The Writer’s 5 Ws

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Yes, it’s Journalism 101, but people who should have it engraved upon the doorposts of their hearts still manage to forget that every news story should contain the Five Ws (and sometimes the H of “how”).

As editor for a site for writers, I solicit announcements about events that have to do with writing. I am dismayed by the number of submissions I receive that leave out one of the five Ws.

Kipling made it easy for us to remember:

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.

For a club announcement, be sure that the five Ws provide enough information to enable a reader to make a decision.

For example, the When should include not just the date, but the time of day. Readers will appreciate having an ending time as well as a beginning time, for example, “noon until 3 p.m.”

The Where may be familiar to the person writing the notice, but it may not be to the reader. If the place is a restaurant or a hall, it may be helpful to include an address, or directions for getting there.

The Who needs to include more “who-ness” than just a name. If Who is a speaker, use an appropriate epithet: Forensics expert Max Lewis, Entomology professor Laurie Baxter, literary agent Maggie Smith. If the Who is an organization, don’t expect everyone to know that SCBWI stands for Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Spell it out at least once.

The What, of course, is the event: a monthly meeting, the tour of a new library, an exhibit.

The Why should give the reader an idea of why the event is worth attending: an opportunity to see a new facility, to learn about criminal investigation, to find out what an agent wants in a query letter.

Next time you’re asked to send a notice of an upcoming event to your local media, it might be a good idea to review the five Ws (and sometimes H) before submitting it.

Oh, and one more thing that’s not in Kipling’s list: Be sure to include contact information. This may take the form of a name, telephone number, website, or email address at the end of the story.

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9 thoughts on “The Writer’s 5 Ws”

  1. Ah, this smacks of the lost art of the lead paragraph, from the long gone days when journalists were supposed to report and inform, not shock and advocate.

  2. I learned the rule as Who, What, Where, How, When, and Why—in that specific order.

    As in Who did What?
    Where did it happen, and How?
    When did the event occur, and Why?

    “News” stories, in the old days of hot lead, were summarily edited from the bottom up depending on available space, so “Why” was the least important of the elements, and could be chopped off.

    I last worked as a reporter (and “Lifestyles” editor) in 1990, when I wrote my own copy, built my own pages, and created the layouts by computer, but I still followed this rule—with “Why” as the least important.

    Obviously a news story is not composed the same way as an announcement, but the distinction should be noted.

  3. Thanks for this information. This is indeed a very important information for article writing. Of course, those are pointing to the basic information to what a person is looking for.

  4. In the 1950’s, the concept you speak of, namely “pyramid writing” was drummed in to me as a budding journalist. As a panel member of a discussion in the Manchester Guardian on the subject of journalism, I was severely attacked by several of the younger panel members for being “old fashioned”. I have never departed from my use of the Five W’s (in your stated order), and, when appropriate, I have included the “HOW”. Great post!

  5. Deborah,

    I like the “Who, What, Where, How, When, and Why” in that specific order.

    For example, a news lead off the top of my head:

    “2 Police officers were shot and killed at 524 S. Main St. by a group of unidentified suspects at 8:30p.m last night. Investigators believe the officers were questioning the individuals about suspected drug deals in the area.”

    I think it’s important to keep the 5W’s and 1H in mind when crafting announcements, press releases, or news stories so that all of the bases are covered.

    Excellent post.

  6. I really enjoyed your blog post because even though it is the basic of journalism and writing articles, but many forget the fundamentals even if they are very educated. I still have a hard time with writing articles instead of reports because most of my writing until now has been theory paper style. I also appreciate you posting the quote from Kipling because that is an easy way to remember what all journalists need to know and apply. this will give us all the pertinent information and allow us to write a informative and understandable aticle for the public. Excellent post, really great refresher for me!

  7. One caution on the “why.” Several years back I heard a TV journalist say that when she interviews people about an event (she was referring to such things as missile attacks, suicide bombings, etc., not picnics or yard sales or other uncontroversial topics) she eschews the “why.” It invariably leads to opinion or rhetoric; “They did because they’re a bunch of evil, hateful so-and-sos who should be fed into chipper-shredders and used for fertilizer!”

    So keep “why” in your quiver and ready for use, but like any instrument it has its proper time and place.

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