Journalists have been using the inverted pyramid writing style for ages. Using it, you put your most important information upfront. Don’t hedge. Don’t bury your key point halfway down the third paragraph. Don’t hold back; tell the complete story in the first paragraph. Even online, this writing style holds up pretty well for some types of articles. It even comes in handy now that web content is increasingly used to answer every type of question a searcher might have. Find out how!
What is the inverted pyramid?
Most readers don’t have the time or desire to carefully read an article, so journalists put the critical pieces of a story in the first paragraph to inform and draw in a reader. This paragraph is the meat and potatoes of a story, so to say. This way, every reader can read the first paragraph — also known as the lead — and get a complete notion of what the story is about. It gives away the traditional W’s instantly: who, what, when, where, why and, of course, how.
The introductory paragraph is followed by paragraphs that contain important details. After that, follows general information and whatever background the writers deem supportive of the narrative. This has several advantages:
- It supports all readers, even those who skim
- It improves comprehension, everything you need to understand the article is in that first paragraph
- You need less time to get to the point
- It gives writers a full paragraph to draw readers in
- Done well, it encourages readers to scroll and read the rest of the article
- It gives writers full control over the structure
- It makes it easier to edit articles
Here’s an example of such an intro. Marieke wrote an article called What is SEO? that answers exactly that question in an easy to understand way. She gives away the answer immediately, but also uses triggers to get people to read the rest of the article. Here’s the intro:
“SEO is the acronym for Search Engine Optimization. It’s the practice of optimizing websites to make them reach a high position in Google’s – or another search engine’s – search results. SEO focuses on rankings in the organic (non-paid) search results. In this post, I’ll answer the question “What is SEO?” and I’ll explain how we perform SEO at Yoast.”
The inverted pyramid is just one of many techniques you can use to present and structure content. You can use it to write powerful news articles, press releases, product pages, blog posts or explanatory articles, like we do.
This style of writing, however, is not suited for every piece of content. Maybe you write poetry, or long essays with a complete story arc or just a piece of complex fiction. Critics are quick to add that the inverted pyramid style cripples their creativity. But, even then, you can learn from the techniques of the inverted pyramid that helps you to draw a reader in and figure out a good way to structure a story. And, as we all know, a solid structure is key in getting people — and search engines — to understand your content. Marieke wrote a great article on setting up a clear text structure.
The power of paragraphs
Well-written paragraphs are incredibly powerful. These paragraphs can stand on their own. I always try to write in a modular way. I’m regularly moving paragraphs around if I think they fit better somewhere else in the article. It makes editing and changing the structure of a story so much easier.
Good writers give every paragraph a stand-out first sentence, these are known as core sentences. These sentences raise one question or concept per paragraph. Someone who scans the article by reading the first sentence of every paragraph will get the gist of it and can choose to read the rest of the paragraph or not. Of course, the rest of the paragraph is spent answering or supporting that question or concept.
It’s all blocks these days anyways
On the web, there is a movement towards block-based content. Google uses whole paragraphs from articles to answers questions in the search results with featured snippets or answer boxes. The voice search revolution is powered by paragraph-based content. Even our beloved WordPress CMS will move to a block-based new editor called Gutenberg. These blocks are self-contained pieces of content that search engines are going to enjoy gobbling up. We can even give these blocks the structured data needed to let search engines know exactly what content is in that block. Blocks are it — another reason you need to write better paragraphs.
Something else is going on: a lot of content out there is written specifically to answer questions based on user intent. Google is also showing much more questions and answers right away in the search results. That’s why it makes a lot of sense to structure your questions and answers in such a way that is easy to digest for both readers and search engines. This also supports the inverted pyramid theory. If you want to answer a specific question, do that right beneath that question. Don’t obfuscate it. Keep it upfront. You can answer supporting questions or give a more elaborate answer further down the text. If you have data supporting your answer, please present it.
How to write with the inverted pyramid in mind
The inverted pyramid forces you to think about your story: what is it, which parts are key to understanding everything? Even if you don’t follow the structure to the letter, focusing on the essential parts of your story and deleting the fluff is always a good thing. In his seminal work The Elements of Style, William Strunk famously wrote:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”
In short, writing works like this:
- Map it out: What are the most important points you want to make?
- Filter: Which points are supportive, but not key?
- Connect: How does everything fit together?
- Structure: Use sub-headers to build an easy to understand structure for your article
- Write: Start every paragraph with your core sentence and support/prove/disprove/etc these in the coming sentences
- Revise: Are the paragraphs in the correct order? Maybe you should move some around to enhance readability or understanding?
- Edit: I.e. killing your darlings. Do you edit your own work or can someone do it for you?
- Publish: Add the article to WordPress and hit that Publish button
Need more writing tips? Marieke gives 10 tips for writing an awesome and SEO-friendly blog post.
Like I said, not every type of content will benefit from the inverted pyramid. But the inverted pyramid has sure made its mark over the past century or more. Even now, as we mostly write content for the web this type of thinking about a story or article makes us focus on the most important parts — and how we tell about those parts. It forces you to separate facts from fiction and fluff from real nuggets of content gold. Try it out and your next article might turn out to be the best yet.
Read more: SEO copywriting: the ultimate guide »