April 19, 2007

Journalism has a love-hate relationship with the inverted pyramid. Its supporters consider it a useful form, especially good for breaking news. The inverted pyramid, or at least its most substantial element, “the summary lead,” is used widely and is one of the most recognizable shapes in communications today. You’ll find it on the front and inside pages of most newspapers, as well as in stories distributed worldwide by The Associated Press, Reuters, and other news services elsewhere on the Internet.

“The inverted pyramid organizes stories not around ideas or chronologies but around facts,” says journalism historian Mitchell Stephens in “A History of News.” “It weighs and shuffles the various pieces of information, focusing with remarkable single-mindedness on their relative news value.”

Critics of the inverted pyramid say it’s outdated, unnatural, boring, artless, and a factor in the declining readership that newspapers have been grappling with for decades.

The inverted pyramid, its critics say, is the anti-story. It tells the story backward and is at odds with the storytelling tradition that features a beginning, middle, and end. Rather than rewarding a reader with a satisfying conclusion, the pyramid loses steam and peters out, in a sense defying readers to stay awake, let alone read on.

Despite decades of assaults, the pyramid survives.

In the memorable phrase of Bruce DeSilva of The Associated Press, “The inverted pyramid remains the Dracula of journalism. It keeps rising from its coffin and sneaking into the paper.”

There are good reasons for this staying power, demonstrated by its dominance in the breaking-news blog on The Roanoke Times‘ Web site, Roanoke.com.

Many readers are impatient and want stories to get to the point immediately. In fast-breaking news situations, when events and circumstances may change rapidly, the pyramid allows the news writer to rewrite the top of the story continually, keeping it up-to-date.

It’s also an extremely useful tool for thinking and organizing, because it forces the reporter to sum up the point of the story in a single paragraph. Journalism students who master it and then go on to other fields say it comes in handy for writing everything from legal briefs to grant applications.

–Excerpted and adapted from “Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century,” by Christopher Scanlan (Oxford University Press)


“Birth of the Inverted Pyramid: A Child of Technology, Commerce and History,” excerpted from “Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century” (Oxford University Press)

“Inverted Pyramids in Cyberspace,” by Jakob Nielsen

“Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid”

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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