Inverted pyramid

The so-called “inverted pyramid” remains the commonest form for newspaper stories worldwide. Most journalists learn it, and it remains a template in reporters’ and editors’ heads.

InvertedPyramid

The structure works like this. The story begins with a lead, conceived as a hook to get the reader interested in the subject. Ideally the lead tells what the story is about, but sometimes it involves a fetching anecdote. The next few paragraphs try to prove the lead is true and amplify it. Subsequent paragraphs add detail and context, as well as related matter. The most important and interesting matter goes at the top, and the material grows less important and less interesting as the text unrolls down. Eventually the story simply peters out. Sometimes it just stops, even in mid-sentence.

You’ve read stories in this form all your life. Unfortunately they have a fatal flaw: all serious research shows that readers don’t understand them.

Journalists regard background and context as not new and therefore boring, so they put them in the second half of the story, the less interesting part. Readers can’t understand the top of the story without background and context. So they give up and never reach the second half and the information they need.

The second flaw is thinking of leads as hooks. Readers enter a package in this order: photo, headline, caption, lead. Something in the fourth position cannot hook anybody.

In these days of understaffed newsrooms, journalists spend even less time on the part of the story they value least, the second half. So it often ends up poorly written, unrevised, and even unedited.

Why does such a self-defeating form still exist, especially today with the press under such stress? It suits the convenience of overworked editors. If the story’s too long, they can cut it from the bottom without reading. The piece then lacks an ending and makes even less sense.

THE INVERTED PYRAMID IS THE WORST FORM FOR EXPLAINING SOMETHING IN WORDS TO ANOTHER PERSON.

Why do you need to know this form since you would never write such a monster? Most editors, including many magazine editors, have the inverted-pyramid template in their heads. Something in the second half will strike them as “too good to be this low in the story,” so they “move it up.” They may move the context further down because they don’t find it interesting enough. These moves can destroy the structure of the story and make it harder to read. If you don’t understand their inverted-pyramid thinking, you’ll think their changes don’t make sense. Actually, they don’t, because writing in a form that your readers can’t understand makes no sense.

[I’ll write later posts on other story structures. Meanwhile, let’s hear your experiences with the inverted pyramid.]

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Published in: on June 13, 2009 at 1:26 pm  Comments (2)  
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