How to write clickbait without feeling scummy

Clickbait is an awful word. Bait implies a switch—a broken promise. That’s not what we want, but there is a better way. A way that feels less scummy that we can learn from novelists.

The most important part of a novel is its first sentence. My favourite is from Ian Banks’ The Crow Road:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

How can you not keep reading?! Every page thereafter, the author persuades you to turn the page. How? They continually leave something out, which the next page inevitably fills ... only for another gap to appear. And before you know it, you’re at the end of the book! The up-and-down journey is what we enjoy, not just the ending.

This rollercoaster of curiosity fulfilment is fundamental. If the author didn’t do this, they’d lose the integral engine to a compelling story - the need to know what happens next. When a book you can’t put down ‘baits’ you to turn the page, we don’t lambast the author for using psychological tricks. It’s one of many tools in a novelist’s arsenal. It’s the thread that pulls you through a story. So why can’t we use them on the web without feeling a bit icky?

Here’s the rub - you can. It’s okay to use that same thread to pull people into your blog post, or down your email. I think we should have the courage to not feel bad about encouraging people to view our work. You owe it to yourself to use hooks. Just make sure you live up to the promise, and fill the gap you created.

So how do you write a hook without feeling scummy? Here are some examples of powerful ‘lawful good’ hooks you can use without feeling like a BuzzFeed editor:

  • Arguments - Make a bold claim, but don’t explain it upfront.
  • Research - Highlight fascinating findings, but only a glimpse
  • Narratives - Share a profound change in circumstances, but withhold the conclusion.
  • Questions - Pose a question so good that it demands an answer.

Hook techniques that feel scummy play on fear. This is the definition of clickbait. (Say hello to most mass media and news publications). Here are some to avoid:

  • Vague FOMO - “Suffering from insomnia? You don’t want to miss this”
  • Controversial - “8 reasons you shouldn’t eat eggs.”
  • Criticising your esteem - “This is why you’re not getting a promotion.”

P.S. Can you spot the hooks in this post?