked you.

An effective hook includes what I like to call the three “I”s, that is, it intrigues, invites, and introduces. More specifically, it includes an intriguing statement or idea, invites you into a world, and introduces you to the narrator.

Here are some examples of great first line hooks. The first two I’ve copped from a 2015 list published by the British newspaper, The Telegraph. Number one on the list, and probably number one on most such lists is from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In a single line, Jane makes a teasingly intriguing statement (are all wealthy men really in need of a wife?), invites you into a world where matrimonial pursuit it all-important, and introduces you to a narrator who has her tongue masterfully tucked in her cheek.

The opening line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby cues you in that your narrator is going to invite you into a past experience he’s had, one that’s shaken his traditional beliefs:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticising any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Intriguingly, the line suggests that despite this experience, the narrator holds so tightly to these beliefs, (his father’s advice) that despite his experience, he may still not be ready to abandon them.

The last example, from M.T. Anderson’s FEED, isn’t from the list, but it’s one of my favorites:

“We went to the moon. And the moon sucked.”

In two very short lines, the narrator has given you a wealth of information. First, he’s telling you that you’re entering a world where travel to the moon is not only possible, it’s so commonplace that the narrator and his companions find it boring. The language (the moon sucked) makes it clear he’s young and jaded. If this young narrator lives in a world where trips to the moon are passé, what, the reader has to wonder, could possibly happen to shake up his life?

So what does great literature have to do with college essays?

At this point, you may be thinking, sure it’s easy to write a good hook if you’re an English lady, living in the roaring twenties, or regularly traveling to the moon. I’m just a senior in high school. Take another look at these lines. Jane Austen’s talking about dating. Fitzgerald’s talking about questioning parental advice. And Anderson’s talking about a trip. It’s their voices, Austen’s snarky, Fitzgerald’s questioning, and Andersen’s blunt and bored, that draw you in.

So how do you craft your hook?

For starters, don’t expect to start out with something amazing like “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”  

Because you can bet dollars to donuts, Dickens didn’t either.

Find your story. Find your voice—are you passionate, questioning, offbeat, funny? Do you text or tweet? That’s also a good place to find your voice.

Let it shine through. Write your draft. Write several. Circle back. Now find what makes your story intriguing, introduce yourself, and cast your line to reel your readers in.

Next! Read the other posts in this series:
Part 2: Keep it Simple, Stupid
Part 3: Beware Disconnected Ideas

With oJoanna Novinsver two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or how to present yourself.  She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was awarded a bachelor’s degree with honors in history from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.



Author: Sharon Epstein

College consultant, teaching students how to write memorable college application essays, grad school and prep school essays, and succeed at job and college interviews.

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