Writer’s Workshop: The Inverted Pyramid

Ernest Hemmingway once called journalism “literature on a deadline.”

Over the decades, many writers – English majors, poets, literature buffs, and general story-tellers – have turned to journalism to make a living. However, simply knowing about the English language, grammar, and sentence structure won’t help you become a good journalist.

One of the most important elements of journalism is unknown or overlooked by otherwise wonderful writers: In every story, there is a need to tell the most important parts quickly. The reasons for this are twofold. First, the average newspaper reader will not sit down and read the Times or Gazette from cover to cover without interruption. In fact, studies show that when a reader is interested by a headline, he or she will read around 25 percent of the story, then move on. A newspaper reader isn’t looking for a good read; he or she wants to be informed about the days events. It’s a quick-and-dirty, utilitarian approach; but this is the reality surrounding newspapers.

Second, newspaper editors do not have unlimited space with which to work. Typically, advertisements are sold to businesses and placed in the paper first, before the stories are even written. Once the ads are laid out, the editors are left with what’s called a “news hole”: a finite, preordained area of column-inches for the day’s stories. Not having the luxury of infinite reams of blank paper, a news editor is often forced to cut words and sentences; however, being on a tight, often daily, deadline, the editor doesn’t have time to peruse the entire article and trim the fat. Usually, whole paragraphs will be lopped off to make the most newsworthy information fit in the allotted space.

So, as we can see, the readers need the most bare-bones, factual information immediately; and the editors need a way to have all the extraneous, superfluous information grouped together for quick amputation when necessary. This is accomplished by using a journalistic device known as the Inverted Pyramid.

With the Inverted Pyramid, the most essential information in a story is put at the very top of the article; this is followed by important but not absolutely necessary information, and so on, until the least relevant facts are grouped together at the very bottom of the article.

The most important part of the article is the first sentence. Called the lede, this sentence should be between 15 and 25 words long; beginning journalists should confine themselves to answering the most essential of the Five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

For example, suppose you have to write an article about a fire. In the lede, you need to decide what to tell your readers: who was involved in the fire, when and where did it occur, why did the fire start, what was the end result or total damage?

Depending on what information is the most interesting or important, your lede could read several different ways; just remember that the very first piece of information should be the most important thing about the whole story.

If life was lost, that may be the most important information: “A residential fire took two lives and destroyed three city blocks in downtown Louisville last night.”

Perhaps human interest provides the most important detail in your article: “A six year-old girl rescued her infant brother from a burning building in downtown Louisville last night.”

Or, if crime is involved: “An escaped convict is implicated in an act of arson that took two lives and destroyed three city blocks.”

The lede is a stand-alone paragraph and is followed by the “nut ‘graph”, a slightly longer second paragraph that contains supporting information or gives the reader the all-important “So What” factor. In other words, the nut ‘graph gives you the opportunity to tell your reader why he or she should care about the rest of the story enough to continue reading. Essentially, you’re selling your own article to your audience.

Going back to our fire example, if the story is about arson and crime, the nut ‘graph could read, “Michael Johnston, a repeat offender with three counts of burglary on his record, started the blaze in downtown Louisville last night using ten gallons of gasoline and a homemade explosive.”

After reading the lede and nut ‘graph, the reader should have a good idea of what your story is about and should be able to make a decision to read or skip the rest of the article.

Next, keep adding and organizing paragraphs in order of relevance and interest until you have the least relevant or least interesting information at the end of the article. Determining what’s important enough to be near the top will depend on your and your editors’ sense of newsworthiness; generally, however, the following factors will help you determine a piece of information’s relevance or importance in the story: timeliness, proximity, prominence, conflict, uniqueness, and human interest. Consequence, pathos, and shock can also provide barometers for newsworthiness. If a piece of information is particularly timely, is about a prominent person, introduces some struggle or conflict, etc., then it can be considered newsworthy. Carefully weigh and judge the newsworthiness of your ‘graphs before you place them in order, from most to least important as per the Inverted Pyramid.

Last, for the final touch, add a “kicker”. If a reader has stuck with your article to the very end, he or she will be waiting for you to end on a high note. Give him or her something to ponder, something that makes an impression, something that will keep the story on that reader’s mind for the rest of the day. Like the lede, the kicker should be pithy and pointed and should sum up the story. Often, quotations make great kickers.

You can let your editor know to be on the lookout for the kicker when column-inches start falling on the cutting room floor, but organizing your ‘graphs in an Inverted Pyramid will help your editors and readers get to the meat of your article and will save you a lot of frustration as a journalist.

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