Cracking the ‘nut graf’

Nut grafs made one of my students cry. She couldn’t get the hang of them. I wasn’t connecting with explaining them.

Gimme the nut! (c. Holly Ocasio Rizzo)

Aw, nuts! (c. Holly Ocasio Rizzo)

On the way home, I threw the textbook explanations out the window. I decided to explain the long way and from the heart. This is what I wrote to her. She said it helped, and I saw that it did. It might help anyone who’s having trouble cracking nut grafs.

I thought about how a nut graph might be explained more clearly, and it’s this:

Writers approach articles from the inside out. They know what the story will cover, where it will end and how it will get there.

Readers approach stories from the outside in. They read in linear fashion from the first word to the last. After the lead, they bump into the nut graph, which gives them a road map to the rest of the story. The nut graph is like a synopsized version of what the writer already knows: where the story’s headed.

As writers, we try to see the story from a reader’s perspective. This is a big part of our craft. Without a clearly defined nut graph, the reader continues past the lead unguided. One thing we as writers don’t want to do is make readers refer to earlier points in the story as they read. Reading should be like driving down the freeway — straight ahead, no backing up.

When I read students’ articles, I look at them first as a reader would, the way I also edit stories. Nearly every editor follows this procedure. When we do this, we’re checking the story as the reader will encounter it. We keep in mind that the story is for the reader, not for us, and so it must be crystal-clear in that way.

How to approach nut graphs in future stories? Limit the lead to one concept or example. Remember that, in features, the lead may require several paragraphs. Keep the lead free of context; place context after the nut graph — after the road map to what the story’s about. The Wall Street Journal’s features and the Los Angeles Times’ Column One feature on the front page of every issue offer excellent models of nut graphs.

Also, don’t be too critical of yourself while learning to write nut graphs. It does take practice. If you’re unsure whether your nut graph works, run it by someone who knows what a nut graph is but not what your story topic is, so they’ll look at it with an innocent eye. …

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