The inverted pyramid

Reading: Writing for the Mass Media, chapters 4, 5

The inverted pyramid

Understanding the forms in which news and information should be placed in journalistic writing and handling those forms with confidence is the mark of a maturing media writer. A couple of weeks ago, we suggested that the way to learn to write for the mass media is to do three things:

  • Read
  • Analyze
  • Emulate

It’s good to remind ourselves of that approach as we get into reporting because reporting and writing go hand-in-hand.

The information that you get from personal sources needs to be handled correctly so that it satisfies the source, the audience and the demands of journalism. One of those demands is that we tell readers where information is coming from that means attribution.
The inverted pyramid

The inverted pyramid is an anti-narrative structure of writing about events. Instead of starting at the beginning, the inverted pyramid structure demands that you begin with the most important information and that you present information in decreasing order of importance.

Some historians argue that the inverted pyramid form developed in the mid-19th century when news was first being transmitted by telegraph wires. The wires were unreliable — or during the Civil War would be taken over by the military — so a style of presentation had to be used that would get the most important information out first. The outcome of a battle might be the most important thing that happened during the battle. But rather than writing a narrative that delayed telling what happened until the very end, the journalist had to say it at the beginning of the report.

Today the inverted pyramid structure is highly developed and widely used, not just in newspapers and wire services but in many kinds of writing. Many business letters, for instance, use an inverted pyramid structure to tell the recipient immediately what the most important information is.

Lead paragraph

The most important part of an inverted pyramid news story is the lead paragraph. Most lead paragraphs should be one sentence and a maximum of 30 to 35 words. Those are the technical requirements. The content requirement is that it tell the most important piece of information that occurred in the event.

In addition, a lead should contain the main who, what, when and where of the story. And they

  • should be direct and simple; they should have the most important information near the beginning of the sentence;
  • should not try to tell everything, but they should be good summaries of what the story is about;
  • should include specific information — concrete facts — about the story;
  • should not begin with the when element because this is rarely the most important thing you have to tell the reader;
  • should use a strong verb to describe the action;
  • should be accurate — above all else.


The second paragraph

Almost as important as the lead is the second paragraph. The second paragraph is where you develop some idea or piece of information that is in the lead.

You should not drop into a narrative in the second paragraph. Many students concentrate on writing good leads but then have a tendency to start at the beginning in the second paragraph.

Resist that temptation.

Remember that you are presenting information in decreasing order of importance. Each new paragraph should present the reader with some new information. But it should be tied to the previous paragraph by the skillful use of transitions.


Inverted pyramid checklist

As you learn to write in the inverted pyramid structure, you should take a look at the inverted pyramid checklist. These are some of the most common mistakes that beginning students make in writing their news stories. This is a good list to have beside you when you finish a story, and you should not turn it in until you have gone over this list.

Do not fill this form out until you are told to do so.


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