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Athabasca University e-Lab

The Wall Street Journal Five-box System


It is often observed that it does not matter what system a writer has, only that the writer has a system. Experience has proven that writers without some sort of system tend to be unsuccessful and disorganized.

In this workshop, learners will be taught the Wall Street Journal Five-Box System. This is a system that facilitates ordering and organization of research materials. It is applicable to journalism, academic writing, PR and business writing.

The Wall Street Journal Five-box System:

Lede (or in academic essay format: the introduction): Often spelled lead, although either is correct. This is the first paragraph. Where you try and get as many of the Five Ws in as possible: usually who, what, when and where.

Nutgraf (or in academic essay format: the thesis)-The paragraph that contains the core information about the story and tells the reader why the story is important, why they should invest their time in reading on. Often where the fifth W (why) and the H (how) are placed.

The Body (or in academic essay format: the retelling) or motley middle: featuring quotes, paraphrases, anecdotes, chronology....  Essentially the amplification of the  Five Ws and the largest chunk of your story.

Boring But Important: Any statistics, or backstory that you can add.

The Kicker (or in academic essay format: the summary or conclusion): The summation, often refers back to the lede.  Hopefully this is something that will stick in the reader’s mind and will make them think that the time they have invested in reading the story has been worthwhile.

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The Summary Lede

There are two variations of summary lede. These are the immediate identification lede and the delayed identification (or blind) lede.

Immediate Identification Lede:

A judge sentenced former Saanichton Sheriffs Deputy Jon Psmith, 28, to four years in prison Friday for buying and using drugs while on duty.

Delayed Identification, Blind or Broadcast Lede:

A Surrey man is considering legal action against a female neighbour for alleged mistreatment of her dog.  


The first paragraph of a news story is the lede. It is often just one sentence, but it can be two — or more.

Lede is often spelled lead. The odd spelling was adopted when newspaper type was set in lead. To keep from confusing the word for the metal with the word for the beginning sentence, the spelling lede was used.

The first thing you have to decide is which of the 5 Ws and an H is the most important element of the story. Although who said/did what is often the most important angle, sometimes the who isn't important.

Example: An outbreak of measles is expected to keep schools closed and health clinics busy, local health officials said Monday.

This lede focuses on the what because there's no immediate who.

The Summary Lede:
It summarizes the most newsworthy elements of the story in usually one sentence.

Example: Two Edmonton men were shot Monday by a Calgary man whose home they broke into, Edmonton RCMP spokesperson Col. St. John Psmith said.

This lede answers who, what, where, when and how. The why may not be known in the first report of a crime, if ever.

Delayed or Immediate Identification
A summary lede can immediately identify the who or the identification may be delayed.
If the who of the story is a celebrity or prominent person in the community, you will probably use the name in the lede. If the person is not widely known, you probably will delay the name and use a phrase to describe the person or organization that the story is about.

Delayed: The example about the shooting is delayed identification (the ID could come in the second paragraph, giving the names of the two men who were shot and who shot them).

There are two reasons a delayed lede was a good choice in this example. The first is that there are so many people in the lede that to name and identify them all would overpopulate it. More importantly, however, is that the who people are probably not well known names.

Imediate: Used when the name is well known.

Example: President John Psmith said Monday he no longer plans to wage war against Peru. Or Victoria Mayor Dann Jonez fired 12 civic workers on Friday.

Multiple Element Lede
If several important things happened and all need to be in the lede, for instance at a meeting, a reporter might write a multiple element lede. Be sure that the lede you choose has several elements, not just several details about one event. For instance, if a man murdered someone, was on the run and was then arrested, that would not be a multiple element lede. See the example below for what such a lede is.

Example: The Calgary city council voted Tuesday night to adopt a volume-based trash service, issue bonds for a new sewage treatment plant and hire a contractor for the new recreation centre.

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When Writing Doesn’t Work

It’s happened to me dozens of times. A writer comes in, shows promise, I give him/her an assignment and he/she hands in a great story. Then, he/she hands in several more. Then, one day I get a piece from him/her and as I read it, I’m thinking, “What the heck is this? This is a trainwreck.”

I call him/her up. “Uh, what’s with this story you handed in?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a piece of crap.”

“No, maybe you just don’t understand my style.”

“No, I understand your style and most styles, with the possible exception of Finnegan’s Wake. This piece is a mess, I want you to rewrite it.” And so on, with much acrimony.

Now, nine out of 10 times, the reason for the piece’s failure (and its writer’s) is that the writer has become overly self confident and has decided he/she doesn’t need to follow the rules. The most basic rules of including: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The Five Ws are irreplaceable. Whether you are writing a news story, a magazine feature, a novel, a press release, a short story, a screenplay, a technical manual or a memoir, the Five Ws have to be in there. Without them any piece will fail.

How you choose to get the Five Ws into your piece can be an element of your style. But leaving one or more out will be the death of said style.

I would suggest that not checking your piece over to see that you’ve answered the Five Ws is the primary mistake that novice writers make.