Journalists’ questions

If you are thinking of writing about an event, one of the simplest techniques for exploring it is to ask the journalists’ questions: Who? What? When? Where?

Why? How? Not all the questions will be equally productive with any given topic, but asking them will nearly always reveal something.


A more powerful and complex variation on the journalists’ questions is Kenneth Burke’s pentad. Burke points out that every event has a dramatic structure, like a play. Something happens; hence, there is an act. The act takes place at some time and some place; hence, it has a scene. Something—human or otherwise—performs the act; hence, it has an agent. The agent commits the act by some means or other; hence, the act requires agency. To perform the act, the agent must have a motive; hence, the act involves purpose. Notice how the five parts of Burkes pentad correspond to the journalists’ questions:

Act = What?

Scene = Where and When?

Agent = Who?

Agency = How?

Purpose = Why?

The real power of Burke’s pentad, however, comes from considering the various elements in pairs—which Burke calls ratios —to discover how each element affects the others. For example, how does the scene affect the agent? Would the agent have behaved differently at night than during the day? If it were summer rather than winter? If he or she had been in a small rural town rather than a city neighborhood?

If you were asked to write about a significant personal experience—a common assignment in writing courses—you would first select an experience (or act, in Burkes terms). Then you would have to decide how to focus the composition: where to begin your account, how much to include, and what point to emphasize. If applying the pentad led you to discover the importance of the scene, for example, you would probably decide to devote much of your essay to the ways in which the scene contributed to the act.


Another set of questions that can help you to focus and develop a subject was devised by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle’s questions, which he called topoi, were designed as ways to discover proofs in persuasive writing; but they can also help you shape your composition.

•  Analysis: Should I divide my subject into parts and then discuss each part separately or perhaps focus on a single part?

•  Cause and effect: Should I explain what caused this subject or what its effects might be?

•  Classification: Can I classify this subject by putting it in a group of similar things?

•  Comparison and contrast: Should I compare my subject to something or contrast it with something in order to illuminate it?

•  Definition: Should I define my subject?

•  Description: Should I describe the features of my subject?

•  Examples: Should I provide an example of what I mean?

•  Narration: Should I tell a story? (See also anecdote.)

•  Process: Can I see this subject as a process and explain how it works?

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