Constructing News Stories with the Inverted Pyramid

This tried-and-true method is a good way for beginners to learn

Constructing News Stories with the Inverted Pyramid
Image created by Tony Rogers

There are a few basic rules for writing and structuring any news story. If you’re accustomed to other types of writing – such as fiction – these rules may seem odd at first. But the format is easy to pick up, and there are very practical reasons why reporters have followed this format for decades.

Inverted Pyramid in News

The inverted pyramid is the model for news writing. It simply means that the heaviest or most important information should be at the top – the beginning – of your story, and the least important information should go at the bottom. And as you move from top to bottom, the information presented should gradually become less important.

In the age of internet news, many online news outlets have tweaked this format to align with search engines. But the basic premise remains the same: Get the most important information at the top of the news story.

How to Write with the Inverted Pyramid

Let’s say you’re writing a story about a fire in which two people are killed and their house is destroyed. In your reporting, you’ve gathered a lot of details including the victims’ names, the address of their home, what time the blaze broke out, and possibly what officials believe may have caused the fire.

Obviously, the most important information is the fact that two people died in the fire. That’s what you want at the top of your story.

Other details – the names of the deceased, the address of their home, when the fire occurred – should certainly be included. But they can be placed lower down in the story, not at the very top.

And the least important information - things like what the weather was like at the time, or the color of the home - should be at the very bottom of the story (if included at all).

Story Follows The Lede

The other important aspect of structuring a news article is making sure the story follows logically from the lede (this is a deliberate misspelling of "lead," which prevented confusion among typesetters in the early days of newspapers).

So if the lede of your story focuses on the fact that two people were killed in the house fire, the paragraphs that immediately follow the lede should elaborate on that fact. You wouldn't want the second or third paragraph of the story to discuss the weather at the time of the fire, for example. Details such as the people's names, their ages and how long they had lived in the home would all be important to include immediately following the lede sentence.

History of the Inverted Pyramid

The inverted pyramid format turns traditional storytelling on its head. In a short story or novel, the most important moment – the climax - typically comes about two-thirds of the way through, closer to the end. But in news writing, the most important moment is right at the start of the lede.

The inverted pyramid format was developed during the Civil War. Newspaper correspondents covering that war’s great battles relied on telegraph machines to transmit their stories back to their newspapers’ offices.

But often saboteurs would cut the telegraph lines, so reporters learned to transmit the most important information – General Lee defeated at Gettysburg, for instance – at the very start of the transmission to make sure it got through successfully.

The use of the inverted pyramid also grew in popularity because as the news cycle grew shorter with the advent of television and online news, readers' attention spans grew shorter as well. Now, there's no guarantee readers will continue to the end of a story, so getting the most important information at the top of the story is more important than ever.