Despite popular misconception…the hook is more than a marketing tool. At its best, it can be not only a propellant but also a statement of what you might expect from the text to come.

-Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

I have a confession. I’ve made a successful living as a freelance writer without being all that good at writing intros.

Oh, I hit the mark sometimes. This intro is pretty good because it gets straight to the point. And I’m not sure I’ve ever written one better than this. And in this one, I used the guise of citation to steal an intro from Herman Melville. 

But can I summon forth clear, to-the-point intros like that on command? 

Sort of. Sometimes. Not always. 

Here’s the Catch-22 of being a freelance writer: you’re at the mercy of client desires. You may write what you think is a clever intro, only for an editor to say “this is clever, but can we segue directly into the stats?” (Fun fact: one client once asked me to be “more boring.” Lol. Can do.) Or an editor may assign you a topic about which you have no earthly idea how to begin. The quality of your intro reflects that.

So you sit down and write: “Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic…” Argh. Backspace, backspace, backspace.

I was recently struggling in a similar situation when I came up with the idea for this post. “Hey, I love figuring out my intros…what if I looked at some great ones and see how they did it?”

Example #1: “1,000 True Fans”

Kevin Kelly, “1,000 True Fans

Why it works:

  • It’s straight to the point. In fact, there are no headers in this post. It barely looks like an intro at all.
  • A contrarian stance. Right away, Kevin Kelly takes a memorable, opposing view: “you don’t need millions.” He does it in the first sentence. By the end of the first paragraph, he’s introduced you to his slogan.
  • A slogan. Speaking of that slogan, it’s right there in the title. It’s at the end of the first paragraph. “You need only thousands of true fans.”

I’ve heard people quote this post a zillion times because 1) it communicates a worthwhile idea that you likely hadn’t heard before this and 2) Kelly doesn’t waste time beating around the bush. His intro just hands the idea to you. “Here it is. What do you think?”

That leaves me with a key takeaway: if you’re struggling with the intro, it means you’re really struggling with finding something original to say.

Yes, you can fall back on some time-tested techniques. You can open with problem-agitating questions. You can go straight to the stats.

But I think the best intros will be the ones that show you an idea you’ve never heard before, kind of like Adam Ragusea’s video about broiling his chocolate chip cookies. His intro? “Yes, I broil my chocolate chip cookies.” And that’s it. Then he just gives you the recipe. “Here it is. What do you think?”

Example #2: “Experiencing Sudden Loss Taught Me to Prioritize Myself”

Alyssa Towns, Experiencing Sudden Loss Taught Me to Prioritize Myself

Why it works:

  • It’s intensely personal. Towns reveals she was a perfectionist. She prioritized everyone else’s requests. She didn’t believe she was being unhealthy. In just a few short statements, we have a list of points that feels like a confession, compelling us to read on. Not only do we want to know what she has in store for us, but we want to know how she solved these issues.
  • The context sets you up for a smack. Next, Towns turns all of that around with a startling sentence: “my Grandma suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage in the middle of the night.” Towns is clearly digging deep into a traumatic life event. And she deftly uses the sentence as a pattern-breaker for her two first paragraphs, reflecting the real-life pattern-break that comes when you experience a sudden loss of this magnitude.

I put this example second because I want to avoid coming up with an “intro formula” and try to write everything like “1,000 True Fans.” 

Towns’ intro reveals you can bury the most startling sentence in the third paragraph and still have an engaging, intense introduction to your post. 

What I most love about this is that Towns didn’t put the “During the spring semester of my junior year…” sentence up top. The context matters here. It matches the topic of the post. Beyond that, Towns’ first two paragraphs start you down a path where you’re expecting to read about how not to put too much pressure on yourself…

Then that sentence about her Grandma smacks you in the face, giving the reader a sense of how the real-life event did the same to Towns.

Example #3: “Tips for Leaders on Running Successful One-on-One Meetings”

-Kat Boogaard, Tips for Leaders on Running Successful One-on-One Meetings

Why it works:

  • A contrarian stance. Once again, we lead with the idea that you’re thinking has been wrong. This is a great way to agitate the problem: introduce a common scenario and then turn around and suggest that this has always been a bad idea. “Uh oh,” someone who runs bad meetings might say. “Whatever shall I do? I must read on.”
  • Straight to the point. Boogaard opens with dialogue, then a fun simile, but it’s all on-topic. We immediately know that this is a post about one-on-one meetings. There is no “here is 1,000 words on the history of meetings,” as I’ve been prone to do.
  • Creativity. The dialogue opener is nice and creative in nonfiction, and the “car ride with an angsty teenager” is not only funny, but a spot-on simile for the feeling of running bad one-on-one meetings.

Fun facts: I found this one because 1) I work with Kat and 2) I write for Trello. The Trello editor was showing me which kinds of writing they like to publish on their blog. Helpful, she said, friendly, to-the-point. But after going through some example, she stopped mid-sentence and said: “In fact, just check out Kat’s author history. Hers are always perfect.”

Sure enough, I dug in and found the intros are always tight, on-topic, and usually include a little bit of personality that lets you know the tips you’re about to read are going to be worth the read. Even better, it shows that business topics can be fun, accessible, and creative.

Example #4: “Soylent: What Happened When I Went 30 Days Without Food”

-Josh Helton, Soylent: What Happened When I Went 30 Days Without Food

Why it works:

  • That first sentence. Sometimes, “the lead writes itself.” The subject is so strange and fascinating, we appreciate it when Helton lays it all out for us in the first sentence.
  • “Stupid.” We know Helton is writing in past tense thanks to the opening sentence. So when he calls it “stupid,” we sense from that word that he must have some regrets. Thanks to one little word choice, we have to wonder what went wrong.
  • No fat. In three sentences, Helton gets from an intriguing hook, to a teaser about it being “stupid,” to the context—no time wasted.

When I read this intro, I think of advertising legend David Ogilvy. Ogilvy would spend weeks of research on a single topic, waiting for a hook to pop out at him. Like Don Draper coming across “It’s toasted” from learning about Lucky Strike, Ogilvy once got a headline for Rolls-Royce when he heard a technical fact about how silent they run:

He didn’t even write the headline. He just lifted it from the technical specs.

My point? Sometimes you’re not struggling with the intro because you’re a bad intro writer. Sometimes you’re struggling with the intro because you haven’t found the most fascinating part of your post yet. Soylent is already fascinating. That’s why this straightforward intro works so well.

Example #5: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

-Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Why it works:

  • Context and pattern-break. Shirley Jackson starts with two relatively bland facts about Mary Katherine Blackwood. This is the pattern. Next, when we hear “I could have been born a werewolf,” or “Everyone else in my family is dead,” we have two startling pattern-breakers that set the stage for what is clearly going to be a fascinating story.
  • Showing, not telling. That age-old writing advice is here in abundance: “two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length,” for example, is such an oddly specific trait for this character to consider that we have to wonder about what she’s thinking. By telling us about her fingers, Jackson is showing us all about the character’s psyche.

This is a blog post about writing nonfiction intros, but I think it’s worth exploring one of the most famous beginnings to a story of all time. What Shirley Jackson does here is accomplish two things at once. On the surface level, she gives us clear exposition about the world of Mary Katherine Blackwood. One level deeper, she gives us character details: “I dislike washing myself.” Three levels in, you have the voice of Mary Katherine Blackwood, wondering if she could have been born a werewolf, having no family at the young age of 18. It is an intro that sounds like exposition, yet has absolutely no fluff. That isn’t intro-as-science. That is intro-as-art.

How to Write Great Blog Intros Every Time

Here’s the trick: you aren’t going to. But you will start to sound like you are if you remember the following lessons from the examples above:

  • Start as close to the end as possible. This is old storytelling advice from Kurt Vonnegut, and it holds up in nonfiction. Look at the soylent example: it starts right where you want it to. Don’t write “This ONE TRICK…” in your headline. Write “How Burying my Phone in the Backyard Rescued my Productivity” because it gives away the story.
  • Use a contrarian stance to agitate the problem. You may get boring if you try for the contrarian stance all the time. But you should occasionally write an intro like you were compelled to do so because everyone else is doing things so, so wrong.
  • Break a pattern. Towns’ and Jacksons’ intros start with a pattern of at least two sentences, or two paragraphs. Then, on the third, just when we’re expecting more of the same—BLAM. We are taking a left.
  • Stop dancing around the subject. Because your goal is to agitate a problem, it’s tempting to zoom out and consider all of the world’s problems. But try to think of your central point as sales writing. What is the specific problem being solved here? In Boogaard’s post, it’s the angsty meeting—so Boogaard starts, as Vonnegut might write, as close to the end as possible, by showing us that angsty meeting in vivid terms. Try to avoid “The world is having major problems” and instead focus on the specific problem you are here to solve today.

And that’s all I got.

(Sorry. “How to write AWESOME CONCLUSIONS” is going to have to come another day.)