July 10, 2010

Top-Down Writing

I was reading the newspaper today and realized something: most people don't know how to really read a newspaper. So here are some tips:

Newspapers, by convention, utilize something called the "inverted pyramid" in the structure of the articles. Now, most of us have at least heard of the reporter's checklist, which are the seven questions journalists strive to answer in a news report column: who, what, when, where, why, how, and so what. Reporters, when writing front-page news, will cram all of the details into the first paragraph or two of the article, oftentimes within the first four or five sentences.

So what does this mean exactly? Well, when you're reading a newspaper (say, for example, The Wall Street Journal) and an article about, oh, tax fraud by a tech company shows up, and you just aren't interested in taxes, fraud, technology, or any combination thereof, you can read the first three paragraphs or so and move on. In those first three paragraphs (or like six sentences) you'll have gathered all of the pertinent information from the news report and moved on.

The other thing: headlines lie. Here's a good example from sports--"NBA star to help murder victim’s son" (from The Star on June 6, 2010). What does this mean? I see at least two wildly varying interpretations: either an NBA star is helping out the son of a murder victim....or he's going to help murder the son of some sort of victim. Sure, the former is more likely, but the second interpretation still exists. I can't tell you the number of times I've been duped into reading an article about ForEX minutiae by it having an intriguing title. Likewise, I've skipped articles pertinent to my (hopefully) future career due to their blasé-sounding headlines.

The point is: skim everything, but only read what you're interested in. Also, bear in mind: op-ed or feature articles will usually not be structured like this. Finally, remember to always read with a little cynicism; I've disagreed with The Journal a few times with respect to their predictions and assertions. Newspapers are still written by people, who have opinions and interpret the information they receive, so reading with a discerning eye will make you better informed in the long run.

My last tip for reading newspapers is to get the hard copy. Not only will this help our ailing news industry, but honestly? Skimming a newspaper is a great deal easier than skimming a seemingly neverending series of web links from article to article. After all, the most popular article on CNN.com is usually some human interest piece - how informed are you really after reading that?

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