The Inverted Pyramid Is the Dracula of Journalism

Q:

Hello Bruce.

Ben Forbes is a freshman at Salem State University and he asked me to ask you why you have such strong feelings about the inverted pyramid. He is writing a paper about Journalism, and other journalists say that it is their preferred method of writing for time and space reasons. They also say that it is what the reader expects. How can a journalist write quickly and effectively and grab the reader’s attention with another approach. Thank you!

A:

Your friend Ben needs to understand that the inverted pyramid NEVER had anything to do with writing, readers or the news. It came into common use about 160 years ago as an accommodation to the requirements of the newspaper’s back shop and as a hedge against the vagaries of a new communications technology–the telegraph.

Before the 1860s, journalists covering events that occurred a great distance from their newspapers sent their reports in by mail. They “corresponded” with their newspapers, hence the word “correspondent.” Often, these stories really did read like letters. But during the American Civil War, hundreds of journalist found themselves covering far-flung news that was clearly urgent.

Fortunately, they were sometimes able to transmit their news via the telegraph, which had been invented in 1843 and was just coming into wide use. However, doing so was risky.  

Sometimes, the new technology failed. Sometimes the rebels cut the transmission lines. Sometimes, when a reporter was only partway through sending a story, a military officer commandeered the line. So journalists learned to send their news in short bursts, most important stuff first, second most important stuff next, then third most important stuff, and so on. That way, at least SOME of it would make it to their newspapers.

Editors receiving these stories plopped them into their newspapers without changing the way they were organized. They did so because it was the easiest thing to do on deadline, but also because organizing information this way was a good fit for the way newspapers were printed. News stories were set in type, and the type was made of LEAD. The lead type had to fit into a space the newspaper had available among other stories and advertising.  If the story was too long for the space, it had to be cut.  And if a late-breaking story came in, the story would have to be cut again.

The only practical way to cut a story set in lead type was from the bottom.  Unless you wanted to cut it from the top, which never seemed like a good idea.

But tell me. When was the last time journalists sent their stories via telegraph? Meanwhile, newspapers stopped setting stories in lead about 50 years ago.  Once they did, stories could easily be cut ANYWHERE, not just from the bottom. And now, when much of our news appears online, stories don’t have to be cut for space at all. There is no hole for them to fit into. They can be as long as they need to be to tell the news.

In other words, the reasons for writing in inverted pyramid form no longer exist. They’ve been gone for a very long time. Nevertheless, journalist continue to use it and journalism professors continue to teach them to do so. It is the Dracula of journalism. No matter how many times writing coaches like me drive a stake into its heart, it keeps rising from its coffin.

This is the longest-running case of professional malpractice in history.

Why do I say that? Because the only practical use for the inverted pyramid today is what newspaper journalists call “briefs,” short news items of three paragraphs or less. For anything else, the form is the single WORST way to organize a news story short of just randomly emptying your notebook.

Here’s why that is so.

  1. The inverted pyramid makes stories unnecessarily difficult for readers to understand. As former AP Managing Editor Mike Silverman once put it, “We keep throwing facts at people without telling them what happened.”
  2. It bleeds stories of any inherent drama they might otherwise have. That’s why life can be remarkably interesting until you read about it in a newspaper.
  3. It makes it more difficult for writers to compose their stories on deadline.
  4. And it makes one of the most important elements in any story—a good ending—impossible because inverted pyramid stories, by definition, pitifully dribble to an end.

Basically, the inverted pyramid form looks like this:

The most interesting and important stuff

     Less Interesting and important stuff

          Marginally interesting stuff

                What I could leave out

                       And crap

Defenders of the form often say journalists need to write this way because readers don’t read stories all the way to the end. OF COURSE THEY DON’T. The inverted pyramid teaches them not to.

Fortunately, there ARE a good number of elegant story structures available to journalists, and the best news writers use them all the time.

The most useful one for most breaking news is known as the martini glass.  This is for stories about events that unfold on the clock.  An airplane crash. A bank robbery.  A court verdict. A forest fire. A tornado. A police chase. A night of rioting. Election night . . . .

You should begin with one to three short paragraphs that deliver the very top of the news. Think of it as what you would include if you could only write a brief. Or think of it as what you would shout if you were standing at a bus stop, the bus was about to pull away, and somebody leaned out the window to ask, “What the heck just happened?”

Once you’ve done that, begin at the beginning and tell the story chronologically, just as it unfolded in life.

There are compelling reasons for writing this way.

First of all, it’s the only way to convey the drama of an event. Drama REQUIRES chronology. It’s about how something started, what happened next, oh my God what’s going to happen next, and then what follows after that. 

Second, chronology makes a story much easier for readers to understand.  If you just organize information in order of its importance, readers never get a clear picture of what and how it happened.  Ever get confused when a friend excitedly tries to tell you something that happened to her? What do you do about that? You tell her, start over, begin at the beginning, and tell me how it happened.

Third, writing this way allows you to craft an actual ending. Why is it that except for journalists devoted to the inverted pyramid, everyone who writes anything at all understands that the ending is the most important part of any story? Novelists know this. Magazine writers now this. Children’s story writers know this. Script writers know this. Speech writers know this. Hell, anyone who has ever written a love letter knows this.

The ending is the last word, your chance to nail the point of the story to your readers’ memory and give him or her something to think about before turning on the TV.  Besides, don’t you think readers who go all the way to the end deserve some reward for getting there . . . and at least a signal that the piece of over?

Finally, writing the body of the story in chronology makes it much easier to organize it on deadline. After all, once you write your summary top, you don’t have to make any hard decisions about what comes next. So you can write much faster.

Interestingly, ONE part of every newspaper has recognized all of this for a very long time–the sports department. Sports writers never write their game stories in inverted pyramid form. They understand that doing so would make it impossible for readers to understand the flow of the game.

 Sports writers typically begin with the top of the news:

After falling hopelessly behind by a score of 28-3 in the Super Bowl last night, Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to an improbable 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

They then convey the game’s key moments IN CHRONOLOGY so readers can follow and understand how that happened.

Of course, not everything journalists write about unfolds over time. Sometimes, our stories are essentially explanatory in nature.  What is in the bill that Congress just passed? What do the new Covid guidelines mean?  What does the latest government job report say and why does it matter? Why did that Congressman unexpectedly lose his election?

Writing those stories in inverted pyramid form is always a disaster.  It is simply not possible to explain something clearly by organizing information in the order of its importance.  Explanations require a structure that resembles essay writing. You gradually build from the simple to the complex.  To understand the whole picture, first you need to understand point A. OK, now we can move on to point B.  Now you are ready for point C. And so on until the entire picture becomes clear.

One elegant way to write such stories is known as Wall Street Journal block organization—because editors at that paper invented it about 50 years ago and have been employing it to great effect ever since.  I don’t have the time or space to describe it in detail here, but you can learn about it in “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by one of the paper’s former editors, William Blundell. Don’t be deceived by the title. It’s not about light features. It’s largely about writing explanatory stories.

A number of other structures are also available to journalists, but I lack the time and space to go into them here. Generally, however, they are variations on Blundell’s block organization or on using chronology (or narrative).  Journalists need to learn them. And journalism professors need to teach them instead of indoctrinating students in an archaic form that out-lived its usefulness a half century ago.

About Bruce DeSilva

Crime Novelist
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s