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Steal from the WSJ to boost your Newsletter
👉 ditch the inverted pyramid
Did you ever learn the “inverted pyramid technique” for writing articles at school or on a course?
It’s where you start an article by presenting a high-level summary that covers everything, then add supporting detail in the next paragraphs, then background.
It’s widely recommended as a good style for the web too, for example by the stalwarts of web useability Nielsen Norman. It caters for all types of readers - from those who just want to get the important facts quickly to those who want all the details. And it helps editors too because they can quickly shorten an article without losing the main points.
The problem is it’s awful for writing newsletters.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author James B Stewart says in his book Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, it’s practically guaranteed to lose the reader after a few paragraphs.
The thing is, we want our readers to read our whole newsletter. We don’t want them to scan the first paragraph, get what they need then skedaddle.
Our goal is to give them big insights and help them get results. And to build credibility, trust, a relationship and their desire to hire us while we do that.
That ain’t happening in a sentence or two.
Instead, Stewart suggests structuring your articles like they do at the Wall Street Journal.
The WSJ pioneered a style where their writers “write so that readers keep reading rather than providing a built-in excuse to stop”. Where the article is written more like a short story that builds up to a conclusion.
Their classic formula would open with an anecdote (the lede) followed by a couple of paragraphs that set the story in context, highlighted the theme, and teased what was coming next (the nut graf)
It transformed the paper to give it the highest “read-through” percentage in the business.
Stewart advises that the start of an article should:
Never give away the ending of the story.
Anticipate the questions that readers might be asking early on and address them.
Give readers a concrete reason to keep reading.
And being nothing if not a keen learner, I thought I’d apply those ideas to this email.
So I open anecdotally by asking you whether you learned the “inverted pyramid technique” at school or on a course.
Then I explain what it is - in case you were asking that question.
Then talk about how it’s recommended widely and what it’s strengths are - in case you were wondering why this is relevant.
Then - plot twist - I tell you it’s awful for writing newsletters. Which hopefully gives you a good reason for reading on - to find out why and what to do instead.
Did it work?
I guess so if you’re still reading :)
Is it new or revolutionary? Of course not.
But it’s a great framework to have in the back of your mind as you write just to keep you on track.
Because an unread newsletter doesn’t help anyone.
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