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Weak Hooks Make for Wimpy Stories
When a tidbit of new information interests you, use it as a story springboard, not the main hook
The other day I received a very well-written health story, a pitch by a writer who had hooked the entire story on one small new study. The nature of the topic and the study itself were such that the hook was too flimsy, in my view, to warrant being the highlight of a story for a general-interest health publication. Health findings are often overturned with further research, and this one had a whiff of that potential future, so while it was interesting, it wasn’t on its own deserving of primary focus.
But it got me thinking about how one small new study, survey, fact, quote or whatever—any small morsel of new information—can set a writer’s mind galavanting off productively into the land of ideation, searching for a full meal to serve up in the form of a feature story, with a bigger hook and plenty of context and, oh yeah, by the way, that new tidbit in a supporting role.
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I rejected the story, mostly because it was a health story about a very serious topic, life-and-death stuff, and so the bar for a new study, and the reporting and outside sourcing that needs to go into it, has to be high, and also the publication I edit (Wise & Well) is not a hard news site, but rather a place for features that help people make their tomorrow a little better than today. I explained all that.
And then I offered the following advice:
When you find a small bit of “news” that interests you, take your mind up to 30,000 feet and ponder the Big Picture story that it might be a little piece of. Research the prevalence of the thing, what's changed about our knowledge of it over time, where things stand and where they are headed. Then use the little nugget (in this case the new study) as one of several supporting elements, not the main hook.
Here are some examples of recent stories in which I did exactly that during the ideation and research phase of the writing process:
I did it with this story about why I’m kinda done with beef. The spark was a new study finding that “a mere 12% of US adults consume half the beef that’s eaten in the country.” That got me thinking about how my stomach turned recently when I drove past a feedlot, and how I hadn’t had any beef since. That experience ended up serving as an anecdotal lede for a story I hadn’t even decided to write yet. Meanwhile, I did a bunch of research and was surprised to learn that US per-capita beef consumption is declining — that’s something! I had a story. And the new study, an interesting tidbit, got only a mention well into the piece.
I did something similar in this story titled Americans Ask: Why Am I Always So Tired? The impetus was a bite-sized news item from Google noting that people are searching the phrase "I am tired" more than ever. Because I’ve written a lot about sleep, I recognized that as fundamentally a sleep and health story, and the news served as a strong hook on which I could hang a story that ended up going well beyond the tidbit of new information, in essence becoming another story entirely, unfolding right before the readers’ unsuspecting eyes.
Here's another one: I don't even remember which new study got me started on this story about how new drugs are often ineffective. I think I saw one new study, put a note in my idea file, then saw another new study, and finally dug in and found there were other recent findings, providing multiple angles for a robust feature that almost wrote itself. Had I tried to write about any one of the new studies by itself, the hook woulda been flimsy.
Back to the story I was editing: I think the writer could justify incorporating the small new study into a broader feature, so long as it was not the hook.
Explaining all this to the writer reminded me that this is a routine brainstorming and writing tactic of many journalists and other writers I know.
Unless you write for a breaking news site (creating articles that are here today, fish-wrap tomorrow) it pays to get above or beneath or beyond whatever interesting tidbits of new information you run across, think deep, and find that broader, untold story that will have legs (editor speak for lastability). Sure, feed the readers that little morsel, just don’t make it the main course unless it’s really juicy and satisfying.
Agree? Disagree? Questions? Chime in!
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