First Draft: Defining Your Hook
First Draft is a monthly blog series that breaks down the book writing process. Written by the ASCD Book Acquisitions Editors, this series will help educators understand how to go from a book idea to a first draft in order to share their expertise and passion with the field.
Last month, we covered how to find the topic of your book. This month, we’ll discuss how to fine tune your hook. Think of the topic of your book as the domain you want write about—e.g., instructional coaching, supporting ELL students, classroom management. The hook is the unique, targeted angle you take on that topic that sets your book apart from others and draws the reader in. When writing a book intended for professional development, there are a few elements that your hook must address:
- Who is the audience? We’ve often received books proposals that state the intended audience is “all educators.” What we’ve found, though, is that most books are more effectively written and more marketable when they are geared toward a specific audience. If a book is written for both teachers and administrators, for example, it might be less desirable than one tailored to either group’s needs. As a writer, trying to address too many audiences in one book may lead to broad, but shallow coverage. Think about your book’s topic and then decide who you want to reach.
Get Thinking: For your chosen topic, which audience needs the information most? Is it the classroom teacher, and if so, at which grade levels? Is it new teachers or all teachers? Is it instructional leaders, and if so, what job titles fit under that umbrella in your estimation (principals, coaches, teacher leaders)? Make a list of all the job titles in education that would be part of your target audience. Note: Your book will likely have secondary audiences (e.g., instructional leaders may want to read books intended for classroom teachers, and pre-service teachers may benefit from books intended for practitioners), but you should write your book for a specific, primary audience.
- What problem are you solving? Professional development books strive to influence readers to change and improve their practice. That a change is desirable presupposes a problem of practice. In the domain of your chosen topic, what are the problems of practice? More importantly, how does your audience describe these pain points? How you frame your book, the title, and the back cover copy needs to resonate with your audience. If they are searching the internet for a solution to their problem, what search terms are they using? The more you talk with your audience about their pain points, the better you will be at providing them relevant and meaningful solutions (be it in a book, online course, workshop, etc.)
Get Thinking: There are a number of ways to get feedback on your primary audience’s pain points and the language they use to identify them: create an online survey using Google Forms and send it to your email mailing list or post a link on social media; have workshop participants complete an exit slip; organize a group of trusted colleagues for a focus group; explore relevant social media hashtags to see how your audience is talking about the topic; take a deep dive into the research.
- Is this original? This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of defining your hook. Are you writing something new? When we say original, we mean that the text reflects new ideas, diverse perspectives, and fresh information. It should not state the obvious, parrot conventional wisdom, or rely too heavily on others’ ideas. One way to help achieve originality is to conduct your own field research and find new, verifiable conclusions, as John Antonetti and James Garver did in their book 17,000 Classroom Visits Can’t Be Wrong: Strategies That Engage Students, Promote Active Learning, and Boost Achievement. Another way is to take a fresh angle on a perennial topic, like classroom management, as Dominique Smith, Doug Fisher, and Nancy Frey did with their book Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management.
Get Thinking: The only way to know if your idea is original is to know what is already out there. After identifying the problem your book is trying to solve, search Amazon for books that address it. Make as exhaustive a list as you can. Look at the title, the book description, and the table of contents for each book. How would your book—and your solution—be different? Where are the gaps in the available books? How are the available books not meeting the needs of your audience? What is it about your knowledge, expertise, and experience that can fill that gap? Also make sure to check recent research (e.g., via Google Scholar) to make sure your thinking is up to date.
If you work through these exercises, you’ll be well on your way to developing a marketable hook and a book that will actually help your intended audience.
A final piece of advice: think specific. As with choosing a specific audience, you will write a better, more robust book if it is targeted and specific. It can be difficult for authors with a wide breadth of knowledge to commit to a specific focus—you have so much you want to share! However, you will be better able to provide more depth and more practical strategies without overwhelming your readers if the book is specific in scope. It is also easier to define your uniqueness in the market. Take, for example, Mike Anderson’s What We Say and How We Say It Matter: Teacher Talk That Improves Student Learning and Behavior. In this book, the author identifies a specific problem: teacher language patterns are undermining educators’ instructional goals. He goes on to unpack the problem and offer helpful suggestions for improving how we talk to and about our students. The book has a clear audience (K–12 classroom teachers), has a defined problem relevant to that audience (how teacher language can undermine student learning), and is original (there are few books that deal with teacher talk). What is wonderful about this book is its specificity—it takes the time to thoughtfully explicate a complex, but focused issue and provides substantial, actionable strategies for improvement. In addition to the quality of the book, its commercial success bears out the importance of creating a strong, specific hook.
As always, we encourage you to head over to our Write for ASCD page to get more tips and to learn more about writing an ASCD book or article. Next month, we’ll discuss translating your hook into an outline.