The Nut Graf: Feast or Famine for Your Readers?

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Writing a nut graf can help a journalist divewith ease into tricky subjects.

Writing a nut graf can help a journalist dive with ease into tricky subjects. Image by gracey.

Like lions seeking prey, journalists actively seek readers. As part of that process, they often speak of the lede, or lead paragraph. Ideally, the lede serves as the article’s inescapable hook, captivating their audience.

While the lede may momentarily attract the attention of a reader, it’s the so-called ‘nut graf’ that keeps them interested, so journalists have to learn to effectively craft a nut graf that strengthens the article with clarity, organization, and a peek into the mind of the reader – but how?

What Is the Nut Graf?

The term nut graf, or nut graph, comes from the phrase “nutshell paragraph.” This section provides the meat of the story, letting readers know whether they should keep reading or move on.

“I think of a nut graf as a cross between a partial summary and a teaser,” freelance writer, editor, and consultant Leigh Ann Hubbard tells Decoded Arts. “It’s a paragraph near the beginning of the article that indicates quickly what the article is about and makes the reader want to keep reading.”

Indeed, that’s what an effective nut graf does. It is, after all, the “nut” of the story.

Here’s an example–an interesting nut graf, from an article by John Thorne that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

“Saadi Qaddafi is the latest of several fugitive former regime figures taken into Libyan custody. But it’s unclear whether Libya’s shaky government can ensure any of them fair and speedy trials.”

Located immediately beneath the lede, these two sentences tell the reader quickly what’s going on in terms of the capture of Qaddafi’s son and other members of the former regime. This piques the reader’s curiosity. What is going to happen? This creates an element of intrigue, something that’s crucial for a good nut graf, Hubbard notes.

Like lions seeking prey, journalists must seek readers.  Writing an effective nut graf is one of the best ways to do this.

Like lions seeking prey, journalists must seek readers. Writing an effective nut graf is one of the best ways to do this. Image by hotblack.

“Think, will the way I stated this make people want to keep reading? Clarity and brevity are also important,” Hubbard told Decoded Arts.

“And be sure the nut graf truly does reflect what the article is about. If you state something intriguing but then don’t back it up in the post, that leaves readers confused.” 

When an article confuses readers they are less likely to stick with it. I know that in my case, when the nut graf says one thing and the body of the article says something else, I usually move on to another article to read. After all, why stick with something if you’re not sure what the writer is trying to get across?

Organization and Clarity: No Rambling Allowed

“Many people who don’t have journalism experience don’t use nut grafs. Their posts can end up a little hard to read—sometimes even coming across as rambling,” Hubbard notes, “And on the Internet, people can click away quickly. If they can’t immediately figure out what they’ll learn from an article, they can just try another one. So using this one little paragraph can help make your site more readable than your competition’s and help people stay on your page longer.

When composing a nut graf, the writer should ensure that the writing sounds strong and concise, says Michael Cabanatuan, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. The writer’s voice should also come through and journalists shouldn’t try to cram in too much information. As Cabanatuan notes to Decoded Arts, this is something that’s tougher than you might think.

The nut graf can also help the journalist who might be struggling for the proper angle to take. “Writing the nut graf can help you nail down your story’s slant. Sometimes I struggle with my nut graf, not sure what I want to say, but it’s rewarding when I finally figure it out, and it helps my story start flowing,” notes Hubbard.

Multi-paragraph Graf?

The key to so many well-written and interesting stories, this simple trick doesn’t have to consist of only one paragraph. Here’s another wonderful example, in an article by the Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan. In this case, he cites an article by journalist Julia Malone, who writes for the Washington Bureau of Cox Network. First, she outlines the situation with an intriguing lede:

Blacksburg, Va. — High on a mountain overlook, construction crews blast through solid rock on a 20-hours-a-day rush schedule to build the first two miles of an expressway that, for the next few years, will lead only to a turn-around.— The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Malone then quickly answers the “why” that this leading paragraph infers.

“But for promoters in this Appalachian university town, that’s of little concern. Dubbed the ‘Smart Road’ and designed to double as a high-technology research site, this federal-state project shows how a little ‘pork’ tucked into a federal transportation bill can buy a whole hog for a community.” 

Malone artfully manages to attract attention, and yet keeps these paragraphs concise. The writer’s voice sings freely here.

Nut Grafs and Social Media

In the rapidly changing wild and woolly world we call the social media, the nut graf can serve another important purpose, doing double duty as the official web summary that boosts SEO traffic on the web, according to Michael Q. Bullerdick, a freelance contributor and consultant for several print, web and book publishers. His articles appeared in The New Yorker, Reader’s Digest Publications, and Time Magazine publications among others. 

Helpful Hints for Writing a Good Nut Graf

Even for the most experienced journalist, writing a nut graf presents a tricky problem, so what are some good ways to psyche yourself up?

  • “You can do that by putting yourself in the position of the reader who needs the information to follow you and understand why the article is timely and relevant” Bullerdick tells Decoded Arts. “Keeping that goal in mind while writing is easier for veteran writers who reflexively switch back and forth between writing and editing. Beginning writers often need to go back and tighten up the nut graf.”
  • Go on the hunt for extra words that might serve to trip you and your readers up.
  • Take a break and peruse a few other articles for a few minutes. I find that this gives me a brief mental break if I’m stewing in my own juices over a nut graf (and believe me, I do this often.)
  • Fine-tune your focus.
  • “Read through your notes, then take a walk around the block and think about the most important things you want to include in the story and what points you want to come through,” Cabanatuan suggests.
  • Set your mind adrift: “For me, depending on the article, writing a nut graf often requires heavy use of my brain’s creative side,” Hubbard says. “So when I’m having trouble writing one, my trick is to loosen up mentally and get out of the more rigid reporting, factual mindset. I let my mind go a little more free and see what it comes up with.”

If you’re also in charge of suggesting a headline, working on that can also help you create the nut graf, she says. After all, they both come down to “What’s your point?”

Pieces of the Puzzle: the Lede and the Nut Graf

When it comes to writing an article, I think few things are more satisfactory than knowing that you’ve written a good nut graf. Like the pieces of a puzzle, the story can now fit together nicely. The lions can now return home from the hunt.

© Copyright 2014 Megan Hamilton, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Arts

Comments

  1. Megan HamiltonMegan Hamilton says

    Hi Leigh Ann! It’s amazing how something as simple and concise as a nut graf can really improve a story and, at the same time, make it easier to write.

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