The downward/laterward style in science writing

One of the first lessons in journalism 101 is the inverted pyramid, a style of writing where the journalist presents the more important information higher up the piece. This way, the copy sort of tapers down in importance the longer it runs. The idea was that such writing served two purposes:

  1. Allowing editors looking to shorten the copy to make it fit in print to make cuts easily – they’d just have to snip whatever they wanted off the bottom, knowing that the meat was on the top.
  2. Readers would get the most important information without having to read too much through the copy – allowing them to decide earlier if they want to read the whole thing or move on to something else.

As a science writer, I don’t like the inverted pyramid. Agreed, it makes for pithy writing and imposes the kind of restriction on the writer that does a good job of forcing her to preclude her indulgence from the writing process. But if the writer was intent on indulging herself, I think she’d do it inverted pyramid or not. My point is that the threat of self-indulgence shouldn’t disallow other, possibly more engaging, forms of writing.

To wit: my favourite style is the pyramid. It starts with a slowly building trickle of information at the top with the best stuff coming at the bottom. I like this style because it closely mimics the process of discovery, of the brain receiving new information and then accommodating it within an existing paradigm. To me, it also allows for a more logical, linear construction of the narrative. In fact, I prefer the descriptor ‘downward/laterward’ because, relative to the conventional inverted pyramid style, the pyramid postpones the punchline.

However, two caveats.

  1. The downward/laterward doesn’t make anything easier for the editors, but that again – like self-indulgence – is to me a separate issue. In the pursuit of constructing wholesome pieces, it’d be an insult to me if I had an editor who wasn’t interested in reading my whole piece and then deciding how to edit it. Similarly, in return for the stylistic choices it affords, the downward/laterward compels the writer to write even better to keep the reader from losing interest.
  2. I usually write explainers (rather, end up having tried to write one). Explainers in the context of my interests typically focus on the science behind an object or an event, and they’re usually about high-energy astronomy/physics. Scientific advancements in these subjects usually require a lot of background, pre-existing information. So the pyramid style affords me the convenience of presenting such information as a build toward the conclusion – which is likely the advancement in question.
    However, I’m sure I’m in the minority. Most writers whose articles I enjoy are also writers gunning to describe the human emotions at play behind significant scientific findings. And their articles are typically about drama. So it might be that the drama builds downward/laterward while the science itself is presented in the inverted-pyramid way (and I just end up noticing the science).

Looking back, I think most of my recent pieces (2011-onward) have been written in the downward/laterward style. And the only reason I decided to reflect on the process now is because of this fantastic piece in The Atlantic that talks about how astronomers hunt for the oldest stars in the universe. Great stuff.