How to Use the 5 “W”s (and 1 H)
The five “W”s are a principle widely used in journalism and copywriting, so they are worth understanding if you want to edit these types of writing.
In this post, we’ll set out the basics of the five “W”s and how you can use them as an editor.
What Are the Five “W”s?
The five “W”s are a series of questions used by writers, and especially journalists, when working on investigative reports, articles, or other documents. Each question must be answered to tell a complete story.
The “W”s themselves are:
● Who – the human subject(s) of the story or any individuals involved
Who opened the new library?
● What – the incident, event, or other circumstance that is the focus of the story
What will happen at the opening event?
● Where – the location the subject of the story is based in or will take place in
Where was the new library built?
● When – the date, time, or historical context of the story
When will the new library open?
● Why – the causes and effects of the story’s focus and what makes it important
Why is there a new library?
They are usually accompanied by one “H”:
● How – the circumstances involved in the story, the way the subject works, or the way it came to be
How was the new library funded?
None of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” The idea here is that the information gained from the answers is factual, in depth, and crucial to understanding the subject matter.
In traditional journalism, writers would be expected to answer all of these questions in the lede or opening paragraph. But this is less of a requirement of modern and literary journalism, so long as the questions are still answered somewhere in the article.
Using the Five “W”s as an Editor
The five “W”s (and their “H” cousin) are important to keep in mind when editing your client’s writing. If one of them is missing, then your client’s work is incomplete.
This is especially true when reviewing journalism, press releases, or other documents where the author is reporting or recounting an event of some kind.
Try scanning through the document to make sure that each “W” (and “H”) has been covered. If you reach the end of the document and can’t identify the who, what, where, when, why, or how of the subject matter, then your client has not provided all the essential facts.
You’ll need to note this oversight and suggest your client add in the missing information.
Even if your client has answered the five “W”s, some of the information might need clarification or further depth. For example, in an article about an event that is set to take place, readers will need to know more than just the date, but also the time and duration:
The opening of the new library will take place on August 30th. ✘
The opening of the new library will take place on August 30th at 10AM. The opening ceremony will conclude at 11AM, following which the library will be open to visitors until 6PM. ✔
When editing, then, keep an eye out for any information that is less comprehensive than it could be.
You can also use the five “W”s when editing fiction. However, it’s important to remember that any missing or incomplete information in this context may be intentional – your client may be writing an unreliable narrator or building suspense by withholding all the facts.
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