What is a nut graf?

April 6, 2011 · 35 comments

in Journalism how-to's

One of the best writing tools ever invented is called a “nut graf.” It can take your word craft to the next level. A nut graf can do magic for a journalistic article, a chapter in a novel, a personal essay, a research paper, a business report, a cover letter, a piece of advertising copy….or even a love letter.

Until now, the nut graf has been a very, very hard nut to crack — haha! But I’m here to demystify the concept. Okay, here we go…

“Nut graf” is an old time-y newspapering phrase. It refers to a tidy little paragraph that should appear near a story’s start. The paragraph — or graf — distills the article down to its essence. This little nut is supposed to be so clear that readers will instantly grasp your story’s basic theme. If they find the summary compelling, hopefully they’ll keep reading.

That’s basically all there is to it! If the nut graf concept feels somewhat familiar, that’s because it goes by different names in other circles:

  • Business people like to “elevator pitch.” Imagine yourself stepping into an elevator with a sales person who is marketing a product. That sales rep has your attention — only until you get off on your floor. That 50-second elevator ride is all the time the rep has to pitch you the product. That’s the elevator pitch.
  • Friends like to “catch up.” If you haven’t seen your buds for a while and they want to know what’s new, don’t you get to the point right away with a quick summary? Once you’ve got them interested, then you go back and fill them in.

A nut graf clues you in on changes that have taken place. It gives you a sense of what was going on, what’s new and what’s happening now. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Find the nut graf in the following conversation:

Imagine that you’re meeting up with some friends for dinner. One of them says: “I can’t believe it — after three years, I finally got a raise. It’s a relief to have a little spare cash again. I really missed eating out!”

This little convo breaks down into the three components of a classic nut graf:

  • What was: Money has been tight. 
  • What’s new: Got a raise.
  • What’s now: Relieved to have spare cash; realizes missed eating out.

Here’s another example…

Find the nut graf in the following love letter:

“Life was dreary before we met. Now, every day is exciting…”

And the nut graf? Again, three components:

  • What was: My life was dreary.
  • What’s new: We met.
  • What’s now: Every day’s exciting.

These  two examples are from “real life” conversational moments. They show that we naturally tend to nut graf. Without even thinking about it, we instinctively tap into the secret of the nut graf. We nut graf when we are talking about change in either our lives or a situation.

  • What existed up until this moment? That’s the status quo, the past.
  • What’s the change? What’s new?
  • Now things are different. In what way? Let us know the impact.

WHAT WAS

WHAT’S NEW

WHAT’S NOW

What was + What’s new + What’s now = Nut graf.

Here are three examples of the nut graf at work for professional writers…

Find the nut graf in this personal essay:

“Several years ago when I was living in Washington, I met a man the old-fashioned way: tipsily, in a bar. Then I ruined my chances with him the new-fashioned way. I Googled him.”

– from “So, Tell Me Everything I Know About You” by Joanna Pearson (New York Times “Modern Love” column)

  • What was: She met a guy in the old-fashioned way: tipsily, in a bar.
  • What’s new: She Googled him.
  • What’s now: Going online ruined the potential romance.

This nut graf shows that you don’t have to put your elements in the what-was-what’s-new-what’s-now order. You can juggle them in a sequence that feels natural and logical.

Find the nut graf in this news-y story:

“Workers made incremental progress at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Thursday, but disturbingly high radiation readings there as well as miles away continued to reinforce fears that Japan’s crisis was far from over.”

– from “Radioactive Iodine Detected in Ocean, Despite Gains at Japanese Plant” by David Jolly (New York Times)

  • What was: Workers made incremental progress at the power plant.
  • What’s new: Disturbingly high radiation has been found far away.
  • What’s now: Everyone is really scared that the crisis isn’t over.

Find the nut graf in this feature story:

Mark Hogancamp died 11 years ago tomorrow, when five men kicked his head in outside a Kingston, N.Y., bar in the early morning hours. He was reborn months later, after he awoke from a nine-day coma, his memory wiped nearly clean of the details of his life — his early marriage, girlfriends, family, Navy service, thundering alcoholism, homelessness, jail time — and he had to relearn how to eat, walk and think at age 38. Feeling shunned by the outside world, he created his own world, a tiny society called Marwencol.”

– from “In a Tiny Universe, Room to Heal” by Penelope Green (New York Times)

  • What was: This guy was beat up and living a brain-damaged life.
  • What’s new: He was “reborn” at age 38 and had to re-learn everything. 
  • What’s now: He’s become an artist who has created his own, new world.

It took me a lotta teaching to invent this concept of what-was-what’s-new-what’s-now. You won’t find it in any journalism text books. So please feel free to pass this on!

And a final word…now that you know what to look for, you will find that many newspaper, magazine and website articles do crappy nut grafs. While I don’t consider myself the greatest writer, I am nuts for nut grafs.

Sooo, to keep us in practice, I’ve made sure that every post on this blog starts with a nut graf. They’re right up there, sometimes condensed as one graf, or spread over the first few paragraphs. I hope that’ll help keep you reading….and maybe give you a reason to subscribe to my blog!   :)

 

 

 

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P.S. — If you found this post helpful, you might also like:

How to write tight 

Rule of 3 can help your writing

Three great writing tips that transform my students

My pet peeve: “it” vs. “they”

How punctuation works 

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