What Is the Inverted Pyramid?
The inverted pyramid style of journalistic writing consists of one sentence at the top of a story that sums up the most newsworthy highlights in a slightly more expanded form than the headline above it. This "lead" is followed, in descending order, by information of progressively less importance. Many are taught to think of this straightforward entry-level method as placing the "bottom line up front" or the "good stuff, then fluff."
With the inverted pyramid, readers can can get the news in one sentence, usually no more than 35 words long, then decide for themselves whether the rest of the story is worth their time. No foreshadowing is involved. Succeeding paragraphs then expand organically on the subject, in descending order of importance and interest. At the very top, as the upside-down pyramid illustrates, key information is crammed into a small space: what, where and when, with perhaps even some of the how and why.
The telegraph, which came into widespread use in the middle of the 19th century, is credited with forming a need for the inverted pyramid story. If communications were lost during transmission of a story via wire service, at least the most important information had been received. The remaining information could then used in a follow-up story when telegraph communications resumed.
It is not clear which specific story was the very first in the inverted pyramid style. According to Chip Scanlan at the renowned Poynter Institute for Media Studies, one notable historian has theorized that the form originated from The Associated Press news service, to mark an upsetting date in American history — 14 April 1865. "The President was shot in a theater tonight and perhaps mortally wounded," the sentence was written, before being transmitted via Morse code to city papers throughout the young country. Just five days earlier, the American Union had celebrated the end of the Civil War; the news alone was all that was necessary for impact and reader interest.
The inverted pyramid is thought to be the most straightforward method of writing news, panned by many for being devoid of artistic expression. Its paragraphs and sentences are on the short end and largely devoid of descriptive adjectives and unnecessary detours. The flow of the paragraphs should descend effortlessly toward the least newsworthy information with the use of transitional sentences that tie the earlier paragraphs to the later ones. These transitions are often, but not always, supplied by quotes from key observers.
"Inverted pyramid" sometimes gets a bad name because people think it means "general to specific" and try to write articles and essays that way. No, you should *not* begin a piece of nonfiction writing on, say, toilet training by trying to wax poetical on the parent-child relationship.
If you are writing a news story, begin with the sentence that tells us what happened. For an essay or feature article, open with something specific and interesting, like a relevant anecdote.
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