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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Formulas, grafs and pyramids

Posted Tuesday, November 29, 2011, at 8:36 PM

We often hear that journalism is formulaic writing, but what formula? There are different interpretations and one may be expressed in terms of paragraphs. We say we write paragraphs, or "grafs," for newspapers, but they're not really paragraphs, just convenient indentations. An English compositional paragraph is usually from three to five sentences or so, beginning with a broad image or concept and coming down to a sharp point or picture like a description of a valley starting with the big view and narrowing to a black beetle with red dots on the veins of a deep green leaf -- structured like an upside down pyramid. The succession of such graphs carries you through a short story or novel like a river runner on a raft, sometimes with great beauty. The exception is dialogue that conventionally requires an indentation for each change of speakers.

A newspaper story is a right side up pyramid with the main point or concept in the lead graf and the subordinate points in a descending order of importance as you read. The original idea was to put the least essential stuff near the end so the editors could delete it if necessary to fit the available space, or "news hole," while making sure to publish the essential information. Contemporary practice is to use everything the reporter writes if at all possible, but the form is so ingrained that it will never change whether we write for a newspaper or a Web site.

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James R. Campbell
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