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The inverted pyramid

Taking up the inverted pyramid writing structure helps you share the most important information with readers early in the text so the key point is conveyed to them regardless of where they stop reading.

Before you go on

This resource is part of a series on different writing structures. Writing structures refer to the organisation and arrangement of ideas within a piece of writing. They provide a framework that helps you present your thoughts in a clear, logical and effective manner.

While there are a range of writing structures, this series looks at four main approaches to structuring copy:

  • The inverted pyramid structure that presents the most important, interesting or attention-grabbing elements of a story.
  • An approach that groups content in a hierarchical structure around topics or ideas which are prioritised based on their level of importance
  • A sequential structure that walks the audience through information in a particular order.
  • Telling a story or recounting events using a narrative structure that guides the audience through information through storytelling.

TL;DR

A writing style that is right up front: the key points are presented in the first paragraph so readers pick up the most important information quickly. It is well suited to news stories and media releases, but it works well for blog posts, executive summaries in reports and other informative content.

Introducing the inverted pyramid

If you have read a news story recently then you have been exposed to the inverted pyramid, even if you didn’t know it. Hard news stories and other instances of writing using the inverted pyramid intentionally put the most important information first to get the key point across quickly. Subsequent supporting details are included in decreasing order of importance. Think of it like this: the text starts with the details the reader needs to know at the beginning, with following paragraphs presenting details that are nice for them to know.

For content that has newsworthiness or is designed to inform audiences of information quickly the inverted pyramid approach could be the best option. It is a practical and efficient way to convey information, particularly in situations where getting the key details to the audience quickly is crucial. That is why it is used widely in news writing, media releases and other forms of informative content.


What is the inverted pyramid?

The inverted pyramid writing approach presents the most important information first, followed by less important details. This is the case for or the whole prose, and each paragraph within it. In this structure, the first paragraph should contain the most important information, with information of lesser importance featuring in each consecutive paragraph. Likewise, each paragraph should start with a topic sentence that conveys the most important information first (for that paragraph). Following sentences should explain the topic sentence.

The inverted pyramid is based on the idea that readers are more likely to read the first few paragraphs of a piece of writing than the rest. Typically, people start at the top of a page or website, and decide within seconds whether to go keep reading. Enticing headlines and introductory paragraphs can be the difference between someone reading more or note. By placing the most important information in the lead paragraph, you can ensure that readers find out the information even if they don’t read the entire text.

The inverted pyramid is also flexible in that it can be adapted to fit the length and complexity needed for a particular piece of writing. It helps writers focus on the most important information while making it easier for readers to find the information they are looking for. When used correctly, it should also mean sentences or paragraphs at the end can be trimmed without sacrificing the core message if there are space or time constraints.


How to use the inverted pyramid in your writing

Steps to writing using the inverted pyramid

When using the inverted pyramid to help you draft copy, follow these recommended steps:

  1. Give the content an enticing heading – Give your prose a short heading that is engaging and informative to draw the audience in.
  2. Draft the lead or introduction – Start by concisely summarising the most critical information in the opening paragraph. This typically includes the 5Ws and a H: who, what, when, where, why and how. This will help you ensure that the most important information is presented first and that you are mindful of that information as you draft the rest of the content. You may adapt or refine the introductory paragraph as you draft the content, but ultimately the first paragraph should convey the most important details first.
  3. Draft the informational middle paragraphs – Follow the lead with subsequent paragraphs that provide additional important details about the subject matter. Present this in descending order of significance, with the most vital information presented in the first sentence of each paragraph and less critical details in the following sentences. Where possible, try to keep paragraph lengths short (ideally 3–5 sentences).
  4. Draft the end supporting paragraphs – As the inverted pyramid narrows down, less crucial details and context are included. This part of your content should provide additional information that supports and enhances the main points presented earlier but is not necessary to get the key points. Importantly, anything you believe the audience must know should be in the lead or middle paragraphs.
  5. If space allows, draft the closing background paragraphs – All other information should be included at the end of the prose. The base of the pyramid contains background information that may not be immediately relevant to the core message but adds context and completeness to the story. Typically, this information is less time-sensitive and should be able to be omitted without affecting the understanding of the main points.
  6. If space allows, include a conclusion – It is recommended that you close off the text with a conclusion that summarised everything. While it is not compulsory, it reinforces the main points and caps off the prose.

In addition to the recommended steps, it is also recommended that you do the following when using the inverted pyramid to structure your writing:

  • Make a list of the all the key points you need to convey to the reader then rearrange them in descending order from most important to least important information.
  • Identify the information that relates to each of the 5Ws and a H. Make sure this is included in your first paragraph.
  • Draft each paragraph so it starts with a topic sentence that conveys the most important information first (for that paragraph) and is supported by the following sentences that explain the topic in more detail.
  • Use clear and concise language, keeping the prose easy to read and avoiding jargon, technical terms and words that the audience may not understand.
  • Use strong verbs and an active voice.
  • Where possible, keep your sentences concise.
  • Use transitional phrases to help readers follow your train of thought.
  • For longer content, consider using headings within the prose to support a logical flow and increase understanding and comprehension. You could also consider images or other graphics to support and enhance the text and maintain readers’ interest.
  • Review the content to ensure the information has been prioritised correctly and that each paragraph uses a topic sentence followed by supporting sentences.
  • Proofread your work carefully to make sure it is accurate, easy to read and does not include typos, spelling errors or incorrect grammar.

When to use the inverted pyramid writing structure

News articles written by journalists is the most common use of the inverted pyramid. A well written media release should also adopt the inverted pyramid writing structure. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since the aim of a media release is to attract news coverage of the media release’s subject matter. {Cynically, there are also claims that some cases media organisations just copy and paste media releases so issuing a media release in the same writing structure news organisations use makes that more likely to occur.}

Beyond news and PR, the inverted pyramid is well suited to short, non-fiction writing. It can help you communicate effectively and keep your readers engaged when writing news articles, blog posts and even emails. Other noted uses include legal briefs, grant applications [Scanlan, 2003] and executive summaries in reports. Of course, it is not always the best approach. There are situations where a less abrupt writing style is called for. You should always consider your intended audience, the purpose of the writing and what needs to be conveyed before deciding if the inverted pyramid is the best writing structure for your writing.


Pros and cons of the inverted pyramid writing structure

Adopting the inverted pyramid writing structure you can ensure the most crucial information you want to convey is available to your readers quickly. If there is a risk they aren’t going to read everything you’ve written this helps you feel confident you have given them the the most important information. As a writing approach, it encourages you to be efficient and effective with your words. This can be particularly important where word count, time or the audience’s attention spans are short. But. like everything, there are pros and cons to using the inverted pyramid for your writing.

Pros

Using the inverted pyramid gets straight to the point by ensuring the crucial information is up front. It helps readers understand the main point quickly. That’s a good thing if you believe people’s attention span is getting shorter and that lots of people skim read content, because it helps people get the most important details even if they don’t read everything.

From the writer’s side, it encourages you to keep your prose concise and focused. Using a clear and logical structure also typically improves readability and comprehension. Organisng information in text using the inverted pyramid makes it easier to remove words from the end without losing the main points if needed.

Cons

Even though there are benefits, the inverted pyramid does have downsides. It can be difficult to write in an inverted pyramid style which can make text feel repetitive and unimaginative. Because this writing approach focuses on delivering facts upfront it is also not appropriate for all types of writing, especially where the narrative benefits from a more gradual reveal or a build-up of suspense. That is why it is less common for less newsy news content such as feature stories, opinion pieces and human interest stories.

The writing approach can also actively discourage deep reading because it places the most important details first. It can also make text seem abrupt and jarring, or even overloading readers with too much information too quickly.


Concluding comments

If conveying important information is important then the inverted pyramid could be the best writing structure for you. Organising the prose to present the most important information first, followed by less important details, helps readers understand the main points quickly and ensures that get the most crucial information, even if they don’t read the entire text. It is often deployed in news stories and media releases.

As a writing approach, it brings efficiency, clarity and readability to text, along with other advantages. On the flipside, the inverted pyramid also has disadvantages; not handled with care it can be repetitious and undermine the story through a lack of suspense and character building. These factors need to be carefully considered in light of the intended audience, the purpose of the writing, and the information that needs to be conveyed when deciding if the inverted pyramid is the right writing style for your text.


Useful links

The following links both provide a good explanation of the inverted pyramid and guidance on its use:

Inverted pyramid

Australian Government Style Manual

Inverted Pyramid: Writing for Comprehension

Nielsen Norman Group

For broader discussion of the inverted pyramid, see:

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

Despite its detractors, Chip Scanlan argues that the inverted pyramid has been a staple of journalism since Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Arguably, given the prominence of news online, the inverted pyramid is in use more than ever. As a writing technique, it helps journalists organise their thoughts, summarise the important points and and prioritise information they needs to be conveyed.

Poynter

Birth of the Inverted Pyramid: A Child of Technology, Commerce and History

A follow up piece by Chip Scanlan on the history and the future of the inverted pyramid.

Poynter


Disclosure

AI use

This resource was drafted using Google Docs. This resource was not drafted using AI, but updates to the resource include parts adapted from and incorporating outputs generated by Google Gemini (using both gemini.google.com and the ‘Help me write’ Gemini feature in Google Docs) and Chat GPT (GPT-4o). Prompts: Explain the inverted pyramid writing structure with examples’ and ‘Pros and cons of the inverted pyramid writing structure’, as well as an AI-generated summary of the resource. Where AI-generated text has been incorporated it was not used in verbatim and was heavily adapted by me.

The banner image (i.e. the first image at the top of the blog post/article) was generated by AI using Text to Vector Graphic (Beta) in Adobe Illustrator.


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Provenance

This resource was produced by Elliott Bledsoe from Agentry, an arts marketing micro-consultancy. It was created on 25 Nov 2023 and first published on 1 Jul 2024. It was updated on 1 Jul 2024. This is version 1.1. Questions, comments and corrections are welcome – you can get Elliott on elliott@agentry.au.


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