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.

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.

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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 once had a client who had 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.

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.

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.

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"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • Mark Pocock says:


    Brilliant as always.

    If you and Gary are sweating for an hour looking for a hook then the rest of us should be spending days….LOL


  • Andy says:


    And I love how your stories can
    teach more in 10 minutes than entire
    books put out by lesser mortals.


  • Betty Bowers says:


    Thanks for the new blog. Hooks are what I’ve been struggling with since I started business writing. I didn’t know what to call it, but now I do. I think this will help clarify my thinking and attack when I do a writing project.

    I’m grateful.

  • Martin says:

    Cripes! I’ve heard this a million times before, but you’ve just starkly clarified what I need to do to make my book-in-progress have a snowball-in-hell’s chance of selling. As always.

  • John

    Is this stuff you should be posting for free?

    The “hook” is one item that I have struggled with until recently…

    Although I never sweat to find it in only an hour. It takes me a couple of days at least.

    Whomever has the fortune to read this post, take every word and digest it over and over again. You have just read one of the secrets to great copywriting.

    Joseph Ratliff
    Professional Copywriter

  • Tim Horton says:

    As a total rookie I really want to thank you for sharing your gifts as a great (godly) copywriter. I?m always amazed at how people reach a point in there life when it is time to give and not take (well not take all the time).

    The great part of being an Insider Club member is when you post something on your blog that hits a cord I know I can reference it and all your great sales letters. It gives a much larger impact and detail to what you write on (usually).

    This HOOK post had me immediately going through your sales letter looking for the hooks in all your headlines. All I can say is WOW!!! Powerwords + Hook, I never saw it before today. Then I looked at my head lines I?ve written. Sadly, I don?t think ONE of them has a real hook.

    John, Thank you for taking the time to share your life?s work with me.

    Thank You,

    P.S. Please put me on priority list for your mentor program. I know I will work with you directly soon on a big project.

  • There once was a marketing pro
    Whose hooks could be painful and slow.
    But as he told a new student
    (Impatient and brash and imprudent)
    When you know it’s a go, you just KNOW

  • Emette Massey says:

    Damn John,

    This stuff is SO GOOD it ought to be illegal!


    I can’t wait to get your course!



  • caleb says:


    Incredible as always.

    yes, a sneaky, hiding little beast
    that hook can be… I need to put
    more time into finding him in the
    projects I work on.


  • Ryan Healy says:

    Brilliant post, John.

    After copywriting for over 4 years, of which I’ve freelanced the last 18 months, one of my biggest challenges is finding hooks.

    Have my letters produced? Absolutely. But I’m still looking for that million-dollar letter. 🙂

    By the way, just last month I had a breakthrough. Came up with one of my best hooks ever. (Is it a surprise it came after hand-copying one of your letters?)

    Ryan Healy

  • Hi, John!

    Greetings from Bulgaria!

    I have to write a web site copy for an accountant.
    There are 1000’s of them on the market and they all offer
    the same services…
    What kind of a hook could I possibly find in this boring material??
    I would be greateful for every kind of advice!

    Thank you!

  • David Deutsch says:

    John, really great stuff.

    David Deutsch

  • Vin Montello says:


    Great stuff. “The hook” is the elusive Bigfoot of copywriting. I work harder each day in hopes of getting something more than a grainy black and white photo from a quarter mile away.

    Thanks for this article, John.


  • Great as usual, John.

    Funny how whenever copywriters and “courses” refer to hooks, they always send ’em back to you!

    John Ritskowitz

  • RAY EDWARDS says:

    Hey John,

    As a copywriter myself I’m surprised at how many people fall for that “fill-in-the-blnk-” mentality to copywriting. Kind of warer fown the sweat and tears that real copywriters have to put into producing reall copy.

    Thanks for making it clear that writing copy is easy AFTER you have
    the hook.

    Ray Edwards

  • Oritseyemi says:


    The hook!

    Isn’t this crazy?

    You spend a lot of money buying books after book, Courses after courses and all these materials do is COMPLICATE THINGS.

    But here comes this rebel who is hidding in this corner with gold littered all over his damn blog!

    Best part of it is that IT IS FREE.

    The hook!

    It is like loving someone and they ask you why do you love me? OR Why did you marry me?

    You search for the “THINK” that will put it all together but you just can lay your hand on it.

    It is not that you don’t know how to say it not is it that you don’t know what to say.

    Hell, you could say anything but that ?? that will put it all together may not show up for a very long time.

    The hook!

    Your apporach make copywriting look exactly like A-B-C.

    The basics!

    Great post

  • The River Angler says:

    fantastic hook, love it. Coarse Fishing Tackle

  • <a href=http://www.deltasys.bgGPS ????????????

  • […] that hooked them in the first place.  As ace copywriter John Carlton discusses at length in his Fishing for Hooks article, finding and selecting the right hook is one of the biggest challenges a writer […]

  • […] that hooked them in the first place.  As ace copywriter John Carlton discusses at length in his Fishing for Hooks article, finding and selecting the right hook is one of the biggest challenges a writer […]

  • […] Find ways to sell benefits rather than features. Benefits are the results that you can achieve if you use the features. An effective brand appeals to emotional needs. After you’ve done all the homework, you still have to fish for the hook. […]

  • […] advertising campaigns, have found a way to do this. They are always searching for what they call “the hook.” The hook is sometimes elusive, but when they find “the hook,” it can make the difference […]

  • […] advertising campaigns, have found a way to do this. They are always searching for what they call “the hook.” The hook is sometimes elusive, but when they find “the hook,” it can make the difference […]

  • […] advertising campaigns, have found a way to do this. They are always searching for what they call “the hook.” The hook is sometimes elusive, but when they find “the hook,” it can make the difference […]

  • […] advertising campaigns, have found a way to do this. They are always searching for what they call “the hook.” But how do you find your hook? How do you find your remarkable […]

  • […] advertising campaigns, have found a way to do this. They are always searching for what they call “the hook.” But how do you find your hook? How do you find your remarkable […]

  • As a transformational life and Business coach, I’m always looking for the hook — that deep down something that is the real desire and the reason my client is in the chair talking to me.

    Finding that hook, for me is my favorite part of my work. It’s what makes me valuable to the people and businesses I serve. Like you say, the rookies, no matter how much I push for them to find that essence – that hook, they keep doing it their way.

    I just wanted to share that this hook-thing is cross-professional. Nice to read your blog!
    Blessings, Dr. Rosie Kuhn

  • Dee Anne Stiles says:

    I would really know what a hook is and therefore how to get it, if you would give examples that “show” examples of hooks plus a definition – is it the top market need, outrage, controversy and on. What was the hook headline that you wrote? How is what? embarrassing?

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