To Construct The Lead
of the story (“lead”) must be concise. This may be a single
sentence or several sentences, whatever is necessary to give
the reader a clear overview of what it contains.
Journalists often say that they spend about 50% of their time
writing the lead of a story; writing the rest of the story
also takes about 50%. Why? Because this is usually how long
it requires them to determine the key information to put into
the lead, and then to package it in a clear, concise manner.
After that, the rest of the story almost writes itself. Determining
this key information is not a matter of intuition. There is
a method. Before journalists start to write, they ask themselves
a series of questions known as the 5Ws & H.
1. Who? Who are the person
or persons involved in the story?
2. What? What happened?
3. When? When did it happen?
4. Where? Where did it
5. Why? Why did it happen?
6. How? How did it happen?
Not all these questions will be relevant all the time, but
they provide a good test. After writing the lead, check to
see how many of the questions have been answered. If any
answers are missing, there are two possible reasons:
- The question isn’t relevant, so do nothing.
- The question is relevant but was neglected, so rewrite.
Another way to evaluate the lead is the Stop Reading Test.
Remember, you are generally writing for busy people. They
generally do not want—and often do not need—to read the entire
text. So ask yourself: At what point could someone stop reading
and still get a clear, sharp picture of what the text is all
about? If they would need most or all of the text, you must
do some serious rewriting.
How To Construct The Body
pyramid is a pyramid because at each point from the
lead downward the information becomes less and less
important. This does not mean the information is necessarily
less interesting; that is for each individual reader
to determine. However, it is no longer vital.
But how do you arrange information in descending order
must be possible to delete information from the bottom without
anyone knowing that it was ever there. This is certainly not
easy; it requires a lot of skill and practice. But once again,
there is a method that offers considerable help. It is called
the Q & A Technique. It works like this. After each sentence
you write, examine it to see what question it could raise
in the mind of your readers. Then answer it! If you
do this consistently, you will find the answers becoming more
and more detailed, so the information will become less and
less vital. When you run out of questions, it is probably
a good time to stop writing.
A Pertinent Example
Here is the lead of a story in an international newspaper
Super-sportsman Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France
winner, filed suit Wednesday in a Paris court to force the
publisher La Martiničre to include his denial of doping charges
in a new book about him, scheduled to reach bookstores in
(And the story continues)
Here are the 5Ws & H
1. Who? Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour of France winner
2. What? filed suit against the publisher La Martiničre
3. When? Wednesday
4. Where? in a Paris court
5. Why? to include his denial of doping charges in a new book
6. How? (not relevant)
Note that the “Who” is not simply Lance Armstrong but
“Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour of France winner”. The name
Lance Armstrong may not be immediately familiar to everyone,
but with this description, even people who have never heard
of him would now know who he is.
Similarly, the “What” is not simply that he filed a lawsuit
but that he filed suit against “the publisher La Martiničre”.
Most readers probably will not know who La Martiničre is,
but they will know that the writer does, which reinforces
their confidence in the accuracy of the text. Gaining reader
confidence is essential to effective expository writing, and
inserting precise detail wherever relevant is an excellent
way to do it. Starting from this lead, the story continues
down the inverted pyramid. At each point, the information
becomes less vital, giving each individual reader the option
to decide at which point they have had enough and can turn
their attention to something else.
How to Use the Inverted Pyramid in Your Type of Writing
You may now feel that the inverted pyramid is an excellent
idea—for newspapers. But is it relevant for the type of writing
that you do? Emphatically, yes! Remember, the inverted
pyramid provides information in exactly the way people prefer
it, particularly when they are in a hurry.
Suppose you are writing some kind of company report—a financial
analysis, a new product proposal, changes to the company's
employment policies, etc. It runs to 20 pages. Obviously you
can’t organise it into one big inverted pyramid; even the
most accomplished professional writer wouldn’t attempt such
a daunting task. However, you can organise it into sections
and subsections, and write these as inverted pyramids.
You can even go a step further. Most such reports begin with
an executive summary. Write this as you would the lead of
an inverted pyramid, i.e. be certain that all the key information
is located there and that it is presented in a clear, concise,
confidence-building manner. Contrary to common conventional
wisdom, you should write the executive summary before you
write the body, at least as a rough draft. To emphasise the
point, perhaps we should replace the term “executive summary”,
which implies writing the body first and then summarising
it, for something more appropriate such as “executive briefing”,
“executive focus”, etc. Treating the executive summary as
the lead of an inverted pyramid is not easy, but it confers
some extraordinary advantages on both the writer and the readers.
• Advantages for the writer
Identifying and writing the executive summary first helps
- Determine what information you really need in the body of
the report, i.e. what is of key importance and secondary importance.
And what can be eliminated, i.e. what is of no importance.
- Organise the body into the most appropriate sections and
- Present the information in each section and subsection in
descending order of importance.
• Advantages for the readers
With an executive summary is written like the lead of an inverted
pyramid, readers can:
- Get a clear overview of what the report contains.
- Determine which sections and subsections of the body may
be of particular interest.
- Decide whether or not they even need to read the body.
Remember, you are dealing with busy people; they have neither
the time nor the desire to read the entire report. What they
really want is for the writer to clearly identify what they
must read (executive summary). Any additional material they
may wish to read should be left to their own judgement.
The general structure of a well-written report would thus
consist of two parts:
1. Executive Summary Written like the lead of an
inverted pyramid, i.e. build it on the 5 Ws & H
2. Body Written in sections
and subsections, each one in the form of an inverted pyramid
I recently had a discussion about the ideas in this article
with a journalist friend of mine, the president of a major
US news distribution company. He suddenly realised that over
his 40-year career, the inverted pyramid had become so much
a part of him that he unconsciously uses it in virtually everything
he writes: letters, emails, reports, financial statements,
new product proposals, etc.
You will probably never reach the stage of using the inverted
pyramid without a second thought. However, if you begin consciously
using it as a first thought, I am certain you will be pleased
at just how much it will help you write more clearly, concisely—and