Writing an Introduction

This is page one of a guide to Writing Well.

What happens on this page

One of my favorite writing tricks is to only write my introduction. Then I hand it to friends and ask:

"After reading this, what do you really want the rest of this article to cover?"

They can give you ideas that are better than your original intentions for the article.

Amazon has a similar strategy for deciding which products to launch. They start by drafting a fake PR announcement—as if the product were about to launch. They share the announcement only with their employees. If their employees say they aren't interested in buying the product, Amazon goes back to the drawing board.

In doing so, they save years of substandard work.

On this page, I'll walk you through writing a strong introduction. Your intro is how you weed out the substandard from the exceptional.

Our process:

1. Choose your topic

The best topic to write about is the one you can’t not write about.

It’s the idea bouncing around your head that urges you to get to the bottom of it.

You can trigger this state of mind with a two-part trick.

Part one is choosing an objective for your article:

  1. Open people’s eyes by proving the status quo wrong.
  2. Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying. Cut through the noise.
  3. Identify key trends on a topic. Use them to predict the future.
  4. Contribute original insights through research and experimentation.
  5. Distill an overwhelming topic into something approachable. (This guide.)
  6. Share a solution to a tough problem.
  7. Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson.

Part two is pairing the objective with a motivation:

  1. Does writing this article get something off your chest?
  2. Does it help reason through a nagging, unsolved problem you have?
  3. Does it persuade others to do something you believe is important?
  4. Do you obsess over the topic and want others to geek out over it too?

Your objective clarifies what you're trying to accomplish, and your motivation ensures you see it through.

That’s all that's needed to write with conviction. Pair an objective with a motivation. If you lack one of these elements, you tend to not finish your article.

If the right objective and motivation combo isn't coming to you, that's okay. Start writing. In later drafts, a clearer objective will emerge from your web of thoughts. At that time, you can do a ground zero rewrite with your objective in mind.

Next, with your topic chosen, you'll uncover what to say about it.

Which idea, of all those swimming inside your brain, are you compelled to pursue the way Ahab was driven to hunt Moby Dick?
— Steven Pressfield

2. Find your hooks

In school, you were taught introductions do two things:

Ignore that advice.

Your only objective is to hook readers into reading the rest of the article.

It doesn’t matter how you hook them, so long as you eventually fulfill the hook.

A hook is not actually a gimmick. It’s a fundamental psychological principle: A great intro—like an electrifying opening to a film—buys goodwill with readers.

Buy enough goodwill and readers look past the weaker parts of your post—because they're chasing the high from your great opening. It's an insurance policy.

What exactly is a hook?

A hook is any half-told story:

Hooks tease your best talking points. They urge readers to keep reading by switching on the storytelling machinery in their heads.

Hooks serve two purposes: they strengthen intros and they help you discover what both you and your audience genuinely want to read about in the rest of the post.

Let's look at a few examples.

1. Narrative hooks

Share the beginning of a narrative, but withhold the conclusion. Your goal is to provide enough details for readers to feel emotionally connected to your story.

My clothes turned to ice. I swapped them for a fresh pair—only to realize I hadn't actually brought a second pair.

And the ones I removed suddenly took with the wind off the mountainside.

I was now clothesless standing atop an arctic summit. I had no solution for avoiding full-body frostbite and death by hypothermia.

It was 3AM and there was no one was within miles.

That was the day I lost everything.

And this post is the story of what happened next.

2. Discovery hooks

Highlight your fascinating findings, but only a portion.

I tracked all 90 living individuals who were born without the ability to sense pain.

80 of them are living normal lives by following strict day-to-day rules.

The remaining 10, however, are defying everything we know about what it means to survive. They've led to the discovery of fascinating new drugs.

3. Argument hooks

Present a bold claim, but withhold how you arrived at it.

There's a 90% chance that Snapchat goes bankrupt in the next thirty days. This post walks you through the startling corruption that triggered this demise.

Hooks become talking points

When you identify a good hook, you've also identified an interesting talking point; the hook's answer becomes an idea you explore in your post.

This means if you come up with a really interesting hook, you’re forced to write a really interesting article that lives up to the hook.

And that's the whole point: Hooks reveal the path to a job well done.

Are you bored right now?

If you don't care to learn about the ideation process, you can skip half this guide and pick up at Page III (Rewriting) for rapid fire advice on improving your writing.

How to generate hooks

You create hooks by finding questions you want answers to then posing those questions in your introduction:

  1. Ask yourself, “If someone else wrote my intro, what are the most captivating questions they could pose to make me excited to read this?”
  2. Write those questions down. Even if you lack the answers.
  3. Rank your questions by how much they interest you.
  4. The top questions become your hooks: Pose them in your intro, but don't reveal their answers.

You and your audience evolved the same storytelling machinery in your heads, so questions that hook you will hook many of them too. If they don't, target a different audience that likes what you like.

Turning questions into hooks

If you’re writing about bodybuilding, hooky questions might include:

Or, maybe it’s one of life's big questions:

Or, perhaps it’s "boring" research on job statistics:

Anything can be interesting if it's framed by an intriguing question.

Your questions don’t have to be jaw-droppingly interesting. They just have to be good enough for your target audience to think, "This post won't be boring."

3. Combat skepticism

Think of hooks as pulling your readers in.

There’s a negative force simultaneously pushing readers away: their skepticism.

Skepticism often outweighs the strength of your hooks, and readers abandon your post.

You can do something about this. Within your intro, you can proactively counter the five types of skepticism readers have:

By both hooking readers and neutralizing their skepticism, you generate goodwill. Now they're eager to read the rest of your post.

An example of combatting skepticism

Click the button below to reveal the introduction to my Build Muscle guide.

I've called out the key sentences used to proactively address skepticism.

Build Muscle intro+

This handbook is the result of a year's research into what the latest science shows is the most efficient way to build muscle.

Address the Untrustworthy objection: reassure readers you have the requisite wisdom to be authoratitive.

It's for both men and women. It's primarily for beginners, but there's plenty of science-backed advice for intermediates too.

I wrote this guide because much of the casual weightlifting advice is unsubstantiated or misleading. I can't blame bloggers for it, because some of the facts in this guide have not been broadly published outside of the scientific literature. 

As a result, this handbook contradicts some popular bodybuilding recommendations, including the myth that women have a harder time gaining beginner muscle, that exercise rest times should be kept to 1–3 minutes, that most body weight exercises are useful, that machine exercises are ineffective, and so on.

Throughout this handbook, I support my claims by citing studies and showing you how to measure your weekly gains so you can confirm you're growing. 

Speaking of growth, if you're starting without muscle, you can grow it fast if you're diligent about eating, exercising, and sleeping. You can gain up to 12-15lbs (6.8kg) of muscle in 3 months when closely following a researched program such as this. (Afterward, muscle gains slow drastically.) 

Address the Superficial objection: reassure readers you’ll share new knowledge they don’t already have.

These results are achievable for every man and woman. Having “bad genetics” is not a thing preventing beginners from gaining muscle. That's another myth.

In addition to thoroughly citing research, this guide is also comprehensive. I dislike tutorials that provide 75% of what you need to know then leave you with questions.

We'll learn what the research says about:

Address the Irrelevant objection: reassure readers you’ll cover topics they care about.

Inspired? Good. If you weren't willing to spend 1–2 years in the gym to get results before now, be excited because you can compress beginner gains into 4 months.

Oh, and I have nothing to sell you. This handbook is free. There's no promotion.

Address the Implausible objection: reassure readers you can deliver on your claims. In this case, I use the truth that I'm not trying to sell them anything.

4. Get feedback

Great hooks are foolproof to identify: Share your intro with your target audience and ask if they want to keep reading.

Nonfiction writers mistakenly think the best time to ask for feedback is after their first draft. Actually, it's after writing an introduction.

If your audience says they aren't interested in reading more, either go back to the drawing board or be thankful you spared yourself writing an article no one wants.

Specifically, here's how to ask for feedback:

  1. Ask several people to rate your intro from 1 to 10 on how interested they are in reading more. Don't let them choose 7—it's a cop-out. They have to decide between 6 (meh) or 9-10 (good).
  2. Ask, “If you were writing about this topic, what questions would you most want answered?” (If their questions captivate you, turn them into new hooks.)
  3. To avoid high scores from friends just wanting to be kind, tell them: “Don’t be afraid of giving me a low score. If you tell me this isn't good, you spare me from wasting my time on an article no one wants to read."

Keep rewriting your hooks and asking for feedback until you reach an average of 8/10. An 8 validates you’ve identified a compelling perspective on your topic. Don't aim for higher—start writing and improve it further later.

Next, onto the fun part

By this point, we've written an intro that has validated we're headed in an interesting direction. And we've generated goodwill so that readers lean in.

On the next page, we fulfill our hooks. We generate fascinating ideas.

Continue to the next page

Page II — Writing your first draft

A process for ensuring your writing is interesting.

Next page →