The Pyramid Principle, Part 2: Build your writing from the top down

[In The Pyramid Principle, Part 1, we discussed author Barbara Minto’s theory of business writing as outlined in her book, The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking and Problem Solving. Specifically, we looked at how good writing is dependent not only on style, but also on ensuring a logical structure and order. That is achieved by using the pyramid structure where writing starts with the main point at the top and offers more detail as you get further into the writing. In Part 2, we look at how to put that idea into practice.]

So, you have to write a report. You’ve done the research and you’ve gathered all your notes. Although you may know in broad strokes what you want to write about, you probably aren’t exactly sure how to start.

We start by building a pyramid structure—the best approach is to start at the top with the main point and work your way down.

Step 1: Write down your Subject. (e.g., Use of mobile devices during meetings)

Step 2: Decide on the Question you want this document to answer for your reader. (e.g., Is the use of mobile devices during meetings a good idea?)

Step 3: Write down the Answer to the Question you want your reader to both understand and believe. (e.g., No.)

Step 4: Identify the Situation. What verifiable fact can you make about the Situation that your reader will quickly agree is true. (e.g., Statistics show that hours of use per employee today is up substantially compared with two years ago.)

Step 5: Develop the Complication. Think about what happened in the Situation to cause the reader to ask the Question. Perhaps a problem arose or something went wrong. (e.g., Meetings have become longer. What used to be hour-long weekly staff meetings have turned into meeting marathons.)

Step 6: Recheck the Question and Answer. The Complication should immediately raise the Question you wrote down earlier. If it doesn’t, think again about what the Question and the Complication need to be.

Let’s look at another approach to the pyramid, one that starts at the bottom.

  1. List all the points you want to make.
  2. Sort out the relationships between the points.
  3. Draw conclusions.

While this is approach is certainly valid, Minto cautions that it can cause you to distort the Subject or the Question to make them fit with the points you want to make.

Also, once something is written down, it can be hard to delete, says Minto. That’s why many written documents are much longer than necessary: the writer becomes too attached to what he or she has written and can’t bear to discard any of it.

If you really dread writing, there is some good news: the more time you spend clarifying your thinking before you begin writing, the less time you’ll actually spend at the keyboard.