This post marks the debut of an occasional series I’m introducing on WordCount called Back to Basics, short explainers of various nuts and bolts of writing.
Speaking of nuts, we’ll kick things off looking at a little nut with a big impact.
I’m of course talking about the nut graph.
And yet, nut graphs remain tough nuts to crack, pun definitely intended.
A story without a nut graph is like a walk in the woods without a path: you know you’re going someplace, you’re just not sure where.
The nut graph supplies that direction. It tells readers, ‘This is what this story is about, this is why you should care, this is why you should keep reading.’
Writers’ overall deficiency in this area hit home recently as I’ve been doing more editing work and reading first drafts of stories that lack anything approximating a nut graph.
It’s not just me. A few weeks ago, an editor friend said she’d spent an entire day imagining herself the nut-graph queen – tiara and all – dispensing nut graphs with a tap of the wand and a click of the keyboard to every story that had entered her email inbox.
The nut graph – a term near and dear to the hearts of cranky old newspaper editors worldwide, and a lot of young ones too – is actually a misnomer. It could be an entire paragraph. Or it could be a simple sentence. Especially in short pieces – like blog posts – a nut graph could be a simple declarative sentence spelling out what the writer intends to do in the next 300 or 400 words.
Here’s an example. The big buzz this week is about new smartphones introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show, so here’s the 23-word lead of a 266-word Mashable story on a new Motorola phone. In this case, the lead also serves as the story’s nut graph:
Motorola has a new Android smartphone out, and judging by the looks of it, it’s going to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it devices.
After the lead, the story goes on to describe what the phone looks like and what features potential users might like or dislike.
Sometimes, lack of a nut graph signifies a bigger problem. If a writer has trouble figuring out what to say in a nut graph it could be because they haven’t figured out what the story they’re writing is about. A nice trick for solving that an editor once taught me: find someone unfamiliar with the piece you’re working on. Then explain to them, as concisely as you can, what the story is about and why they – or any other potential reader – should care. If you can summarize the piece in a sentence or two, you (a) have a good grasp of the idea and (b) should be able to turn what you just verbalized into a nut graph.
Writers also have trouble deciding where to put a nut graph in a story. In short stories, the lede and the nut graph could be one in the same. In a good old-fashioned inverted-pyramid news piece, the nut graph should follow the opening who, what, where, when and how information and serve as the story’s “why.”
In longer news, news features or feature stories, the nut graph could follow the lede by some distance, but not be buried so deep the reader gives up before figuring out what the heck he or she is reading about. The exact placement depends on the length of the story. In a feature of 1,000 or 1,500 words, the nut graph could follow the lead by five or six paragraphs or even less. But a 10,000-word New Yorker epic might lead with a 1,000-word introduction before the getting around explaining what the story is really about.
It’s fashionable to poo-poo the need to even have a nut graph in a story. Call me old-school, but I don’t buy it. With so much other information competing for a reader’s attention, it’s up to a writer to make it as easy as possible to figure out what’s happening and why they should care. In this way, it’s different from fiction, where the author can have fun confusing the hell out of the reader before slowly revealing what the story’s about.
Nut graph essentials: weave a reasonably concise explanation of why the story matters into the fabric of a piece up high enough to hook the reader into hanging in there through the rest of the piece.
What writing basics would you like to know more about? Share your request so I can include it in the Back to Basics series.