Nailing the Nut Graf

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Writing a nut graf can feel like showing your work on a math test or stopping at traffic lights when no one’s around. Ask journalists about how they constructed a nut graf, and some might actively avoid the question: At least three of the journalists I interviewed for this article talked first about characters and moments in the lead paragraphs. When the conversation turned back to the nut, they said, essentially: “Oh, right. That.” Writers seem to discredit nuts because they seem so painfully obvious, so heavy-handed, or so seriously lacking in soul.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a little careful study, a nut graf can be just as artful as the rest of your narrative. The nut is not just a kernel of knowledge, says David Robson, a features editor at New Scientist. It’s a keystone. “You want to give a gist of the big idea behind the story, or at least the relevance of what you’re reporting and how it will change the readers’ life or understanding of the world,” Robson says. Although you don’t want spoilers to keep people from reading, you have to convince a reader to finish the story instead of clicking on the next Buzzfeed article.

Choosing material to hold the story together can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process, and it’s different for every piece. “It’s so easy to lose sight of what makes the story relevant and interesting,” Robson says. “The nut graf is probably the bit that suffers most.” To help him focus, he jots down “key attractions” while he’s reporting so he can include them in the nut graf, which he drafts early in the writing process. When he struggles to figure out what those key attractions are, he imagines grasping for his friends’ attention down at the pub. “What one detail would I drop into the conversation to stop their eyes glazing over and get them to ask me more questions?” he asks.

Robson, like many writers, uses the nut as a story’s foundation, referring back to it frequently when drafting. Others seem to have nut allergies. Sometimes writers simply forget to include one or aren’t sure what to include or why a nut might help readers. Others fear a nut graf might give away their punch line. Jocelyn Zuckerman, a contributing editor at OnEarth (and author of “Plowed Under,” excerpted below) once butted heads with editors there over a food column she used to write. “I was frustrated,” she says. “I thought it needed something to make it more conversational. This is a different animal than a news story, so I didn’t think I needed a nut graf.”

Love them or hate them, nut grafs are something your editor is likely to require, and there’s a reason for that. Pooh Shapiro, health and science editor at The Washington Post, says she sees, in equal measure, excellent nut grafs and those that need finessing. “When someone needs help I tell them that our stories have to explain to readers: Why are we telling you about this particular thing now? Why should they care about it and make the time to read this story?” Shapiro says.

It’s no accident that nut grafs are also called billboards. After days, weeks or months reporting, writers often get so close to their stories that all the details seem clear. Readers have a different perspective. It’s easy to get lost in the twists and turns of a complicated story—or even a not-that-complicated story. Nut grafs, or billboards, give readers a chance to preview a story’s main themes and arguments from a distance before diving into the details. Think of nut grafs like the best billboards you’ve seen—a glimpse of the goodies waiting around the bend. That glimpse can intrigue readers to follow you to the end of your story. The nut can also function like a movie trailer: After introducing the story’s characters and main theses, you can hook readers by foreshadowing tensions, reversals or other suspenseful moments in your story.

While nuts should appear early, they don’t have to come right away after the story’s lede. Environmental journalist John Platt, who writes the Scientific American blog Extinction Countdown, keeps a scene-setting structure in mind. For stories about endangered species, he says, “I want to get people to care a little bit, understand the implications of what we’re talking about, or sometimes emotionally feel that context before I actually spell the nut out for them.” He watches his articles’ “stickiness”—how many minutes people spend reading—to gauge how effective he was at keeping readers’ attention.

Writing an effective nut graf requires knowing when to keep your lens narrow and when to jump out to a larger context, says Sam Fromartz, editor-in-chief of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), a nonprofit news organization that partners with publications to publish longform stories. “You’re constantly adjusting that lens,” he says, and referring details back to the issue in a nut graf. When editing Zuckerman’s story, which she produced in cooperation with FERN, Fromartz helped work the nut to move from a scene in a local diner to the wide expanse of the Northern Plains.

Even so, he says, sometimes a nut is unnecessary, especially if it becomes a crutch and doesn’t work with the story. “When it’s a really strong narrative and the story’s just driving you, that can be strong enough to hook the reader that it doesn’t necessarily need to be spelled out,” he says. Other times a single, well-placed quote that captures the story’s key meaning or significance can serve, on its own, as the nut.

But for most features and long news stories, a nut graf is necessary—and in some cases, it can help make a good story great. The following examples run the gamut from punchy quote to universal statement, from the almost-spoiler to compelling readers to satiate their curiosity. These nut grafs all work, and the writers and editors behind them explain how they were conceived.

From “The Story in the Stones” [teaser], by David Robson for New Scientist, a story about stone tools shaping the human mind as told through the work of a flintknapper named Bruce Bradley:

… My interests lie elsewhere. The stone tools on the table in front of me are not just useful, they tell the story of our journey from simple ape to thinking human. Previous attempts to trace the history of the mind have relied on speculation as much as hard evidence but, over the past three years, Bradley’s Learning to be Human project has taken a more precise approach to looking inside the heads of the people who made these tools. Combining findings about stone-tool construction with neuroscience, psychology and archaeology, we can now estimate the origins of the distinctly human mental abilities, such as when we first began to order our thoughts and actions, when our visual imagination blossomed, when we started to think about the past and the future, and when we first played make-believe. There are even hints about the emergence of our capacity for patience, shame and suspicion—and the nature of our ancestors’ dreams. …

Near the end of reporting for this story, David Robson shadowed the flintknapper Bradley. The source was a godsend, his work carrying the narrative throughout the whole article. “Sweeping evolutionary stories can be a pain to write, since they easily grow into baggy monsters without any kind of shape,” Robson says. “After all, evolution is a messy process with no clear direction or turning points, and you don’t want to be too clumsy in molding that into a narrative.”

After settling on Bradley’s stone tools to shape the story, writing the nut came fairly easily. Robson intentionally chose first-person for both the lede and nut: “I dislike feature articles with ‘disembodied’ intros that don’t gel with the nut graf. So I tried to write the transi­­tion as if my attention was wandering around the room until it finally settles on the tools, which seemed a more elegant way of segueing into the thrust of the feature.”

This paragraph is long as nut grafs go—157 words—but the cadence heightens the experience of reading it. “You could imagine writing it more concisely; something like, ‘We can now understand the forces driving the evolution of our intelligence,’ ” Robson says. “But it just felt a lot grander when I spelled it out in a list of experiences that we can all directly relate to.”

In addition to hooking readers into the story and giving a bird’s-eye view of the story, Robson aimed to emphasize the news angle. “The fact that they can read the thoughts of our ancestors in that level of detail felt far fresher and more exciting,” he said.

From “Plowed Under” by Jocelyn Zuckerman in the left-leaning political magazine The American Prospect. The story about land conversion in the Midwest begins with pheasant hunters grumbling about disappearing prey.

… While few seem to be aware of it, a massive shift is under way in the northern plains, with ramifications for the quality of our water and food, and, more fundamentally, the long-term viability of our farms. A study published in February 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that between 2006 and 2011, farmers in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa—the Western Corn Belt—had plowed up 1.3 million acres of native grassland in order to plant corn and soybeans. “People had been talking about the land conversion,” says Chris Wright, an assistant research professor at South Dakota State University and a co-author of the report, “but there weren’t any recent numbers.”…

In contrast to Robson, Zuckerman followed a “less is more” philosophy with this nut graf. In fact, in the first draft of this story, there was not a nut to be found. The preceding paragraph, which reads like its punchier cousin, opens with, “The region’s game birds are in serious trouble.” Zuckerman admits that at first she thought that was the nut. But the pheasants were only one part of a wider narrative.

Her editor, Fromartz, says on the first read, he kept coming back to the lede and asking, “Are the readers of American Prospect going to care about birds?” He returned the draft to Zuckerman advising her to widen her lens from the birds, and to do it early. “The first draft had a lot of puzzle pieces, but there wasn’t a lot of connective tissue,” he says. “The nut graf is your chance to hook the reader—why these little birds in a place you’ve never been in your life should matter.”

While this nut foreshadows a theme of small farm vitality, much of the article focuses on policies, crop insurance, and pollinators on the plains. There’s no hint of those topics in the nut—and by design, says Fromartz. “Once you get into policy, you can just feel your readers leaving,” he says. “What was smart about this is she made the point that this is the greatest loss of these grasslands since the 1920s [in the next graf], and readers ask, ‘What’s up with that?’”

Zuckerman agrees. “I’m more interested in saying, ‘Here’s the problem,’ and then later look at how is this happening?” she says.

From “Can what you eat affect your mental health?” by Gisela Telis for The Washington Post, which opens with a woman’s depression vanishing after she changed her diet.

… Corbitt had stumbled into an area that scientists have recently begun to investigate: whether food can have as powerful an impact on the mind as it does on the body.

Research exploring the link between diet and mental health “is a very new field; the first papers only came out a few years ago,” said Michael Berk, a professor of psychiatry at the Deakin University School of Medicine in Australia. “But the results are unusually consistent, and they show a link between diet quality and mental health.”…

Using the one-two punch of an anecdotal lede plus scientist-quote nut, let Telis set readers up for a compelling double storyline: following scientists committed to finding answers for their patients and women taking the initiative to change their lives.

Telis found an organic rhythm for telling the story after discovering her lede character early on. “I wanted to back out and get into the science of what her anecdote means—if anything,” she says. The nut, she says, came easily once her interviews were in place.

The story could have been about an ignored field of science, or one that people are resistant to accept, Telis says. Yet after hearing the same explanation from multiple sources that “nobody’s studying this, but we’re starting to,” Telis felt confident enough to make it the nut and let the rest of the story follow. She looked back in her notes to find the most striking and accessible quote. “I thought, how do I turn this personal story into the general?” she says. “And I try to do that as quickly as possible to move readers along.”

From “The last meadows?” by Roberta Kwok in Aeon, a story about trees’ “hostile takeover” of mountain meadows. The story starts out atop a peaceful peak in Washington.

… Trees are already on the move. Global warming has allowed forests to infiltrate meadows that were previously too cold or snowy, and grazing animals and fires no longer hold seedlings in check. A 2012 study led by forest ecologist Harold Zald at Oregon State University in Corvallis showed that trees have expanded from 8 per cent to 35 per cent of the meadow area in part of Oregon’s Central Cascade Mountains over the past six decades. At two ridges in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, the average meadow size shrank by 78 per cent from the 1950s to 1990s. Pines and larches are creeping into meadows in the European Alps too, and a 2009 meta-analysis led by the biologist Melanie Harsch, then at Lincoln University in New Zealand suggested that treelines have advanced to higher altitudes or latitudes at about half of surveyed sites worldwide. …

This is not your traditional nut graf, just as Kwok intended. While Telis widened her lens, Kwok flashed hers around to different locations.

For this piece, Kwok knew that most readers see trees as victims of climate change, disease and other threats. To show trees threatening other ecosystems, she says, “I thought it might take a bit of convincing to get readers on board with that idea, so I wanted to back up that statement with data early on. I wanted to show readers that this was a real phenomenon and had been studied pretty extensively at sites around the world.”

Like many of us, Kwok tends to write nut grafs that usually provide “mini-outlines,” for her stories. But after a while, she says, that approach feels formulaic. “If there’s another way that you can introduce the story and keep the reader interested, go for it.”

At the end of the day, writing nut grafs might still feel like eating your veggies.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t dress them up to be delicious.

Tina Casagrand

Tina Casagrand

Tina Casagrand is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is freelance journalist and recent graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where she studied magazine writing and publishing, anthropology, biology, and art. Her favorite nut is an almond. You can follow her on Twitter @gasconader.

Photo at top by Angelo Amboldi via Flickr.

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One Response to “Nailing the Nut Graf”

  1. Sam Fromartz says:

    Here is what the writer Wil Hylton says about nut grafs:

    Wil S. Hylton, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of Vanished. “I despise the f*****g nut graf. I think it’s a joke, a cop out. The story probably should be about something larger than itself but if you have to tell people what that is, you’ve failed form the beginning. If they can’t find it, you didn’t put it there and you shouldn’t be beating them over the head with it.”

    Episode 80 Longform Podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/longform/id551088534

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