Fishing For Hooks

There are a lot of intangibles that go into writing killer copy.

That’s a big word that simply means (in the idiosyncratic dictionary I keep near the top of my internalized Bag of Tricks) “you can’t quite put your finger on it”.

Much of the craft of writing sales copy involves easy-to-understand tactics… like the feature/benefit relationship. (For every feature you write about, attach a benefit. Don’t ever force your reader to finish your thought, and NEVER assume he knows what you mean. Rookie writers think “4,000 horsepower engine” says it all… when the pro will finish the thought for the reader: “… which means your new car goes very, very fast, with a deep roar that scares horses and little old ladies, while impressing everyone you need to impress…”) (Okay, I’m laying it on thick, but you get the point.)

Ah, but you’ll never write at a world-class level until you figure out how to master the less-easy-to-understand stuff. The really cool, should-be-illegal-it-works-so-good secrets that only an experienced pro could ever show you.

The intangibles.

That’s my job.

And here’s one of the best intangibles you’ll ever learn: How to find the hook.

I’ve been teaching copywriting for many years now… and I’ve tried several ingenious angles when trying to force-feed hook-finding into rookies. It’s a little frustrating, because inexperienced writers simply do not believe me whenever I tell them to “go deep” on anything.

There are so many charlatans out there telling newbies how fast you can write killer copy (“just buy my secrets!“)… that the common wisdom is “once you understand what a hook is, you just grab it and start writing”.

Big sigh.

Veteran writers know better.

Yes, you can write fairly fast — and even craft a good pitch — by following templates or ripping existing ads.

But only AFTER you’ve nailed a few of the basic intangibles first.

Here’s what’s so hard about understanding the hook: It’s not something that usually arrives on a silver platter. It’s not something you can discover with a glance at the product, or even a long chat with the client.

The client doesn’t KNOW what the hook is. He’s oblivious.

The material — including all the previous ads ever written about the product — doesn’t highlight the hook. Most copywriters never discover a decent hook, and often businesses run years and years of advertising without even coming close to having a good hook.

And, unfortunately, no super-hero is going to come rushing into your office holding a piece of paper, yelling “I’ve found the hook!” This ain’t Hollywood, kids. It’s real life.

And real life can be one tough bastard to figure out.

No, the only person qualified to find the hook… is you. The writer. The guy with the chops to translate salesmanship into print… to take vague, unconnected ideas and weld them together in a persuasive, ass-kicking pitch that won’t let your prospect sleep until they’ve ordered.

Now, I’ve gone over and over the ways a good hook works. There’s an entire section on it in “Kick Ass Copywriting Secrets”, and in every seminar I’ve ever held I’ve spent serious time guiding marketers toward Hook City.

But here’s the one lesson even top writers forget: You gotta dig to find it.

A great hook will HIDE from you. It’s a cruel beast, happy when it escapes your notice.

Only the best writers ever find it.

I am reminded of this, because I’ve just begun a job for a long-time client… and it wasn’t until our last conversation that I finally found the hook for the ad. He’d given me pages and pages of features, and even a decent list of benefits, for his product. Broken everything down into component pieces — the guy should work for NASA, he’s so thorough. And he’d spent many sleepless night trying to conjure up a hook for me.

I’ve known this particular client for twenty years, and we’ve shared many, many million-dollar successes.

But he still couldn’t find a good hook if it bit him on the ass.

A great hook has nothing to do with how the client sees the product. It usually isn’t part of the features list, and only occasionally shows up among the benefits. Non-veteran writers miss it, because it’s not obvious to ANYONE associated with the product.

Sneaky little monster. Likes to hide.

I don’t even know what I’m looking FOR. I can only recognize it when it comes into view.

What is a great hook? It’s the connecting point between the tangibles of the product… and the hazy inner needs of your prospect. Those needs include a steep requirement for believability, a yearning for magic and specialness, and a staggering hunger for something that wakes him up.

A great hook isn’t like a hand coming out of the ad and grabbing your reader.

Naw. It’s more like a black hole that sucks your prospect into the ad, kicking and screaming, and jettisons him through your pitch in a breathless ride that has his heart pumping and his deepest desires roiling.

For most of the ads you write, your reader will NOT come along willingly. He doesn’t WANT to be sold. He doesn’t WANT his hopes fired up — they’ve been cruelly dashed too many times before.

And he for sure doesn’t TRUST you for a second.

He will fight you all the way.

Which, for a top writer, is just fine. Once hooked, the pitch will get delivered to the prospect. If your product deserves to be purchased, you now can make that happen.

Does any of this sound like something that’s OBVIOUS to most people? Of course not.

Great hooks hide. You gotta go in after them.

With this client, I had to get him back on the phone multiple times, because I couldn’t find a hook. Sometimes, you never will — some ads just have to be written without a hook. (There are other tactics you can use, in that case.)

But I suspected this one had a hook. Somewhere.

I had to piss off the client. Just frustrate him to the point that he, essentially, said “Okay! Fine! This product actually shows up and embarrasses other people in our market. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to go there…” and after a little more whining, we were done.

He didn’t know this particular piece of info was the hook I was after. It was only as he was telling me about it that it dawned on him — I was gonna use this sensitive info in the ad.

Hell… in the headline.

The lesson: Before you start writing, get your basics down cold. Make a big damn list of features and benefits, try to lay out the best USP you can conjure… and dig for the hook.

You’ll know it when you see it. It’s something about the product… that should challenge, titillate or shock the reader. It’s that very special moment of connection, where the reader’s brain says “Hey, wait a minute…” and is sucked in whole.

There are a lot of options out there for learning how to write copy. Many are produced by friends of mine, and I even endorse them.

But don’t get lured into believing you can effectively shortcut the really good tactics. It ain’t brain surgery… but it isn’t something you can do without at least breaking a small sweat, either.

Top writers go into a job knowing the ingredients of their yet-to-be-written world-class ad are, for the most part, hiding from them. Just understanding that is an advantage over all rookies.

Each time you hunt, and find, a truly good hook, you launch yourself up another level of competence. Most writers never figure out a single hook. They don’t know how to look.

Go find one.

Be that Zen-calm, patient hunter who refuses to always take the easy path, when the harder one is more fun and exciting. (Trust me on this: Once you start finding hooks, your entire understanding of marketing and human psychology increases exponentially.)

And for God’s sake, if you don’t have my course yet, go to and get it now.

I have multiple trusted advisors telling me it may be time to take that course OFF the market. And restructure the Insider’s Club from top to bottom. Why? Because too many rookies are being swayed by the grandiose claims of other (louder) voices out there… tempting them with the siren song of “effortless copywriting”. They’re losing sight of how critical this veteran advice is to their success.

So I may to perform a little shock and awe to reposition my course. It won’t be pretty… but my current subscibers will be happy. It’s time, right now, to get on the “inside” here.

Again, writing killer copy isn’t hard, when you understand how the best do it.

But the honest secrets of the world-class pro’s involve some deep detective work. Once you learn those secrets, my friend, you are off to the races.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton

PS: You know what top writers gossip about when they jealously discuss other writer’s successes? The great hook they came up with.

Pro’s never start writing until they’re ready.

PPS: My last chat with Gary Halbert was all about finding a hook for a gig he was slaving on. We are so intent on finding it, that we leave no stone unturned. When he came up empty talking with his client, he came to me for brainstorming. For over an hour, we hashed it out, searching for the hook.

Just the hook. Nothing else.

It’s that important.

PPPS: How do you like the new design of the blog? That Tiki god goes with me everywhere I travel, by the way…