All professional communicators are aware of the pervasive news writing formula, which is based on the first paragraph of any news piece. The first paragraph is crucial because it immediately attracts the reader’s attention and entices them to read further by answering the 5 W questions – Who, What, When, Where, and Why. And, if you are really on the ball, it should also include the two H questions – How and How much ($). But there are also other ways to achieve stronger impact at the start of your articles – and at the end.
Why don’t you try analyzing some front-page stories in mainstream print media to see how they handle the formula. The formula is also widely used in information gathering, problem solving generally, and in police reporting. Apart from anything else, the formula is a ready time-saver. It enables a writer to gather their thoughts quickly, especially when they are facing a tight deadline to deliver their news item.
When I looked up this topic of the 5 Ws in Wikipedia, the article attributed the origin of the formula as far back as the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who lived almost 2,500 years ago (384-322 BC). Another distinction to his famous pedigree!
According to Wikipedia, the “Five Ws” (and one H) were memorialized by Rudyard Kipling in his famous “Just So” Stories (1902), in which a poem, accompanying the tale of The Elephant’s Child, opens with:
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
News writing style too predictable for other forms of writing
After many years of news writing, some people may feel the formula is too predictable and too mechanical in its approach. Writers may want to consider using more variety in the structure of their content. So, what alternative ways of writing are there? Not all articles need to start in news style. But writers still need to achieve stronger impact at start of their articles to increase the odds of gaining and holding the attention of readers.
And what about ending an article with great impact? Traditionally, news writing prioritizes the key points and then elaborates in detail. The least important points come at the end of the piece so they can be deleted if there isn’t enough space. However, what can you do if it is important to reach the climax of piece at the end?
As a comms pro, you need to use many other styles of writing in your work. You may write a wide variety of material such as feature stories, human interest stories in newsletters about employees as well as other internal and external publications, updates of information, letters to the editor, speeches, scripts for podcasts, videos, reports (eg annual reports and other types of reports), commentary on public issues such as the growing impact of climate change on our lives, social media items, storytelling, messaging, blog content, copywriting, etc.
To review the techniques of top writers, Jason Shen decided to analyze the first paragraphs from 94 of the most compelling feature articles from three of the most successful US publications, The Atlantic, Fast Company, and The New York Times opinion editorials. The results are fascinating, and the data offers you many tips for your own writing styles for a range of purposes. Without a good beginning, we will lose our readers’ attention, and they may go away, never to return. Therefore, it is vital to achieve stronger impact at start of your articles.
(Jason also analyzed how great writers end their articles. I cover this separately in, “How to write stronger article endings.”)
13 patterns of introduction
Image: “How great writing begins” by Jason Shen in Medium.
This summary of beginnings, below, may help you with ideas on starting your material. Lots of productive ways!
- Story—a full plot arc with at least one character and a beginning, middle, and end.
- Unexpected Statement—a bold, sometimes controversial statement that is followed up with context and supporting evidence.
- Event + Context—a description of something that happened in the world, followed by what it means and why it matters.
- Expert—a series of presumably factual statements of the world without supporting evidence.
- First-Person Narration—the writer is telling their own personal story as if speaking out loud.
- Provocative Question—similar to Unexpected Statement, but in the form of a question that is followed up with a discussion of the answer.
- Quote—an interesting statement or question made by an authoritative or otherwise relevant third-party source.
- Embedded Journalist—where the writer references themselves as part of the story, but the piece is mainly about someone or something else.
- Thought Experiment—a statement where the reader is asked to imagine or consider a scenario that is not real.
- Cinematic—a detail-rich description of a person in a particular place, usually without any action.
- Symbolic Object—a focus on a particular object which relates to the main topic in an important way.
- Observation—a softer version of Expert and Unexpected Statement, where the writer describes what they’ve seen or believe and allows that may not reflect everyone’s views or experiences.
- Character Profile—the description of a particular person, usually the main subject of the article.
Entities or ideas
Jason Shen found most of the feature articles he analyzed were based either on (1) an entity, or (2) an idea.
- Entity-based articles focus on a specific person, organization, or event. He found the most popular ways to begin articles about entities are Expert and First-Person Narration, Embedded Journalist, and Thought Experiment.
- Idea-based articles are around less-tangible things: trends, arguments, recommendations. Jason found that articles about ideas tend start with the patterns of: Story, Unexpected Statements, Event + Context, and Provocative Question.
These categories of topic styles and broad patterns could help your creative thoughts when you come to decide how you will handle a particular story for your organization’s publications or other types of communication.