The Inverted Pyramid in Journalistic Writing

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

For generations, journalists have been taught to formulate their stories in the shape of an inverted pyramid. This lesson explains the inverted pyramid in journalistic writing and why it is used.

What Is An Inverted Pyramid?

Consider the following news excerpt:

'President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today. He died of a wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet that was fired at him as he was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade.'

These are the first two sentences from the front page of the November 22, 1963 New York Times. The article goes on to detail the events prior to the shooting, the capture of a suspect, resuscitation attempts on the president, and the administering of last rites. But in just those first two sentences the reader is told the end of the story.

This popular and widely used style of news writing is known as the inverted pyramid. It's a method of 'front loading' an article so that the reader receives the most important information first, or on top. The article starts with the conclusion: Kennedy was shot and killed.

Using an inverted pyramid, the journalist leads with the attention-grabbing finale. The journalist follows up with supporting paragraphs that contain details, in order of most to least important. The article ends with the least important information. In the New York Times article, the last paragraph contains portions of the speech President Kennedy was on his way to give at an event in Dallas.

The most important information goes at the top of the inverted pyramid.
Inverted Pyramid

Notice how the inverted pyramid is the opposite of essay writing. Essay writing requires the student to start with an introduction and build toward a conclusion. Instead, the journalist makes his or her point and then proceeds to explain it.

Why Use An Inverted Pyramid?

The inverted pyramid has been used for well over a century, and for good reason. The formula is known for engaging and assisting readers. The first sentences are written to grab readers' attention, much like the headline itself, and draw them into the article. Readers can quickly decide whether or not the article interests them.

Notice how, even if readers stop reading the New York Times article after the first two sentences, they still know the main point of the article. The formula allows readers to skim articles to pick up on certain details, rather than read them word for word. This is helpful when a reader already knows the main point of a widely covered news story - as was the case with the assassination - and is simply looking for updates.

The formula is also helpful to print media editors. The print media includes newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and other printed publications. These materials typically have strict space restrictions, and articles often need to be shortened. The inverted pyramid allows editors to cut material from the bottom of an article without cutting important information.

What Is the History of the Inverted Pyramid?

Historians believe the inverted pyramid originated during the Civil War, though there are many news stories from that time still written in a flowing, narrative style. This leaves many questions regarding the style's development unanswered.

Many believe the invention of the telegraph, in the mid-1800s, influenced the style. News stories transmitted via 'wire' were expensive - sometimes up to a penny per character. The telegraphed stories were distributed to a national audience rather than just one, partisan newspaper. The stories therefore needed to be brief, to the point, and impartial.

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