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Standing Out, Crafting Hooks, and Accidentally Revealing Everything That’s Wrong With You
Things I learned as a semi-professional dating app bio writer
Getting too serious about creating anything ruins your ability to enjoy it uncritically.
Once I started writing, it became impossible to read an essay without a piece of my brain trying to take it apart and see how it worked. Once I restored an old house, it became impossible to walk into a room without noticing the sloppy painting or the misaligned moulding. And once I started getting paid to write other people’s Hinge profiles, it became impossible to do my own swiping without constantly editorializing. Even on the profiles of people I definitely didn’t want to go out with—or people I definitely did—my inner Pauline Kael would activate and I’d find myself, without even meaning to, drafting a litany of suggestions for how they could do better.
I got the gig, fittingly enough, through a date. There was a woman I went out with a few times who worked for this dating coach—a really hands-on one, who helped not just with general dating strategy but with profiles, photos, messages, and god knows what else. The coach was looking for someone to help write her clients’ bios, and the woman I had briefly dated suggested me. After a short interview, some writing samples, and—mortifyingly—a thorough review of my own Hinge profile, I was in. I would interview each client—mostly middle-aged divorcees, but occasionally lifelong bachelors or especially desperate-seeming thirty-year-olds—then do my best to embody their vibe and draft a bio in their voice. Ghostwriting, basically, in phone screen-sized increments.
That was a little over a year ago. Now, having done this for too many clients to count, here’s some of what I’ve learned.
In a sea of identical profiles, your first job is to stand out
All art is evaluated in contex. A painting looks different alone in a white room than it does on a wall with a hundred other paintings, and a song sounds different at a concert than it does in your headphones. It might be a stretch to call Tinder profiles “art,” but the same principle applies. You typically craft your profile in attentive isolation, or maybe you work on it with a friend or two. But others will encounter it in thirty-second bursts, sandwiched between an endless stream of other profiles, while they’re on the toilet or in line at Trader Joe’s.
Your first job is to be noticed at all, which means you have to risk putting things in your profile that some people might not like. Almost every client I’ve had has been resistant to this idea at first, but it’s better to turn some people off than to be so blandly inoffensive that no one notices you at all. Everyone likes (or at least claims to like) traveling, going out to eat, and staying active, so if that’s all you say you’re interested in, no one is going to swipe right on you unless you’re so hot that what you put in your bio doesn’t matter, in which case none of this advice is relevant to you anyway.
Almost invariably, the most interesting things my clients tell me about themselves are preceded by their saying, “We probably shouldn’t put this in my bio, but…”
I always put it in their bio.
Being approachable is more important than being appealing
Starting a conversation with someone on an app sucks because you have to think of something to say to them. No one wants to just say “hey” or open with a canned line they obviously use on everyone, but it’s a huge pain in the ass to have to come up with something unique to say to every person you match with.
You can make this easier on your matches by thinking of your profile as being made up of different hooks that they can latch onto to start a conversation. The simplest way to do this is to just directly ask a question or to use the “Ask me about…” prompt and fill it with something genuine, but you don’t have to be quite so obvious. A strong opinion or unusual story works too.
This principle is best illustrated by a counterexample. One of Bumble’s prompts is “My third grade teacher described me as…,” and I once came up with the answer “Someone who would grow up to be a great Bumble date,” which I accurately thought was hilarious. But that answer has no hook. Even if someone really likes it, how are they supposed to respond besides “ha”? That response reveals nothing about its author except that they’re decent at coming up with funny answers to dating app prompts, a fairly widespread skill that’s not actually helpful in figuring out whether or not you want to date someone.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen profiles that say something along the lines of “please say something more creative than ‘hey’ if you match with me,” while also giving their matches almost no actual content to start a conversation over. Don’t do that.
No one likes a whiner
Online dating is the only activity I can think of where it’s considered socially acceptable to voluntarily engage in the activity while simultaneously complaining about how much you dislike it.
My personal theory is that when people complain about dating apps (or dating in New York, or dating in your thirties, etc), the actual issue is just that dating and relationships are fundamentally difficult and complicated, but it’s easier to blame the apps or some other superficial part of the process than it is to face that stark reality.
But whatever you think about online dating, airing your complaints in your profile is both unoriginal and unbecoming. It reveals nothing worthwhile about you, since almost everyone has some reservations about dating apps, and it’s always a “doth protest too much” situation, since if you really hated online dating that much, you wouldn’t be doing it. Sure, most people are savvy enough not to just put “I hate this” in their profiles, but that same idea wrapped in a little snark is all too common (“worst idea I’ve ever had: getting on this app”).
That kind of answer might have been funny in 2013, when Tinder was brand new and it actually was a little crazy to be on it. But a decade later, when your divorced dad is on Tinder, acting like you’re making some wild choice—or, worse, like your friends had to talk you into it—is nonsensical. It’s like shopping for groceries while loudly disclaiming “I can’t believe my friends talked me into going to the supermarket!”
People will tell you what’s wrong with them by telling you what they want
You wouldn’t think that people’s natural instinct would be to reveal their full litany of psychological issues in their profiles, but it actually is. They just don’t realize that’s what they’re doing.
If you want to find out everything that’s wrong with me, all you have to do is read this newsletter.
I’ve written before about the idea that we often want to be with people (or think we want to be with them) because they have traits we want for ourselves. This can be a positive thing—we’re drawn to people who balance us, like when an anxious person seeks a calmer partner. But sometimes it’s more insidious, and we don’t realize that no matter how close we get to someone who has the qualities we want, we won’t ever be truly satisfied until we embody those qualities ourselves. (For example: once I started writing regularly again, I stopped exclusively dating artists.)
This dynamic is at work in dating apps in a very simple way: whenever someone’s profile has a trait they want in a partner, it’s really a trait that person wants for themselves.
Once you start to notice this, it’s inescapable. The person who insists they’ll only date people in therapy is really saying they need more therapy. (There’s a great story Sarah Silverman told on Conan O’Brien’s podcast: she asked her therapist of multiple decades how she was ever going to find a partner who’d done as much work on themselves as she had, and he reminded her that not everyone is so fucked up as to need twenty years of therapy.) The person who lists “dismantling capitalism” as one of their interests is actually expressing their own guilt at not doing anything of the sort. (I’ve matched with more than a few people with profiles like this, and 100% of them were limousine liberals. The actual activists I’ve been out with never centered it in their profiles.) And we all know that if a man mentions a “crazy ex”—or, God forbid, multiple—it’s practically guaranteed that he was actually the crazy one.
I think it’s good to be direct about what you’re looking for. Just remember that when you do so, you’re also sending a message about who you are.
True story: a very handsome friend of mine, who hadn’t been single for long, once told a group of us about his opening line that never failed: “For you 🌹🌷.” We had to break it to him that it wasn’t the flowers that were doing the work there.