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….or even a love letter.
“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 fills 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 I’m 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!”
- What was: Been working with no raise and not having spare cash.
- What’s new: Got a raise.
- What’s now: Relieved to have spare cash; realizes missed eating out.
Find the nut graf in the following love letter:
“Life was dreary before we met. Now, every day is exciting…”
- What was: My life was dreary.
- What’s new: We met.
- What’s now: Every day’s exciting.
Those are two examples from “real life” conversational moments. They show that we naturally tend to nut graf when we’re speaking thoughtfully to people we care about. And the secret to a good personal conversation is that we’re often talking about the impact of some type of change in our lives:
- What had 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 = Nut graf. You can nail this. Let’s try a few more examples…
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 was living in Washington and met a guy the old-fashioned way: tipsily, in a bar.
- What’s new: She Googled him.
- What’s now: She ruined her chances with him.
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: The workers were making incremental progress at the power plant.
- What’s new: They keep getting disturbingly high radiation readings there and far away.
- What’s now: Everyone is really scared that the crisis is far from over.
You can also weave all sorts of interesting information into a nut graf. (I originally posted a different example here. My students said it was too long. So I am subbing this one from the April 7, 2011 New York Times which the class really liked. The story is actually fascinating.)
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 relearned how to live.
- What’s now: He’s become an artist with pieces that represent his own world.
To be perfectly honest, I am writing this post because I think journalism education does a lame job at explaining nut grafs. For a profession that relies on being concise, many textbook and online nut graf tutorials are mind-numblingly obtuse. It’s also hard to open a newspaper or magazine and hit on loads of fantastic nut grafs (especially ones that are a single graf in length).
I’m not claiming to be the greatest writer in the world either. But I’ve been determined to make sure every single one of my posts begins with a nut graf. They might not be exactly one graf, but the opening sentences will hang together. I hope my creation of the what’s-was-what’s-new-what’s-now forumla will be helpful too.
Nut grafs can organize our material with eloquence and elegance. They are actually an organic, natural element of human conversation. We can do better at analyzing them as a writing device. We also have to ignore their annoying, user-unfriendly name. :)