Write 10x Better with these 10 Psychological Hooks [How-to]

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Your writing gets immersive and engaging when you connect with the reader’s mental space. And the way to do that is to include words and ideas that “hook” the reader.

After writing a million words on blogs and some horror stories on the side, I learned nothing that your reader has their own mental space in which your writing comes alive, very uniquely. So, obviously, your writing depends on what you want to achieve – engaging fiction, explanatory science communication, or persuasive marketing copy. But for it to come alive, you have to seed the writing with the right words and structures – which I call “psychological hooks.”

I wrote a visual guide on this that went viral, but it isn’t a how-to. So, here’s the detailed version some of you requested. I focus more on the creative aspects of writing here. 🙂

1. Vary your sentences and structure

No one likes monotony. Try out sentence structures that vary with words, grammar, tone, and emphasis. If you are confident about the idea you are discussing, break rules in ways that don’t feel like typos.

The brain tends to get habituated and lose attention when a task gets repetitive. You may have wondered – why can’t you see your nose? The nose doesn’t move, so the brain filters it out because it is habituated to its presence. It becomes a noisy signal. Habituation also explains how you may lose focus on a monotonous road and turn blind to oncoming traffic (it’s called inattentional blindness).

Variety keeps it interesting for the brain. But too much variety may also start feeling chaotic. Strike a balance between uniformity and variety.

2. Trim your content

Too many words work against your reader’s attention span. You don’t want the reader to forget before the sentence completes itself.

Some ways to trim your content –

  • Delete information. Consider every sentence has an informational load. Manage that load so your reader follows your train of thought.
    Before: E.g., “The human brain, comprising roughly 100 billion neurons and an equal number of glial cells, forms an intricate network with about 10,000 synapses per neuron, connecting diverse regions like the prefrontal cortex for decision making, auditory cortex for sound processing, occipital cortex for visual interpretation, along with the limbic system for emotional regulation and the cerebellum for motor control, creating a complex web that orchestrates our cognitive functions, emotions, and behaviors.”
    A sentence like this may be too heavy and even “incomplete” if the audience is unfamiliar with brain biology. A good summary would be,
    After:The brain has 100 billion neurons and 100 billion glial cells, all intricately connected across brain regions that govern emotions, decision-making, sounds, vision, etc.
  • Change passive voice to active voice.
    E.g., the game of football was played by my friends and I vs. My friends and I played football.
  • Replace multiple words with single words.
    E.g., figure out —> determine, has a tendency to —> tends to, etc.
  • Reduce sentence length and complexity. Make short, direct sentences because they are just easier for the brain to follow.

3. Build a character or anthropomorphize

Showcase your idea with a real or fictional story. Giving it a name, face, and motivation. People relate most to people, so if you find a way to bring a character into your content, the reader is now following that character’s journey.

On a more technical note, humans don’t just relate to people. Humans relate to anything that has human qualities (anthropomorphism[1]). Animals, objects, aliens, ghosts, gods, laptops, phones, pencils, etc. If you can give an object human qualities, it’s a hook for your reader.

You hold a pen and break it. No one feels a thing. Give that pen a name – Annie – and break it. Now, everyone is sad. Inspired by Jeff Winger’s dialogue in the show Community that I can’t quite remember.

4. Write FOR your audience

Your audience has a preferred style*. Use that. Learn what they prefer before editing. Don’t violate their expectation too much.

*Unless you have such a unique, engaging voice that people listen to you anyway (like VSauce).

Some of your audience would love the following. And it’s your job as a writer to determine what they expect from you.

  1. Getting straight to the point.
  2. Spoon feeding information.
  3. A journey of ups and downs with build-ups that have a pay-off.
  4. Thought-provocation and curiosity development.
  5. Names and places of people doing things as a context to find an answer to some question.
  6. Empathy and assurances.
  7. A certain amount of depth in information, like very detailed descriptions of stories vs. a synopsis and light 1-sentence answers vs. in-depth researched content.

You get the idea. Your audience wants something, so you must align your copy to that. If it doesn’t, objectively good content can subjectively fail.

Psychological hooks completely grab your reader’s interests, motivations, feelings, and imagination.

Psychological hooks to improve writing

5. Emote with good words

Humans love emotions; they glue an idea to your reader’s brain. Use specific emotion words so your reader feels them.

Here’s a list of emotion words. Go nuts.

Happy, Sad, Angry, Joyful, Melancholy, Furious, Content, Depressed, Irritated, Elated, Gloomy, Annoyed, Pleased, Disheartened, Frustrated, Ecstatic, Sorrowful, Agitated, Satisfied, Despondent, Exasperated, Cheerful, Miserable, Resentful, Hopeful, Morose, Hostile, Grateful, Dismal, Vexed,……………

Happy, Sad, Angry, Joyful, Melancholy, Furious, Content, Depressed, Irritated, Elated, Gloomy, Annoyed, Pleased, Disheartened, Frustrated, Ecstatic, Sorrowful, Agitated, Satisfied, Despondent, Exasperated, Cheerful, Miserable, Resentful, Hopeful, Morose, Hostile, Grateful, Dismal, Vexed, Optimistic, Forlorn, Incensed, Thankful, Pained, Livid, Blissful, Heartbroken, Outraged, Relieved, Bereaved, Indignant, Reassured, Distraught, Enraged, Comforted, Grieved, Seething, Encouraged, Crushed, Rabid, Uplifted, Afflicted, Wrathful, Fortunate, Tormented, Infuriated, Calm, Wretched, Raging, Appreciative, Desolate, Fuming, Serene, Woeful, Irate, Enthusiastic, Troubled, Livid, Tranquil, Doleful, Bitter, Euphoric, Anguished, Boiling, Peaceful, Somber, Spiteful, Delighted, Distressed, Inflamed, Relaxed, Despairing, Peeved, Jubilant, Upset, Incensed, Easygoing, Downcast, Grudging, Radiant, Perturbed, Fierce, Placid, Desolate, Jealous, Thrilled, Displeased, Vehement, Composed, Crestfallen, Envious, Overjoyed, Disgruntled, Heated, Laid-back, Woebegone, Covetous, Merry, Unhappy, Smoldering, Cool-headed, Mournful, Green-eyed, Buoyant, Ruffled, Fiery, Unperturbed, Dejected, Possessive, Gleeful, Dissatisfied, Burning, Collected, Lachrymose, Grudging, Lighthearted, Discontented, Ablaze, Poised, Tearful, Resentful, Sunny, Disheartened, Ardent, Level-headed, Plaintive, Begrudging, Jovial, Downhearted, Passionate, Steady, Weepy, Invidious, Gay, Saddened, Zealous, Self-possessed, Lugubrious, Envious, Beaming, Unsettled, Fervent, Assured, Dolorous, Rancorous, Exuberant, Sullen, Eager, Unflappable, Woebegone, Grudgingly, Zestful, Heavy-hearted, Keen, Unruffled, Plaintive, Malicious, Vibrant, Glum, Intense, Composed, Sorrowful, Malevolent, Vivacious, Morbid, Spirited, Unbothered, Tearful, Petty, Ebullient, Brooding, Lively, Detached, Weeping, Vindictive, Sparkling, Sulky, Dynamic, Nonchalant, Mournful, Nasty, Sprightly, Dour, Vigorous, Impassive, Crying, Mean, Effervescent, Pensive, Robust, Indifferent, Sniveling, Bitter, Jolly, Reflective, Stalwart, Unconcerned, Sobbing, Venomous, Gay, Ruminative, Hardy, Aloof, Blubbering, Vengeful, Festive, Meditative, Resilient, Disinterested, Tearful, Spiteful, Jocund, Contemplative, Strong, Apathetic, Weeping, Malicious, Jocular, Thoughtful, Stout-hearted, Uninvolved, Whimpering, Hostile, Gleeful, Ponderous, Tough, Nonplussed, Bawling, Malevolent, Amused, Broody, Doughty, Imperturbable, Sniffling, Ill-willed, Joyous, Introspective, Valiant, Unaffected, Blubbering, Nasty, Humorous, Museful, Bold, Unmoved

Now, there are 2 things about emotions based on 2 very opposing perspectives. A traditional perspective, which I call the “anti-very” perspective assumes some words emote stronger than others and make the word “very” useless. The other school of thought, which I call the “very” perspective says the word “very” has its own unique value that other words cannot provide. E.g., I am sad, no, I am devastated VS. I am sad, no, I am very, very sad but not devastated.

You see the difference? Words that portray a stronger version of an emotion don’t necessarily evoke the same feeling in you as a reader. That is because the word “very” indicates an abstract “quantity” and “intensity” that runs parallel (and not intrinsic) to the emotion word.

Very sad =/= Devastated.

Very happy =/= Jubilant.

It’s like you take the concept of sadness and then the word very magnifies it. Devastated might conjure a different feeling to the reader because of personal experiences.

There is another layer to this. A word like “very” primes the reader to first build up the expectation of something[2]. It pre-processes the next words. So, the reader’s experience has a trail behind it from the word “very” that resolves when the word “sad” comes in. This contrasts with the anti-very school of thought, which just triggers an experience without a trail behind it for whichever word you choose.

It’s like the word “very” hypes the reader up and then gives the goodies. The alternative is no hype and just the goodies in a fancier package. Hype = engagement.

6. Use metaphors

Metaphors are the access points to new ideas. Use known metaphors to help your reader understand your point. It’s like fitting a new idea into what you already know. Metaphors are like getting a 4g network on your phone when you were ready to use just a 3g signal.

In another article, I make the case that metaphors are the best way to comprehend the world around us. You might enjoy reading that; I’m quite proud of that article. 🙂

You can twist the idea of metaphors into new words. The brain reads through by predicting what’s going to come. So, there is an expectation based on past reading experiences and logical sense (which may differ for multi-lingual people). But when it comes across new words or glariang typos, it stops and pays extra attention. The expectation is violated, and the brain processes that word deeply.

One of the marketing authors I follow, Katelyn Bourgoin, coined the word “unignorable” to run her marketing newsletter. I love it, what a beautiful word to describe the ideas in it. Another instance I love is the idea of double-think in the book 1984. It loosely means “cognitive dissonance” – holding 2 conflicting thoughts in the head simultaneously (like wanting to smoke but avoiding it because it’s bad for health) – but isn’t double-think so much more compelling to the reader who doesn’t study psychology?

You have 3 choices then. Use typical metaphors, use creative metaphors, or create new words that very clearly indicate the meaning.

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7. Make your reader “sense”

An engaging write-up needs sensory words that evoke imagination with sound, vision, touch, taste, and smell descriptions. Sensory words make the content more “real”[3] because the one true common denominator in most definitions of “real” is a sensory component. The current understanding[4] is that imagining an object (which can be cued by words) and actually perceiving that object share the same neural circuits, but those signals spread across the brain in different ways, distinguishing imagination and perception.

Here’s a list of 180ish sense-words.

Sight: Visual, Bright, Dazzling, Shimmering, Murky, Glimmering, Sparkling, Shadowy, Vivid, Blurred, Gleaming, Hazy, Radiant, Flashing, Twinkling, Foggy, Colorful, Glossy, Dim, Luminous, Transparent, Vibrant, Flickering, Speckled, Opaque, Glittering, Cloudy, Misty, Polished, Reflective, Satiny, Smoky, Sparkly, Pitch-black, Iridescent, Brightly lit, Sunlit, Moonlit, Starry, Dusty.

Sound: Auditory, Whispering, Screeching, Muffled, Echoing, Humming, Thumping, Ringing, Thunderous, Squeaking, Rustling, Clanging, Murmuring, Crackling, Buzzing, Roaring, Hissing, Howling, Beeping, Chirping, Shrill, Banging, Purring, Tapping, Splashing, Rattling, Blaring, Creaking, Groaning, Clapping, Snapping, Whistling, Gurgling, Popping, Booming, Crashing, Babbling, Sizzling, Hooting, Chiming, Croaking.

Touch: Tactile, Smooth, Rough, Sticky, Slippery, Prickly, Velvety, Bumpy, Silky, Fuzzy, Slimy, Icy, Spongy, Gritty, Fluffy, Hard, Crispy, Brittle, Slick, Warm, Cold, Squishy, Greasy, Moist, Scratchy, Grainy, Chilly, Damp, Soft, Frigid, Sandy, Wet, Dry, Lumpy, Rigid, Coarse, Plush, Balmy.

Taste: Gustatory, Sweet, Spicy, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Savory, Tangy, Zesty, Fruity, Nutty, Minty, Rich, Creamy, Earthy, Buttery, Juicy, Tart, Smoky, Sugary, Herbal, Bland, Toasted, Refreshing, Vinegary, Citrusy, Pungent, Astringent, Gooey, Crisp, Chewy.

Smell: Olfactory, Fragrant, Stinky, Aromatic, Musty, Fresh, Pungent, Smoky, Floral, Earthy, Foul, Sweet-smelling, Spicy, Citrusy, Fishy, Perfumed, Rotten, Woody, Scented, Piney, Herbal, Moldy, Musky, Minty, Acrid, Putrid, Fruity, Burnt, Sultry, Chocolaty, Vanilla, Rosy, Peppery, Decaying, Freshly cut grass.

Pro tip: Each sense has its typical set of words that belong. But because the brain integrates information from different senses before giving us a “perception” (a process called cross-modal integration), you can legitimately use a typical word describing one sense for another sense. Like a synesthete. E.g., the sound tasted like it had a bluish tinge, the smell was odd in ways he couldn’t relate, but it felt rough… rough like brick.

Use verbs to signify action and movement.

Our brains take comfort in concepts that indicate change and movement. In fact, the source of imagination may just be a sensation combined with movements[5] associated with that sensation, like how imagining softness is easier when the brain signals the body to touch something soft. Moving from one room to another, a character flinging arms, a passerby approaching you to sell you something, a planet swirling around and crashing into the sun, etc., is all movement for the brain.

8. Give up – things, stuff, this is

The words this thing, that stuff, this is… are boring. Use specific nouns. Read up to know what “things” and “stuff” is actually called. A great starting point is to learn the words for different categories of items – furniture, food, tools, medicine, consumer goods, etc. Then you specialize – words from fashion, words about materials, words from geology and geometries, etc.

Everything has a word. English has 1 million + words with 170,000 + in use. Those 170,000 are just variations of some 47,000 unique word lemmas or base forms. Your average educated adult knows about 20 thousand words[6]. And as per my Grammarly report, I’ve rarely crossed 8,000 unique words a week on 3 different blogs I publish on (one psychology-centric, one guitar-centric, one education-centric) and my Whatsapp + email. Even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has just about 6200 unique words.

It’s not a difficult task to find specific words to represent objects and ideas in your writing.

9. Pay attention everywhere

As a writer, you have to first become an observer.

  • Notice good words and sentences. Learn new metaphors and idioms. Experiment using what you find interesting.
  • If musicians learn from each other, why not writers? (not my thought; Instagram reels FTW)
  • Your audience often says something better than you because they say it using the path of least resistance – the simplest way they understand it while maintaining accuracy. Learn from how they speak, so when you say it that way, you resonate with them.

10. Play with curiosity and pay-offs.

When a reader reads, they are tapping into their motivations and expectations. And they loosely fall under 2 categories.

  • Curiosity: The reader discovers information that makes sense and is now interested in exploring more. Explore the concept of curiosity here.
  • Pay-offs (rewards): The reader looks for a reward like finding a solution to their problem, feeling good about reading/learning, or finding a sense of achievement or thrill in the content. It’s a mental, intrinsic reward that leaves the reader with something more than before.

The psychological hook here is now a strategy to offer it.

Pay-off strategies:

  1. Clear, factual information.
  2. A rich reading experience.
  3. Clear value that improves a situation or solves a problem.

Curiosity:

  1. Offering information they know and bridging the gap between what they know and don’t know.
  2. Showcasing problems the reader may have and solving them.
  3. Raising expectations, destroying them, and still offering something of value.

There are more strategies, and that’s something for you to explore – refer to point 9 – observe everything and learn from other writers 🙂

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