5W (who, what, when, where, why) is an information gathering technique whereby the most important information forms the framework of the essay or story. This information should always be strong enough to stand alone; read in isolation and understood.

The example below demonstrates the 5W technique. The original story contained 405 words. The 5W extract shown below contains just 36 words and represents only 8% of the original story, and yet it can be read in isolation and understood—that’s the magic of 5W, it’s an ingenious technique that works every time.

WHO: A thief in the French Riviera
WHAT: Has pulled off a daring daylight jewellery heist at a diamond exhibition and escaped
WHEN: Sunday 28 July, 2013
WHERE: The Carlton Hotel, Cannes
WHY: Jewels estimated to be worth about $57 million
ABC/AFP Europe correspondent Barbara Miller Original story word count: 405 5W word count: 36 (8%)


5W collects the facts

5W takes the form of an inverted pyramid with the most important information at the top (beginning of the story), and least important information at the bottom (end of the story).

5W Pyramids1

5W is a summary of all the key facts and important information and is usually found in the first two or three paragraphs. Even if you only read the first half of the story, you will still get the key points.

Cannes Jewel Heist and 5W2

5W can be used in both long and shot responses

5W benefits students enormously because it caters for both long and short responses/answers. During exams you will be required to give a combination of the two, e.g. several short five line responses in addition to a lengthy essay.

5W Pyramids3

5W is a life skill you’ll use at work

5W is a life skill you’ll use at school and when you enter the workforce. On a scale of one to 10 of importance, it ranks as a 10.

At school 5W is used to help you establish the facts so you can answer the question. When you enter the workforce it is used to write a “one pager,” which is a summary of an incident, subject or project.

A one pager is easy to write if you know the 5W technique, however if you’re not familiar with it then you will struggle to detail all the necessary information in the required format. And don’t be misled into believing that Word can do the work for you, because it can’t.

No professional organisation will take you seriously if your writing skills look as if they belong on a Facebook page. How you speak is not how you write. If your intention is to work in an office or climb the corporate ladder, then you will be expected to have reasonable writing skills. So take the time to learn 5W, because it really is a skill you’ll use for the rest of your life.

News Apps

There are some news apps that select the story and in some cases condense it for you, which is great if you’re in a rush and don’t have time to scan the news. But the downside to this is that they are doing the thinking for you; they’re deciding what you see and don’t see.

A news app is an algorithms designed to extract the who, what, when, where, why components from a news story. It sounds pretty impressive but the reality is it’s a simple technique that you can learn yourself.

If you’re reading the news then there’s a reason for that. You’re scanning a cross section of information and targeting what’s relevant only to you. No matter how good a news app is it’s never going to know you better than you know yourself. The news changes by the minute, the hour and the day, which is why an app can’t be relied upon to keep you fully informed. They’re good, but they’re not as good a your own brain. And smart people know that the facts of any news story are usually found within the first two paragraphs. Another thing newspapers can teach you.

It’s worth your time getting a yellow highlighter to see just where 5W is positioned in a news story. Financial papers in particular are the queen bees of the 5W technique. They are up-front, short, sharp and to the point.

Who created 5W?

Newspapers have used the 5W technique for over 100 years. And like most good things it came about by accident. Long before email was invented people communicated by telegraph wire, which was an unreliable service that would frequently cut out. Operators, anticipating a break in transmission, began sending the most important information first, i.e. who, what, when, where, why. It was such an effective technique that journalists adopted it and still use it today.