Monday, October 10, 2005

Writing Workshop Week 8: Building a Pyramid Upside Down

Time to get your words into print. Starting this week I’ll be sharing lessons in journalistic forms of writing. Up to now you’ve been noodling around with the writing process and methods for getting the creative juices boiling. Now it’s time to put them to good use.

If you haven’t written for a newspaper or magazine before, maybe this is the time to think about it. One of the best ways to become better known as an author is to start writing guest columns for your local paper or feature stories for that alternative weekly or city magazine. Show off your expertise. Get some bylines--and some freelance checks.

The secret to getting paid for your nonfiction writing is knowing what publications are looking for. That means getting to know their content, formats and deadline schedules. We’ll get to all that later on in the semester.

For now, we’ll begin with how to write the basic news story (a format you can also use for writing simple press releases).

Since the Civil War, newspaper writers have churned out short news stories in the “inverted pyramid” style. Think of a pyramid resting on its tip and you can visualize the shape of this type of news story.

The origins of the inverted pyramid continue to spawn arguments among historians. A prevailing theory has it that battlefield reporters sending dispatches by telegraph from the Civil War fronts knew they couldn’t always trust the wires to get the complete story to their newspaper offices before a glitch interrupted the transmission. For that reason, they led each story with the most important facts about the event they were reporting. At the top went the key info. In each succeeding short paragraph, the information grew less and less important. Writing this way meant that the most important stuff made it into print.

Others say it had to do with the old hot lead type. If stories ran too long, the typesetters just ripped up the story from the bottom up, without bothering to read any of what they were cutting. Writers knew that if they wanted readers to get the goods, they’d better write it from the top down.

You can see the inverted pyramid style still being practiced in AP wire news stories. You can hear it on TV newscasts. It’s terse, frill-free and straightforward. The first couple of paragraphs give the reader the 5 W’s: Who, What, Where, When and Why (and sometimes How).

So here’s your exercise in writing a simple inverted pyramid news story. Think of a fairy tale that you know well – Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast. In only 10 to 15 lines, rewrite the story, putting the most important facts first and working your way down to incidental details. If you look at news stories, you’ll see a lot of facts and figures at the top, along with a quote from some “official” providing the info on the scene.

You’re really spoofing the inverted pyramid with this task, but it does let you see how it’s done. When you have a good ’un, post it in “comments” here.

Here's mine. (I just saw "Wicked," so I have witches on the brain.)

Wicked Witch Melts
Kansas girl douses western tyrant, freeing Oz from terror

In the end, a bucket of water was all it took to destroy the Wicked Witch of the West. The much-feared sorceress melted shortly after midnight yesterday after being doused by Dorothy Gale, a 12-year-old Kansas farm girl who arrived in Oz under mysterious circumstances several weeks ago, according to officials in the Emerald City.

During the Wicked Witch of the West’s reign of terror, she enslaved hundreds of flying monkeys and is thought to have ordered the murders of scores of innocent Munchkins.

Eyewitnesses to her death said the witch’s last words were, “You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting.”

Reactions to her demise ranged from stunned silence by the Mean Apple Trees to jubilant cries of “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!” by the witch’s own security guards.

“It’s wonderful to be free of her evil spells at last,” said Myron, captain of the flying monkeys.

Gale, whose falling house killed the Wicked Witch of the East, spurring a wave of violent reprisals, is expected to return to Kansas. No charges will be filed, according to law enforcement officials.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz issued a statement expressing his relief that the witches’ brand of terrorism had come to an end. He then announced his retirement and asked for cooperation in the handover of power to Scarecrow.

Glinda the Good Witch of the North flew in by bubble to reassure residents that rumors of other wicked witches building an insurgency were unfounded.

Glinda joined the Mayor of Munchkin City, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man in leading a parade of little people down the yellow brick road to celebrate their freedom.

Emerald City business owners already are considering erecting a monument to Gale. Many Munchkins said they now consider her a hero—and her little dog, too.

The witch’s castle has been closed to the public temporarily.


Blogger Doug & Dara said...

What I great way to teach the inverted pyramid. Forgive me for not posting story; I just got out of a three hour mass comm theory class where I gave a presentation on the Two-Step Flow. My mind hurts. However, I want to share this with some GAs who teach our news reporting labs.

11:24 PM  
Blogger Cold Potato said...

Snow White Accused of Breaking Indecency Laws
Snow White was taken into custody after authorities discovered that she was engaging in polygamy with 7 midgets. Also indicted are Doc, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful, Grumpy and Dopey.

Also under investigation for the disappearance of the Wicked Queen, Snow White currently stands to inherit the entire kingdom. If convicted and sentenced, the kingdom could fall to Prince Charming.

A board of inquiry has been commissioned to investigate any miss-appropriations of funds for poisons by the Wicked Queen.

Authorities have been quick to assure local hunters and wildlife that in fact, no cult or other such religious gathering was in the process of being formed.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Girl Flip said...

Weeks of knocking on doors like a common shoe salesman has paid off for Prince Charming. Charming announced his engagement Monday to 18-year-old commoner Cinderella, in a surprise ending to the country-wide manhunt where every girl in the kingdom was asked to try on a glass slipper left behind at the palace ball.

Charming will also be launching a new child-protection task force in honor of his bride to be, palace spokesman Charles Perrault revealed. The task force will be charged with first bringing Cinderella’s stepmother, who has been widely decried as “evil,” to justice, before moving on to investigate other cases of stepchild cruelty. She subjected the prince’s fiancee to years of mistreatment and servitude and had tried to keep the couple apart, said Perrault.

Heading up the task force will be Cinderella’s godmother, known only as Fairy, who also confirmed that she was instrumental in bringing Cinderella and Charming together.

“It was meant to be,” said Fairy, who has recently made headlines for her new patent regarding pumpkin growth. “I’ll be very busy. Aside from the new task force and planning the big day, I’m getting ready to launch my own line of shoes. Now everyone can have a bit of the magic.”

The announcement of Charming’s intentions were a relief to many of his subjects, who have eagerly followed the prince’s romantic foibles, both before and since last month’s ball.

“I’m glad he’s found someone. It was fun to go to the ball, but I knew it wasn’t me because I didn’t lose a shoe,” said 17-year-old Rose Red, who admitted she had tried on the glass slipper anyway. “She’s started a new trend already, with the glass thing. I can’t wait to see who designs her gown.”

His engagement quiets palace whispers that the prince is questioning his sexuality.

6:25 AM  
Anonymous alicia said...

Persephone Rescued from Underworld
Goddess will spend half year with Hades

Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, was returned safely from the clutches of Hades in the Underworld. Persephone has been held captive by Hades until yesterday, when her father insisted she be returned.

Before Hades released Persephone, he tricked her into eating six pomegranate seeds. This will ensure her return to the Underworld six months out of the year.

The abduction has been the cause of the dying fauna Earth has been experiencing. Now that Persephone has been returned, it is believed she and Demeter will restore proper balance with the life forces; however, the foliage will flounder as she spends half of the year with Hades.

“We’re glad she’s back,” says newly turned siren Alana. “Perhaps Demeter will restore my nymph status. Though being a siren is rather scandalous work.”

Persephone was taken while picking wildflowers and frolicking with Alana and other nymphs, who were punished by Demeter for not protecting her daughter.

“I thought she had run away,” says a relieved Demeter. “We’d had a fight the night before, and I thought she’d gone to see her father. When she wasn’t there, I was devastated. When Helios told me she’d been kidnapped, I became even more depressed.”

Now it’s Hades who has fallen to depression. “I love Persephone deeply, and I’m sure she’ll come to fulfill her duties as Queen of the Underworld,” he says through sobs.

“I’ve never seen the boss so upset,” says an unidentified minion of Hades. “He just stares at a burning picture of Persephone, and refuses to torture anyone.”

It is expected that as Persephone visits Hades every half year, there will be famine until she returns.

Persephone is also said to be engaged to Pirithous, though no comment was given when questioned, and no ring yet resides on her finger.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Future Queen Found
Slipper Fits, Evil Stepmother Arrested

HRH, Prince Charming, fit the glass slipper on Ms. Cinderella (32) of Midtown, at her father's home on 43rd Avenue today. Finding the right foot secures the future line of the throne, but has taken time, sources within the Palace say.

Earlier reports stated that Cinderella's older stepsister Drucilla, (34) fit the slipper. The Prince later discovered a blood trail, indicating tampering with the foot in question. The other stepsister, Perdita, also claimed that the slipper "fit perfectly", insiders say. Nearby birds revealed that her toes had been removed. The slipper was disinfected, and the slipper fittings returned to schedule until Ms. Cinderella was discovered.

Last month, HRH Prince Charming found his one true love at the Midnight Ball. The girl in question fled the ball for reasons unknown, but left behind a bespoke glass slipper. The Palace administration sought the owner of the slipper through a series of slipper fittings headed by the Prince.

An insider report from barnyard animals who witnessed the unfolding saga said that the future Queen attended the ball with the help of a benefactor who goes only by the title "Fairy Godmother." According to the pigeons, mice, rats, and a sole chipmunk, the "Fairy Godmother" provided a coach, pumpkin, horses, ballgown, a couture hairstyle in an "up-do", as well as a pearl necklace (see insert), and bespoke slippers made from glass. Her only requirement was for Ms. Cinderella to return home by curfew.

The future Queen hails from Midtown, where she has been plaything of her stepmother and stepsisters, according to a shocking report from Child Protective Services. Future charges against the Cinderella family include underage labor, excessive punishment, and refusing to provide basic necessities including food, water, and soap.

Analysts suggest the stepmother may have been the insitigator behind the first two false slipper matches and foot mutilations. The stepdaughters, Drucilla and Perdita, are now at St. Luke's hospital undergoing treatment for amputations of toe and heel respectively. They could not be reached for comment.

7:25 PM  
Blogger beche-la-mer said...

SELL: Death preferred to imprisonment for petty felon.
COPY: Caught red-handed in possession of stolen property, a swagman brought about his own death by drowning, after being confronted by three mounted police officers.
The swagman, of no fixed abode, had purloined a sheep belonging to landholder Mr A Squatter. "The deceased may have planned to eat the sheep, which was found in a tuckerbag among his few possessions," a police spokesperson said as the body was recovered from the billabong.
Rumours that the billabong may be haunted have swept the district, where the itinerant was well known. "He was always jolly," said Ms Matilda Darling, who described herself as a close friend of the deceased.
Ms Darling was comforted by her family when told of the swagman's last words, which appeared to be a private message for Ms Darling about a dance they were going to attend.

[This is based on the Australian folk song "Waltzing Matilda"]

2:00 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Wolf Scalded in Dispute Over Construction Permits.

Authorities were called to the house of Tertius Pig today, after a local wolf was seriously burned in an attempt to break in.

Police on the scene have stated the incident appears to stem from the alleged destruction of squatters-dwellings belonging to Mister Pig's siblings, Primus and Septimus, on crown-land. Opinions diverge as to the precise events of the dispute at that point. Mister Pig's lawyer alleges homicidal intent on behalf of the construction-union affiliated wolf, while the wolf, recieving hair grafts this afternoon, claims to be an invested officer of architectural safety injured doing his duty.

The King's Officer for Resource Consent refused to comment on why a council officer would seek to gain entrance to the home of citizen through the roof, while local residents defended the wolf and stated that the buildings in question were a "two-person neer-do-well shanty-town."

The stock of Porcine Construction Ltd fell slightly after the incident, despite the press-release from local authorities that Mister Pig was merely wanted for questioning and not being charged. The assertion that the attack was based on PC LTD using non-union labour has been met by silence from construction union officials.

- The Unshaven.

2:05 AM  
Anonymous Ian said...

Bret Easton Ellis Chokes on Lobster

According to officials related to publishing house Touchets, translators of a bit of his novel into Catalan and French, Bret Easton Ellis chocked on a lobster. “It was quite a bit thing for me,” Bret said.

After a short impromptu hospitalization, Mr Ellis was found touring around the country selling his new novel door to door. Knocking at mine, he stated, “Being cold and lobsters are inspiring”. This reporter has to question the comment, because Mr Ellis was preying on a big fat cone of shrimp and artichokes. And being cold is not cool. Lobsters are.

The novel is said to be a best-seller.

1:38 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

These are effing brill! Thank you! I laughed out loud. Great work, writers!

9:57 PM  
Anonymous julesbgood said...

What fun! I wish I had time to do this but I'm about to go on vacation and haven't even had time to read most of them. This is a great idea and the ones I've read are hilarious, including yours PP.

8:37 AM  
Blogger MAW said...

Emperor Caught Naked, Boy Blows Whistle

CAPITALIA, BALTICSTAN -- The Emperor Clodius IV of Balticstan was caught parading naked through the capital of this small former Soviet Republic today when Timofey Lifkin, age 9, shouted to the crowd that the emperor was unclad.
According to an unnamed palace source, the Emperor had been conned by as yet unknown persons into purchasing garments purported to be of such high quality that only the most enlightened audiences would be able to appreciate the quality. "Our Emperor is not the brightest bulb among heads of state," the source continued.
An official press release later in the day announced an investigation of the scandal was underway.
Attendees at the parade had mixed reactions to the incident, some claiming sympathy for the Emperor's predicament, others entertained at this latest example of royal folly.

7:22 PM  
Blogger still life said...

As New York Fashion Week Comes to an End
Child Labor Ring Uncovered

Two children who were being held captive
managed to escape and arrive at
their New Jersey home safely yesterday evening.
Hansel (10) and sister Gretel (7) had been
reported missing by their parents Tuesday after
failing to return home from a school outing.

After further investigation, and interviews
with school officials, it was found that the
two children had not been in attendance since
the following Friday. The parents, Lukas and
Berta Mehler had been persons of suspicion
since the beginning of the investigation.

Berta Mehler, the stepmother, allegedly sold
Hansel and Gretel for an undisclosed amount
to fashion insiders of the labor ring. It is estimated
that up to 112 children were traded in order to perform
various duties which included tailoring, custom dyeing
and scrap cleanup.

The children were lured into working with promises
of all the candy which they could consume and living
quarters made of gingerbread.

Hansel and Gretel were able to sneak out of the
white fashion tents unnoticed during a rehearsal
ruckus created when a model fell off of the runway.
They were able to find their way home by following
graffiti tags throughout the city.

Both children are reportedly doing well
and eager to return to school next week.
"I used to think math was hard until I had to
hand sew beading on evening gowns," said Hansel.
"Yeah and there was never any recess," chimed in Gretel who was happy to return to pretend dress up.

Berta Mehler is being held on charges of child trafficking and due to appear in court on November 17.
If convicted, she faces up to 15 to 20 years on each count.

6:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a journalist, I'd never, ever heard that the Inverted Pyramid style was adapted during the Civil War. What a great way to make this information memorable to a student!

Also, we must have the same minds. I was a theater major. I studied under Paul Baker, former director of the Dallas Theater Center, where I learned how to use creativity for purposes other than acting.

Later on, I taught drama and improvisation. Here, I introduced "fractured fairy tales" to students, asking them to take a fairy tale and change the beginning or ending. Once, I also had students write a radio script from The Three Bears tale.

SMU was crazy to let you go! If they were dissatisfied about this blog, perhaps they should have at least confronted you about the problem.

You're a creative and fun teacher! It's SMU's loss!

9:54 PM  
Blogger Lulu said...

True Love Does More than Wait

A 13-year-old orphan girl has rescued her best friend after a heroic journey to the world's northernmost outreaches that swallowed up nearly a year of her life.

Young Gerda X (some names have been changed) had no idea what she was getting into when she decided to look for her best friend Kay, 14, after he mysteriously disappeared from her village. 'We'd always been so happy,' she says. 'We grew up together, played together in my grandmother's garden - our houses were so close that we could reach out of the windows and hold hands. There was no way he would leave without saying goodbye to me.'

Kay had vanished without a trace, but Gerda refused to give up hope, and was certain he'd been kidnapped. Her grandmother Mary, 71, wasn't so sure. 'In the months before he left, young Kay changed,' she admits. 'He was rude to me and hung about with older boys, and he was always showing off and making fun of Gerda. The month he turned 14 and his voice broke, it was as if he'd suddenly got a chip of ice in his heart. To be honest I was quite glad when he went - he was a bad influence. Of course, I felt sorry for his parents...'

After waiting and waiting, Gerda just had to do something. She packed her favourite red shoes and set off to look for Kay. 'I started by going to all our favourite spots,' she explains. 'Then I fell in the river and the current took me to a cottage and then wherever I went, flowers, birds and animals told me where to look next.'

But why did it take nearly a year to find Kay? It seems that wherever Gerda ended up, people wanted to keep her with them forever, from old ladies to princes to little robber girls. She hides beneath her blonde curls when we press her about this. 'I've no idea why,' she says earnestly, widening her blue eyes. 'Perhaps it's because I'm very polite. My grandma brought me up to be polite and you don't get that so much nowadays. I had to give the robber girl my shoes to get away!'

TRUE STORIES magazine has another theory. After tracing Gerda's steps, we caught up with the Finnish woman who gave the young lass her final clue as to Kay's whereabouts. Speaking through a translator, she says, 'I realised that Kay had been taken by the Snow Queen, who had seduced him with her beauty and her attention and with sweets that he had never seen before in his litle Danish village. She waits until boys reach the age when they get hearts of ice and forget their childhood friends, and then she entices them away. No boy ever escapes her - unless someone like Gerda comes along. I knew when I met her that she was special. She's warm and pure and sweet. She was the only one who could save him.'

The helpful Finn lent Gerda a reindeer to reach the Snow Queen's palace, and at last she was able to speak to the captive. At first he didn't recognise her, and heartbreak seemed inevitable. But then a miracle happened.

'I started to cry. I just couldn't help it,' admits Gerda. 'I had come so far and he wouldn't even look at me. But when I cried, something in him seemed to melt, and he rememebred all we had done together and eventually he agreed to come home with me.'

So where is Kay now? And was her heroic rescue trip worth it?

'He's asleep next door,' Gerda whispers. 'He doesn't speak much about the Snow Queen. But when he looks at me he smiles. Oh - and he says he's going to buy me some new red shoes.'

1:46 PM  
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Blogger Meg Bailey said...

Girl wakes after years in coma
18 year old Aurora was awakened today from a 5 year long coma when her childhood sweetheart kissed her. Doctors who have been monitoring her condition say it is a miracle, and they expect her to be released some time later this week.

"The last I remember is pricking my finger on my spinning wheel. Everything after that is a complete blank" young Aurora admitted on Tuesday.

Police report that they are currently asking the whereabouts of Aurora's evil stepmother in relation to the coma. Early drug tests revealed that it was induced and she is their prime suspect. Anyone with any information may contact the Kingdom Police Department.

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There are times when I find it difficult to make decisions, but still have to do. I know people always have emotions so that there is no justice. But I still hope.

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