The Inverted Pyramid Format is a Dinosaur

The inverted pyramid format is one recommended for journalists (as well as other types of writers), where the most important information comes right at the beginning of an article, perhaps even crammed entirely into the first paragraph. Important details come next, with general background information coming last.

It’s a format that was developed for newspapers, although the exact genesis of the inverted pyramid is unclear. The version I like best is that the format grew out of journalists sending in stories by telegraph or phoning them in: the important details had to be up front, in case the connection was cut. It makes for a romantic picture — a journalist reporting on the Mexican Revolution, perhaps, desperate to get as much as possible back to his editors before Pancho Villa cut the telegraph lines. But the reality may be much less favorable for writers. With all the important information at the front, a lazy editor could just start lopping off the end paragraph and keep going until the article could be wedged into the column inches available to it.

Whichever creation myth is true, it’s clear that the inverted pyramid format is a legacy of a different approach to publishing, which was dependent on communication methods that were incredibly finite and lossy. A print publication only had so many pages and a paragraph at the end could easily be cut out.

The Extended Rule of the Inverted Pyramid

If the inverted pyramid is so old-school, why is it still the format primarily taught in journalism classes? Why did I get subjected to it in numerous classes over two different degrees, including a creative non-fiction class?

Part of the problem is that it’s an easy format to teach. Writing is an inexact process, particularly when time comes to teach it to new writers. It’s so much easier to tell students to write to a specific format and grade them on how well they do with that approach than it is to let them run wild. But that’s turned the inverted pyramid into a hammer that new writers will use on anything that looks vaguely nail-like. There are still situations in which using the inverted pyramid makes sense, but they are far fewer than the number of articles it’s actually used in.

The reality of where articles are published today is far different than the late 19th century and early 20th century — the years when the inverted pyramid emerged. We publish to blogs, mobile apps and news sites, which have no page limitations. The only restrictions we face are those we choose to accept, like Twitter’s 140-character limit. If I want to write a 12,000-word article on whether cats actually like cheeseburgers, the only factor I should really consider is if anyone will want to read it (and since my theoretical opus has cats and cheeseburgers on the internet, the odds seem good). I can write an article of any length and publish it immediately. The basis for the inverted pyramid is entirely gone, leaving only a shaky metaphorical shape.

The Guilt of the Inverted Pyramid

Some people feel that the inverted pyramid is more than outdated; it’s dangerous to readership rates. The broad concern is that it’s a generally uninteresting format. The reader gets the whole package one paragraph in. It’s trained readers to be lazy and to assume that the end of the article isn’t worth the effort. Sure, the article may have a kicker at the end to revive interest, but how many readers really make it that far after reading articles in this format for years? Even in the hands of the best writers, it’s hard to create an interesting story in the inverted pyramid format. At the most basic level, the inverted pyramid guarantees a boring story.

But there are some suggestions that the danger goes deeper. As a writer, I can usually tell by the comments whether someone read an article all the way through. A lot of the time, few people actually make it to the end, preferring to read the first paragraph and skim the rest. In the past, the inverted pyramid format made that approach perfectly reasonable. Readers have been trained that this approach will get them through most reading material. It’s a bad habit to get into and it’s an even harder one to break, unless you see that you’re not getting all the information you need. Moving away from the inverted pyramid format won’t fix the problem, but it’s a step in the correct direction.

It creates an interesting problem for all those newspapers with paywalls as well: universally, they offer a few teasing lines of the articles that they want readers to pay for. But those first few lines, at least in an article written in the inverted pyramid format, contain the whole picture — for anyone who doesn’t want more than that, there’s no temptation to pay to read further. There’s no clear solution that that little issue, either.

The Alternatives to the Inverted Pyramid

There’s a concept in design called ‘skeuomorphism’ — it’s the act of adding characteristics of an old form or approach to a design that doesn’t necessarily need them. In technology, it’s made obvious by example: your smartphone may ring with the sound of an actual physical telephone ringer, despite not having one itself. In many ways, the inverted pyramid is the skeuomorph of the writing world. We’ve been trained to expect it, just like we’ve been trained to listen for phones ringing, but it’s a characteristic we’ve imposed on new channels of communication.

It’s time to look for some of the forms that these new channels point to. We’ve barely scratched the surface of concepts like hypertext and we have the ability to publish practically infinite lengths of text. These may not be universal opportunities, but why not play with them and see what develops?

Even if you aren’t working on writing anything that you can afford to take that far afield, there are still some strategies that you should employ other than the inverted pyramid. Writing for the web demands storytelling: when a reader can be gone as quickly as she can click ‘back’, putting everything in the first paragraph isn’t good for your page views or other metrics, let alone for getting the whole story across. A more traditional approach to storytelling (just tell what happened, in order) or an essay format (a hypothesis and then some proof) can work well online, at least in my experience. Both approaches do require the writer to make some effort to be interesting, but it’s easier to pull off than in an inverted pyramid-style article. But these formats are just starting points. It’s up to you to decide what works for a given topic.

The Place for the Inverted Pyramid Today

There is a home for the inverted pyramid today, despite my unwillingness to let it run rampant over all forms of writing. It’s perfect for reporting breaking news. When you need to get across the facts of a situation like a natural disaster headed your way, put all the important information in the first paragraph. No one wants to be forced to read several paragraphs in to tell if their particular town is in the path of a snowpocalypse.

For a situation in which there’s an urgency to get information across, the inverted pyramid makes sense. It should still be taught and used and generally be a part of the writing world — though we can limit its place in the educational process to one class on the form and use of the format.

But the inverted pyramid should no longer take precedence when deciding how to write an article. Rather, the question needs to be what the right format for each individual piece of writing: it may add some time to the writing process, but we’re likely to wind up with not only better writing, but a higher level of engagement with readers in the long run. If we’re willing to pour time into efforts like optimizing articles for search engines and to promoting them on social networks, why not put a little more time into crafting great work?

Image by Flickr user Stephen Carlile