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How to Improve Your Writing by Standing on Your Head by Philip Yaffe

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How To Construct The Lead

The beginning 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 happen?
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

The inverted 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 of importance?

Remember, it 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 September.
(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
about him
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 you to:
- 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 subsections.
- 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 rapidly.

Contributing Writer: Philip 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 ( or Amazon ( Email: [email protected]

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