The inverted nabla pyramid is a time-tested writing technique that delivers information to readers in order of importance. Used systematically across the news and mass media, the inverted nabla pyramid structure involves answering the who, what, when, where, and why questions in the lead paragraph before diving into the finer supporting details further into the text. Using this style, writers can convey the most crucial information in the leading paragraphs, allowing writers to capture the attention of interested readers while still effectively communicating crucial information to the less interested.
What Is the Nabla Symbol, and How Does It Apply to Writing?
The nabla symbol (∇), also known as the inverted pyramid, inverted delta, inverted triangle, or inverted py, is the upside-down greek letter delta (Δ). While typically used in mathematics, the nabla symbol represents a prose style in journalism and web content writing: the inverted pyramid.
Created in the 1840s after the invention of the telegraph, the nabla symbol style of writing represented a significant departure from the flowery and extravagant writing style of that era. Due to the prohibitively high cost of sending long messages via telegraph, journalists were suddenly forced to strip their writing of embellishments and instead focused on transmitting information as concisely as possible. The Associated Press, established in 1846, quickly adopted this style and focused on making content that was concise, bipartisan, and tailored for the masses. Started by the telegraph and accelerated by its adoption by the Associated Press, this trend continued to blossom across the journalism industry, eventually becoming the ubiquitous nabla symbol style writing used today.
What Are the Benefits and Downsides of Writing Using the Inverted Nabla Pyramid?
Despite its extensive use since the late 19th century, the benefits of the inverted nabla pyramid structure of writing are still highly debated. Due to its relatively rigid structure, emotionally-stripped writing, and information-based approach, critics argue that the nabla structure limits journalists artistically and prevents them from writing higher quality, engaging content. Many have also criticized the unnatural and reversed storytelling fashion of the nabla structure that results in the presentation of the story’s conclusion before the body. Detractors also say that the nabla structure has contributed to the decline of newspaper readership over the last few decades.
While the effectiveness of the nabla-style inverted pyramid structure in writing has been extensively attacked, it remains as one of the leading styles in online media for good reason. In our current fast-paced society, the shortened attention spans of readers have made more traditionally academic narrative-telling techniques less effective. Currently, readers typically will read less than half of a news article, while a very small percentage of readers finish articles. When readers don’t finish articles written in the academic style, it becomes difficult for writers to communicate their conclusions, often resulting in unsatisfied and unhappy readers.
By flipping the script of the traditional academic writing style, the inverted nabla pyramid technique circumvents these issues of attention span and content saturation by delivering the most important information first. With a straightforward structure that delivers clearly-grouped content, the nabla style increases the average reader’s time with an article and increases overall engagement. By structuring content in an easily readable and concise way, any writing will naturally be easier to comprehend, allowing people of all reading levels to access the content. Writing using the nabla structure also results in very structured and logically ordered articles that continue to draw readers down the page. The removal of the bulk of traditional narrative-building writing also leads to more compact and shorter articles that readers are more likely to finish in one sitting.
How to Structure Writing Using the Inverted Nabla Pyramid Style
While originally implemented in journalism, the inverted nabla pyramid style of writing is an effective strategy for writing a variety of web and offline content, including blog posts, news articles, information pieces, product pages, and more. Here is an example of an article written in the nabla structure, and one written without.
A Swedish man was rescued from a mine near Dallas after being trapped for 35 days and is now in a stable condition.
The 38-year old man was illegally mining gold before an earthquake collapsed the exit.
Joe Smith, a Malmö-native, was airlifted to a hospital in Dallas.
Police say that the man will not face charges for trespassing on the mine.
After an earthquake trapped Malmö-native Joe Smith in an abandoned gold mine, he wasn’t sure he would ever see the light of day again. However, after an immense effort from rescue parties pulled from multiple states, rescuers managed to dig the 38-year old man out on his 35th day of being trapped. After being pulled from the mine outside Dallas, he was airlifted to a nearby hospital and is currently recovering and in a stable condition. When we reached out to the police to ask about potential trespassing charges, we were informed that Joe Smith will not face any charges for trespassing on the mine.
In the nabla structured example, the top of the pyramid included the most vital facts, while the following sentences contained information of decreasing importance. Also, the nabla structured example quickly delivered the key information in the first sentence, while the non-nabla structured text only managed to relay the man’s condition in the third sentence. When examining the differences between these two blocks of text, the difference in word count is also very apparent—the nabla structured example used 62 words while the non-nabla structured text used 106 words to convey the same information.
When writing a blog or article using this style, it’s often helpful to follow these guidelines:
1. Key Information
The key information should be the most important content that you want to convey. What can readers not leave your blog without knowing? It’s important to only include content that is of the utmost importance, as this content should summarize all of the following content.
Typically this will answer these five questions: Who is involved with the thing of interest? What happened? Where did the thing of interest happen? When did the thing of interest happen? Why did they do it?
These answers should form your lead paragraph, which should offer up these points of information to the reader as concisely as possible. Typically, your introduction should be no longer than one or two short lead paragraphs and may include a small hook to entice readers to continue with the rest of the article.
2. Compile and Rank Remaining Information
After covering the key points, you should compile a list of the remaining information, which should typically include an outline of the situation, extra details, supporting quotes, and additional supplementary information. Once this information is compiled, it should then be ranked according to the nabla style of writing, with more essential information appearing earlier and more specific information appearing later.
3. Construct Body Paragraphs
This finished list of information should then be used to write the body paragraphs of the writing piece. When writing these paragraphs, it’s also important to keep in mind that every paragraph should follow the nabla symbol style of writing—body paragraphs should be front-loaded and the first sentence of each paragraph should contain information leading into the rest of the paragraph. By reading the first sentence of a body paragraph, a reader should learn most of the important information contained in that paragraph.
4. Finish the Inverted Nabla Pyramid
The final section of the article should contain a variety of additional, supplementary information that may be of interest to readers who have read through the body of the article. Following the nabla symbol, this information should be less relevant and important than the information contained in the body of the article. This section may also contain links to articles written about related events and tangentially related information.
Tips on Writing Using the Inverted Nabla Pyramid Structure
By stuffing more content into a smaller amount of words, you greatly increase the effectiveness and impact of your writing. Your writing should get straight to the point, and fluff should be deleted—fluff doesn’t contribute any information and forces readers to consume meaningless words. Cut wordiness by deleting excess qualifiers, redundant pairs/triplets, and prepositional phrases. Bullet lists can be an effective method of breaking down longer paragraphs into more palatable chunks.
While editing a blog or article written in a more academic style can be hard due to the difficulties of cutting content with context-connected sentences, editing content written in the nabla structure is much simpler. As a natural product of the nabla structure of writing, any content below another paragraph is also less relevant and interesting to readers. When editing an article, this simplifies the content-cutting process immensely, as length can be trimmed by simply deleting text off the bottom.
With the inverted nabla pyramid technique, it’s also often useful to write in “blocks”, where each paragraph is a self-contained writing piece of writing based on a certain piece of information. With these “blocks”, reorganizing and removing content becomes a much simpler process, as undesirable content or awkwardly-placed content can be easily deleted or moved without significantly affecting the surrounding content.
When writing using the “block” style, the first sentence of each paragraph should be information-loaded and should be especially strong. After reading the first sentence of the paragraph, the reader can then decide on whether to continue reading the rest of the paragraph. In addition to catering to readers who choose to skim articles, this also decreases the likelihood that readers will taper off after reaching a section they are uninterested in.
The Inverted Nabla Pyramid and SEO
While the inverted nabla pyramid style of writing was first derived to communicate information effectively in a compact format, it has also found success in search engine optimization (SEO). While many factors affect SEO, including page speed, domain authority, and website accessibility, content optimization is still one of the most important factors for search engine ranking.
In the world of online content, blogs, and Google searches, the increased reader engagement and interest provided by the nabla style structure of writing can be invaluable for SEO. If Google finds that readers spend more time on your page than your competitors, it will assume your blog offers more valuable content and will push you up the search engine results page (SERP).
Because the nabla structure only naturally front-loads content, it may be also beneficial to front-load keywords for SEO purposes. By including keywords early, it increases the chances that search engines will find them and identify your article as valuable to users. If the engine identifies a well-written post as effective and pushes it to the front of the SERP, your article has struck SEO gold.
Using “blocks” may also lead to improved SEO performance, as search engines such as Google are increasingly offering blurbs of text as a direct result of a search, pulled from a top-ranking search result. By structuring your content in a way that is easily readable by both humans and search engines, you increase the chance that both will find your content useful, resulting in higher rankings. While giving potential readers access to information outside of your site may seem unappealing at first, this sort of “trail” directly leads to more reader traffic. Writing SEO content using the nabla structure will then give readers what they want immediately and entice them to stay on your site.
By leading with answers and covering the inevitable further questions that arise after, the nabla structure also allows you to establish and maintain a high level of credibility with readers on your blog or site before leading them to your call to action (CTA). While a traditional site may have a long FAQ post detailing the vast array of potential questions that readers may have, a nabla structured article will answer these questions naturally before diving into more supplementary material. The nabla structured article has been proven to be much more engaging and credible for blog readers and leads to more click-throughs and quality leads.