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Who reads the second paragraph? Lessons in writing from Lemmon and Matthau

Journalists summarise the whole story in the first paragraph, and expand on the detail as they go along. So the most important and interesting stuff is at the top, and the fluff that is less useful or intriguing goes towards the end.

“The second paragraph? Who reads the second paragraph?”

There, I’ve gone and done it myself and now you don’t need to read the rest of this post. But wait… don’t go. There’s more you need to know first.

Until I decided to demonstrate this technique, with the first paragraph of this post, I was intending to start with a little reminiscence about a great movie from 1974 called The Front Page. It stars Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon as the editor and reporter in a 1920s Chicago newspaper.

front page movie posterAt one point, Lemmon, the intrepid reporter, is filing copy about a notoriously dangerous criminal who has broken out of jail and stolen a gun. He’s on the loose, on the prison roof.

“Where’s the bit about the gun?”

Reading the copy, Matthau asks something along the lines of: “Where’s the bit about the gun?”

(I’m doing this from memory, as I don’t have a copy of the film to hand).

Lemmon replies: “It’s in the second paragraph.”

To which Matthau, the editor, says: “The second paragraph? Who reads the second paragraph?”

And it’s all there, in that one-liner – just about everything you need to know about writing in the newspaper style. It’s an education in journalism, all by itself.

Building the inverted pyramid – one brick at a time

Most of us skip through newspapers and magazines, scanning the headlines, and reading the odd paragraph here and there. Hardly anyone ever reads the whole of a newspaper article. That’s one good reason to write in what is sometimes called the inverted pyramid style.

Daily writing tips has a great summary of the inverted pyramid, with this at it’s heart:

Using the inverted pyramid means starting with the most important information, then putting the next most important info and so on. It can also serve as a guide for writing each paragraph in the story. Start with the most important point, then the next most important and so on.

This style of writing makes it much easier to cut stories to the right length, which is one of the reasons it originated in the newspaper world. If any words need to come out, cut from the bottom. There shouldn’t be anything there which is essential. Newspaper articles don’t have great endings or conclusions. They just tail off and wither away.

Now, you won’t always want to write in this way. There are lots of good reasons for trying to hang on to your readers and keep them with you to the end.

there’s a gun that’s about to go off

But knowing how to write in this news style is extremely useful. It could certainly be promoted more in business. It’s useful in copywriting too, where you need to make the whole sale in the headline, or maybe the first paragraph of copy.

And it’s always worth remembering that if you don’t grab your reader with the first paragraph, they are very unlikely to read the second. So if there’s a gun that’s about to go off, make sure you mention it right there at the top of the story.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • lyndon at seo packages March 2, 2010, 11:03 am

    This is an old article I just found but excellent for all that.

  • Simon March 2, 2010, 11:10 am

    Old? Surely you mean timeless….
    Glad you enjoyed it. It’s still one my favourites.

  • Dean Turney May 2, 2010, 10:41 am

    Lessons in writing from Lemmon and Matthau? I had to read on. I like the way you use the Front Page to explain the pyramid style. Thank you for your tips. And for reminding me about that wonderful film.

  • Simon May 3, 2010, 3:17 pm

    Dean, thanks for stopping by. Great movie, I agree.

  • Alex May 25, 2010, 5:06 am

    I find your blog very useful for people like me who wants to learn and improve on writing. Your articles really have been a great help to me. It’s just what I really need. Thanks Simon.