to Improve Your Writing by Standing on Your Head
by Philip Yaffe
You may not have thought about it,
but newspapers provide the best examples of clear, concise,
dense (factual) writing you can find anywhere. Otherwise people
wouldn’t read them. Journalists not only write superbly well, they
do so extremely rapidly. When a news event occurs, they don’t have
the luxury of spending several days to put together their text.
At best, they have a few hours. Learning how journalists work their
“daily miracles” can help you write better at your much more leisurely
Here is an article from an international newspaper Britain
yesterday has once again called for the United Nations to mount
a peacekeeping operation in the violence-torn Darfur region of Sudan
in response to increasing complaints from aid agencies on site that
international efforts to help Darfur’s desperate, displaced population
are woefully inadequate. At the same time, Her Majesty’s Government
is joining with other European Union countries to threaten sanctions
against Sudan unless its government energetically moves to end the
“ethnic cleansing” against black villagers in Darfur by the mainly
Arab Janjawid militias. UN officials report that the conflict has
already claimed from 30,000 – 50,000 lives and about 1.2 million
people have been displaced, with about 200,000 taking refuge in
neighbouring Chad. (And the story continues)
In the first paragraph,
we learn that:
1. The British Government is concerned
about the situation in Darfur.
2. Darfur is a violence-torn region of Sudan.
3. Britain believes a peacekeeping force is urgently needed.
4. It is pressing the United Nations to supply this peacekeeping
5. This is not the first time that it has urged the UN to supply
6. The population of Darfur has been displaced.
7. Aid agencies in Darfur say that international assistance to these
distressed people is inadequate.
In the second
paragraph, we learn that:
1. The trouble in Darfur is a race
2. Arab militias are attacking black villagers.
3. Britain and other EU countries believe the Sudanese Government
is not doing enough to stop the war.
4. They threaten sanctions against Sudan if its government does
not quickly take action to end the attacks.
5. To date, between 30,000 - 50,000 people have been killed.
6. About 1.2 million have been displaced.
7. About 200,000 have fled across the border into the neighbouring
country of Chad.
8. These figures come from the United Nations,
which is a reliable source.
Imagine that you had known absolutely nothing about Darfur before
reading this text. Within two paragraphs you have learned virtually
everything you need to know about this tragic situation. This
is certainly clear, concise, dense writing at its very finest.
Unfortunately, it is seldom recognised as such. According to the
adage: Today a newspaper may be the most valuable thing in the world;
tomorrow it is good only for wrapping fish.
Now that you appreciate how remarkable qualities of newspaper writing,
the question is: How does it happen? And how can you apply its
lessons to your type of writing?
Turning Things on Their Head
Journalist use an ingenious technique called the “inverted
pyramid”. Before seeing how it works, it would be useful
to see where it came from.
A couple of centuries ago, poor literacy and primitive printing
techniques meant that newspapers had few readers, few pages,
and were published infrequently (once a week or even once
a month). As literacy and printing techniques improved, the
number of readers increased, the number of pages increased.
And so did frequency. Most newspapers were published at least
once a week, some 2 - 3 times a week. Many even became dailies.
This accelerating pace of production created a serious technical
problem. In more leisurely days, if a story was too long for
the space assigned to it, there was always plenty of time
to either rewrite it or redesign the page. However, when newspapers
became dailies, this was no longer possible. What newspapers
needed were stories that they could cut off from the bottom.
In this way, instead of labouring to revise a story at the
last minute, they could simply remove the last few sentences
or paragraphs, and the job was done.
In order to do this, stories had to be written in a very special
way. It is of no value simply to cut from the bottom if the
lost information is crucial for the reader to understand what
the story is all about. Consequently, stories had to be written
“top down”. All key information had to be concentrated at
the beginning and all secondary information presented in declining
order of importance. In this way text could be deleted from
the bottom and no one would know that it had ever been there.
This story structure became known as the inverted pyramid.
It worked extremely well because it not only solved the
mechanical problem of overly long texts, it also turned out
to be how people prefer to get their information, particularly
when they are in a hurry. With today’s computer technology,
the mechanical problem that gave rise to the inverted pyramid
is no longer relevant. However, because it constitutes the
very basis of good expository writing, the inverted pyramid
is still held in high esteem. Imagine an upside-down pyramid,
or rather a triangle, i.e. with its point at the bottom and
the wide part at the top.
The top, where all the key information is concentrated,
is called the “lead”. The second part, which contains
the secondary information (details), is called the “body.
Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street
Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches
a course in good writing and good public speaking in Brussels, Belgium.
This article is based on Mr. Yaffe’s
excellent book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing
& Speaking (Almost) like a Professional. It is available directly
from the publisher in Belgium (www.Storypublishers.be) or Amazon
(www.Amazon.com). Email: [email protected]