What is an inverted pyramid in journalism? The inverted pyramid is a style of writing that presents information to the reader in descending order of importance.
The inverted pyramid is a writing structure, usually associated with news stories, where the details are presented in order of importance. Writers present their article’s or story’s most important items in the intro or the opening paragraphs. Then, the rest of the background information is presented further within the piece.
The inverted pyramid structure gets its name from the visualization of the structure, where broad facts are presented at the top, and the more minor (less significant) facts are placed below them. If you were writing in the opposite style to the inverted pyramid, you would leave the most important details within the body of the article. This is an act that is sometimes called ‘burying the lede.’
The inverted pyramid allows readers to get the essential information from within the story, even if they have a short attention span. This writing style also benefits editors, who recognize that they can cut the end of a piece if they are short for space within a publication.
History Of The Inverted Pyramid
Many people cite the invention of the telegraph in 1845 as the beginning of the inverted pyramid style of writing. That is because, with the telegraph, the amount of information you could transmit was limited. Thus, it became necessary for anyone sending them to front-load their message, so the most critical information could be reported.
The idea was that if there were connection issues, what would be lost would be the least important information. However, this may not tell the whole story. The author, Chip Scanlan, wrote an essay on the beginnings of the inverted pyramid story structure, entitled ‘Birth of the Inverted Pyramid: A Child of Technology, Commerce and History.
In this essay, Scanlan builds on some of the existing theories around the origin of the inverted pyramid:
“A popular myth about the inverted pyramid holds that it came about during the American Civil War (1861-1865) when reporters in the field who relied on the telegraph had to make sure they sent the most important news first in case the wires were cut…
“The problem with that myth is that researchers who have studied leading American papers in the Civil War find numerous examples of stories written in the chronological style of the day rather than the “first news first” style of the inverted pyramid.”
Scanlan links the origin of the inverted pyramid to news writing around Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865. More particularly, he linked it to a copy of a telegram written by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. This telegram was so poignant that many editors ran it on their newspapers’ front pages after the incident.
And reading the first few paragraphs of the story written in 1865, it is easy to see why it became the norm for news journalism. The piece gets all the most important details out there, catching the readers’ attention, which then urges them to continue with the piece, thus ingesting the additional information.
Here’s the beginning of the article Scanlan referenced. This was how it appeared in the New York Herald on April 15, 1865:
“This evening at about 9:30 p.m. at Ford’s Theatre, the President, while sitting in his private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Harris and Major Rathburn, was shot by an assassin, who suddenly entered the box and approached behind the President.”
“The assassin then leaped upon the stage, brandishing a large dagger or knife, and made his escape in the rear of the theatre.
The pistol ball entered the back of the President’s head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal. The President has been insensible ever since it was inflicted, and is now dying.”
Peter Cole offers a slightly different account of the origin of this writing structure in a piece for The Guardian.
He wrote: “The structure is known as the “inverted pyramid” and dates back to the days of hot metal when words on their way to paper passed through a stage of being slugs of lead. It was always easier and faster to cut a story from the bottom, using a pair of tweezers.”
All of the above explanations offer insight into why the structure not only came to fruition but also why it remains popular. Although the exact origin of the inverted pyramid is debated, one thing is unanimous: it remains to become the go-to way to write news.
Examining The Inverted Pyramid
Before we get to the many other reasons this style of writing is still consistent, let us look at some of the criticisms of the inverted pyramid structure.
The aforementioned Chip Scanlan has another essay on the subject. This is called ‘Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid.’ As an expert on the structure, he can disseminate precisely why it has its detractors, with a standard issue being its formulaic nature. He writes: “The inverted pyramid, its critics say, is the anti-story. It tells the story backward and is at odds with the storytelling tradition that features a beginning, middle, and end.”
Another issue is that once the reader knows what style the article is being written in, they have little reason to read past the initial facts of the story. Scanlan adds: “Rather than rewarding a reader with a satisfying conclusion, the pyramid loses steam and peters out, in a sense defying readers.”
Despite these claims, it remains consistent within news outlets’ publications. Purdue University back up this claim, stating that the inverted pyramid is “one of the most widely used and time-tested structures in mass media writing.”
This structure may have issues, but it allows reporters to get the information to their readers efficiently and succinctly. Bruce DeSilva of The Associated Press says, “The inverted pyramid remains the Dracula of journalism. It keeps rising from its coffin and sneaking into the paper.”
Advantages of the Inverted Pyramid
In today’s world of short attention spans, the inverted pyramid provides a structure that allows news to be consumed quickly and efficiently. According to EasyMedia.in, a website for media professionals and students, this structure is a dream for otherwise busy readers. They state that the inverted pyramid makes it easier for readers to grasp the key point of a story, helps hold attention spans, and allows the audience to scan the piece with ease.
Journalists also love this structure, which helps them quickly create engaging articles. This is because they can follow a simple formula to devise their stories and, thus, meet deadlines and report on breaking news promptly.
Editors also love the inverted pyramid, as if they are short for space on a physical publication, they know the less important details are at the bottom of the article. Thus, they can cut the last few paragraphs.
Online Readability and The Inverted Pyramid
The inverted pyramid has also found a home in web writing. In an interesting article on the subject, the Search Engine Journal state that the inverted pyramid’s popularity can be linked to it being an “easy to follow framework” that “drives organic traffic through search engine optimized content.”Of course, the inverted pyramid gives distinct advantages regarding SEO.
However, that’s not its only advantage, as the very nature of website visitors and readers also allows for this writing to thrive online. IntelligenceWP discussed this in their article ‘Writing for Web Using the Inverted Pyramid,’ pointing toward the need “the importance of gaining their attention and interest right away.”
The prestigious Nielson Norman Group echoed this point, discussing how the inverted pyramid style is ideal for online writing. They said: “We know that users don’t read carefully online. As a result, they have little patience for content that doesn’t engage them.
How To Use The Inverted Pyramid
The inverted pyramid is a structure that helps get the news out there, but it lacks some of the creativity you will see in essay writing. At the same time, it has survived for so long because of its efficiency for both readers and writers. It has also been given an added boost, as it is the ideal way to present writing on web pages.
As Forbes put it:
“No matter whether you are writing for a fringe blog or one of the most respected news outlets in the world, the pyramid style of writing means the headline will summarize the article in a few meme-ready share-worthy words, the lead paragraph will offer a tantalizing preview of the major conclusions, and the remaining top-level paragraphs will all convey the big story.”
It is a structure, and with structures, there is rigidity. Nobody insists that you must stick within these rigid structures to be a creative writer. However, there is little doubt that it is beneficial to understand them.
After citing him twice within this article, it seems apt to leave the final words to journalism historian and writer Chip Scanlan. In regards to the inverted pyramid, he wrote: “Like it or not, reporters in the 21st century have to be familiar with (it)”.
So, without further ado, here is a brief guide on how to use the inverted pyramid:
1. Identify the most important elements of the story
Here, you figure out the key points within the story that readers will care about. This information will form the basis of your intro, where you will give an overview of the article that is to follow.
2. Outline other facts in descending order of importance
Here, you will prioritize points based on what will interest your readers. The bigger, more informative pieces of information will be higher up the list than secondary, less relevant details.
If you struggle to get the information from within the story, assessing the five Ws is a useful process: what, where, when, who, and why.
3. Structure your article
The most challenging part of this process is putting the above into a well-written, concise, factual article. Of course, the inverted pyramid helps reporters write articles quickly and efficiently.
However, it is still important that the article is written well and doesn’t read like a bullet point list of facts about an occurrence.
Instead, it should be an interesting, informative article where the writer frontloads the most important elements of the story, so the reader understands the main point from the beginning.
Resources For Journalists
FAQs About What is an Inverted Pyramid in Journalism
Why is an inverted pyramid used in journalistic writing?
The inverted pyramid is used in journalistic writing, allowing readers to gain information quickly. It also improves SEO and allows reporters to present the story quickly and efficiently. The inverted pyramid is ideal for today’s society, as it quickly presents the key facts of a story. Moreover, it is perfect for a world of constant competition for people’s attention.
What is an example of an inverted pyramid?
Let’s create an example of the inverted pyramid style. For us to do that, let’s imagine a hypothetical news story where aliens from outer space land a spacecraft in Ireland.
Firstly, let’s identify the key information: in this instance, it would be that aliens have arrived and are on our planet. Then, let’s try to answer some of the secondary questions readers might have: why are they here? What message are they trying to communicate? Where exactly did they land? When did it happen? Who did they communicate with? After we gain this information and implement the inverted pyramid style, our hypothetical article might look like the one below.
“Today, for the first time in the history of mankind, a species from outer space has made contact with the human race.”
“The contact happened in Dublin Ireland, at 3pm eastern. That was when the creature identifying as the species’ leader, Zorg, insisted that they have travelled to Ireland with peaceful motives.”
“Instead, the purpose of their mission is to exchange journalistic methods and structures with our people. Zorg revealed this while insisting to speak to the nation’s finest copywriters.”
“These creatures were first spotted in the Dublin skies earlier that day, when their small spacecraft was spotted hovering over the Irish capital. We are yet to determine where they came from or how long they are planning on staying.”
As you can see, the inverted pyramid first reveals the most important information (in this fake example, that’s aliens arriving). Secondly, it lists less secondary info – going through each of the five Ws.
Are you looking for more? Then, check out our round-up of 11 best journalism tools for busy professionals!
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