By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
The aim of this article is to show students how to blend two different writing styles into a unique voice, to make that routine college paper stand out as something people will want to read and maybe share with others. Your boss or supervisor will be impressed, and so will your professor.
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The most important part of a pyramid is the base. That’s where the most stones support the remainder of the structure until you reach that one stone on the top, the apex. It does nothing but sit there, while the base is busy being important holding up all those stone blocks.
There are two ways to write a story for your college assignment. The first is called the inverted pyramid style of writing, a basic of good journalism. The inverted pyramid and the who, what, where, when, why, and how of an event are what good reporters use to form their news stories.
The most important part of a news story will come in the first paragraph. The remainder of the story is written in descending order of importance.
This format has two purposes. First, it gives the reader a clear roadmap to follow. Second, it allows the editor to fit the story on the printed page by cutting portions from the bottom without losing the reporting essentials.
The second way is to use the format from your instructor in your weekly assignments. This format may tell you to use headings in your writing, so the important parts of the assignment come in the perceived order prescribed by the professor.
You may earn an “A” for that college paper by following that academic recipe. However, if you have an assignment to write about an event of your own choosing, then this article contains a gift for you, the inverted pyramid.
It’s the key to a style of writing that will impress your boss or supervisor, or even that magazine your military unit puts out each month or that your civilian organization prints quarterly.
Say you are asked to write a case study of some current event, such as the impact of flooding on 15 U.S. cities. Or you might be asked to examine the impact of a past event such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
You may be given instructions to read such a story and arrive at possible solutions. Your paper’s headings might be: Introduction, Major Problem, Possible Solutions, Conclusion or Summary.
The most important part of your college paper is the conclusion. Hence, the focus of the academic paper will be totally different from the structure of a newspaper story on an oil spill or on the 15 U.S. cities most prone to flooding.
A Gift for Your Academic Paper Assignment
When you look at a pyramid, you see the smallest block at the very top. The largest number of blocks is at the bottom. That means that the most important parts of the pyramid are at the bottom, not the top.
In the reporting world of the inverted pyramid, the most important, weightiest part is presented to the reader up front. The visual image is to turn that pyramid upside down.
If you are forced to follow a format with headings, do so. Following those instructions is part of earning that “A” for the paper.
Inverted Pyramid Writing: The Order of the Five Ws and an H
However, if you have the option, consider using the reporter’s six interrogative adverbs — who, what, where, when, why, and how? They are often referred to as “the five Ws and an H.”
The order of the five Ws and an H is important but not sacrosanct. In journalistic reporting, the how is usually saved for the end.
Your writing style and intuition will tell you the order in which to answer these six keywords. You do have a writing style, you know.
Just examine how you write those text messages, tweets or emails to your friends and colleagues. You will often start them with one of those Ws.
Look at the recent news item, “Iranian boats attempted to seize British tanker.” Examine the format of the story. What did the reporter choose to focus on? Who – armed Iranian boats; What – unsuccessfully tried to seize a British tanker; Where – in the Persian Gulf; When – Wednesday, and so forth.
Read the lead paragraph of a storm disaster story: “A storm swamped New Orleans streets and paralyzed traffic Wednesday as concerns grew that even worse weather was on the way: a possible hurricane that could strike the Gulf Coast and raise the Mississippi River to the brim of the city’s protective levees.”
Can you spot the five Ws and an H? Read further and you will also discover the inverted pyramid.
You could write a similar story about a new packaging process for home delivery of food items or how autonomous trucks will replace truck drivers.
The key is to focus on answering those six questions. Now, as all reporters know, the order of importance is up to them, incorporating their style of writing.
And as mentioned, your style is what is most important to readers, especially your instructor. Or, it could even be your boss who asked you to write a report on how the new warehouse data collection system is working.
This inverted pyramid method of thinking and writing as a reporter can be used to remove the fear of writing that first college paper to that final capstone or dissertation before you graduate.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is the program director for Government Contracts and Acquisition at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of Reverse Logistics Management and Transportation and Logistics Management. Prior to joining APU, Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His book, RFID Metrics, was published in 2007 by CRC Press. A new edition is under revision.