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Jeruba's avatar

Homework question: snappy titles, "hooks." What's this about?

Asked by Jeruba (51355points) October 20th, 2010

I’ve seen many a youngster come on here and ask for help thinking up snappy titles and clever hooks for their college essays. This has made me wonder about the requirements they were given.

When I was an undergraduate (decades ago), essays were supposed to begin like scholarly discussions of a topic, with a thesis statement that stated the main case, which would then be supported by arguments. The title was supposed to be aptly descriptive of the content, neither too broad nor too narrow.

Now in my dramatic lit. class I have an assignment to write an essay that includes these requirements: “This is a full essay and should contain a snappy title, an introductory paragraph that contains a hook . . . ”

I don’t need any help writing my essay. What I want to know is this: when and why did attention-grabbing magazine articles become the model for student essays? What happened to a dignified academic approach to student material? Why in the world should a student of content in a course have to master the arts of the journalistic grabber and the news headline in order to exercise discursive and analytic skills in essay form?

In other words, this is a question about educational models and trends and not about how to write an essay. I’m hoping there’s a teacher or instructor here, perhaps one with a long memory, who can enlighten me on this puzzling change.

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9 Answers

bobbinhood's avatar

I don’t know why they have moved that direction in English-type courses, but it’s not that way in every dicipline. Any work that is done in the sciences still follows the form you detailed for the scholarly discussion. For some reason, general writing courses, literature courses, and the like have moved to the “magazine” approach. I personally prefer the scholarly stuff, so it’s probably good I’m in the sciences.

As for when, it’s been this way as long as I remember. They taught us to use snappy titles and hooks when I was in elementary school. The first year I remember being taught writing was third grade, so they made the shift sometime before ‘96.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

I’m in no way a teacher or instructor, but the requirements for your essay seem to mirror what we see in so many other areas of our lives these days.

Look at resumes, for example, and the time and effort spent on formatting, fonts, white space, stationery selection, a ‘hook’ in the cover letter, etc.

In fact, at this time of year in an even-numbered year in the US, you don’t need to look any further than our political “debates” and advertising. Where’s the content? It’s all about the hook, the grabber, the big, quick and expansive statement, the sound bite.

Marketing rules, unfortunately. Advertising moves product. I guess that’s the lesson.

Frankie's avatar

I’m a double-major in English and Women’s Studies (read: I do a LOT of writing) at my university, and I have never seen those requirements for any of the papers I have ever written. They’re supposed to be scholarly and, as you said, a dignified, academic approach to the material. The essays and research papers I have written have always been graded on how well I argue for and support my thesis, not on how “grabby” the topic is. It’s unfortunate that you are in a class that puts such importance on such trivial things as snappy titles and “hooks.” The instructor obviously has little respect for academia and little interest in producing quality writers.

lloydbird's avatar

@Jeruba Now, come on. Just get on with your homework and stop dithering. ;-)

the100thmonkey's avatar

Perhaps it’s just a matter of terminology.

snappy -> concise
hook -> thesis statement

Maybe the requirements are the same but the way that the assessors talk about them has changed.

Just a suggestion.

MissAusten's avatar

I don’t know, but I think your snappy essay title should be “Essays for Dummies!” and your hook should be, “Even the sacred halls of our most cherished learning institutions have fallen prey to the seductive siren call of shallow American tabloid journalism.”

Jeruba's avatar

That’s great, @MissAusten. The essay, however, is about the first five plays we’ve read for the class and not the topic of my question. Perhaps there’s an article in there, though.

lifeflame's avatar

I think this desire for snappy titles and hooks might have been influenced by the publishing and grant writing domains in academia. Furthermore, I think there is a tendency in academia to be more consumer focused than it used to be. Even course names nowadays seem to try to be snappy and attention grabbing.

lapilofu's avatar

Just because writing is academic doesn’t mean it should be boring. The state of academic writing is a tragedy and—as far as I can tell—has been for decades. As David Foster Wallace said: “The truth about most US academic prose is appalling—pompous, abstruse, claustral, inflated, euphuistic, pleonastic, solecistic, sesquipedalian, Heliogabaline, occluded, obscure, jargon-ridden, empty: resplendently dead.”

Of course making something not boring definitely requires a lot more than a snappy title and a good hook—so I do think it’s a mistake for an assignment to focus heavily on those—but at least they’re are a good place to start. At least teachers are encouraging people to think about the readers is what I’m saying. Focusing exclusively on the title and hook is obviously a mistake. But, in general, I don’t think it would hurt academic papers to dress up a little.

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