5W1H: Write Like a Journalist
by David A. Baldwin June 1, 2014 (Updated)
One of the most universally used tools for information gathering, analysis,
organization and presentation is the 5W1H framework.
This method is used across a range of professions, from process analysts to quality
engineers to journalists, to understand and explain virtually any problem or issue.
The same method can be used to organize the writing of reports, articles, white
papers, and even whole books.
The Basic Approach
This approach seeks to answer six basic questions in gathering information about
nearly any subject: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Sometimes,
depending on the context, a second “H” might be used: How Much.
In journalism, news story writing requires that the questions to be answered take a
- Who is it about?
- What is it about?
- When did it happen?
- Where did it happen?
- Why did it happen?
- How did it happen?
Applying the 5W1H framework to other types of writing or investigation takes some
interpretation. The order in which the answers to the questions are presented may
vary, but the “what” is usually addressed first.
In journalism, the “what” identifies an event and is often stated in the “lead (or
lede),” the first paragraph of a news story.
The “what” is the primary subject, the reason the information is being gathered and
presented. Apart from journalism, it may be stated in a title and in a purpose
statement. The “what” may need to be defined, a process that may comprise the
remainder of a document.
A news story identifies who an event involves. The “who” may be part of the lede,
and could be the reason the story is news worthy.
In other contexts, the “who” identifies the person(s) or group(s) the “what”
concerns. It might describe the audience of a document, or those who are affected
by a policy, process or procedure.
A key part of a news story is describing when an event happened.
Answering the “when” indicates any time-sensitivity related to the “what.” It may be
part of an instruction regarding the proper point at which an action should be
taken. Sometimes it may be part of an “If…then” scenario of conditional action.
A news story reports the location at which an event took place.
The “where” describes a geographical or physical location of importance to the
“what.” At times, the where may be less important than other factors.
The “why” is usually the most neglected of the questions in the framework. News
stories often lack information from authoritative sources to explain the “why.”
In other contexts, the “why” may be considered irrelevant, particularly when
describing a policy or procedure decreed by an organizational authority.
Efforts to determine and explain the “why” may help those affected be more
accepting of any change the “what” requires.
For journalists, determining how an event took place may be nearly as challenging
as explaining the “why,” although more effort is usually put into satisfying the
When describing policies, processes or procedures, the “how” may be the most
important part of the effort.
A considerable appetite for understanding how to do something can be found
across audiences. Sometimes effort focuses on the “what” when more work might
be devoted to explaining the “how.”
The 5W1H framework can be applied to any topic at any level of granularity to
gather, analyze and present information from the simplest to the most complex.
Attributed to a Rudyard Kipling poem, 5W1H is the place to start and may be
enough to take you to the finish.