What is a nut graf?

April 6, 2011 · 36 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!   :)

 

 

 

********

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 

Like this link? Please share!
Pin It

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

betty April 7, 2011 at 12:15 am

i’ve got so much that i want to blog about. but we’re hitting that super-stressful part of the semester. and i feel a need to post material that might help my students get through the home stretch. which is why last week, i blogged about punctuation. and this week, nut grafs. actually, i’ve been wanting to write about nut grafs for a long time. well, it’s finally done. :)

Reply

M. Skye Holly April 7, 2011 at 7:13 am

Betty, thank you, I am right in the middle of that part of the semester, too! I may not be taking on any journalism courses right now, but I am working on an independent project to graduate. Your post just reminded me where to pay attention to the details in my writing and cut out the unnecessary for my readers. That’ll work wonders for my thesis, so thanks! I may not be a current student of yours, but maybe am a lifelong student via your blog or some other way.

I admit that I will use this for work, though. I contribute to a weekly, and we come out on Thursdays. Funny enough, I will be looking to see if my final piece for the week captures what you have in the post. I think the nut graf tips can go well for so many forms of writing.

Again, you’ve given me something to smile about on Thursdays, thanks a bunch. The nutty pics are cute. Just nutty! Have a great semester, you and your students. Catch up with you next week!

Reply

Julie - On the Dot Creations April 7, 2011 at 11:41 am

Hi, Betty. I must admit that I’ve never heard of a nut graf, although the concept makes perfect sense. As a blogger, I know that the introduction to any post must catch the reader’s attention and prod him to read further. I have jotted down What Was / What’s New / What’s Now and will start using these questions to craft my post introductions.

Love your blog — thanks for your great posts!

Reply

Jackie April 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Hi Betty:

Thanks for this! I will be passing this along to my direct reports so we can communicate out to our partners better. I think we are so caught up in what is politcally correct and soft-stepping around what the message is that the message gets lost. I wish everyone can be more direct (OK, within reason) so we can be more efficient with our time and meetings. Here is my Nut Graf:

What was: amount of BS that we need to pass to business partners so their feelings are not hurt
What’s new: Get to the heart of the problem without BS – more direct communication
What’s now: Hopefully no one will complain and hang up on us! :)

Thanks again!

Reply

JGregg April 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm

betty … wow. you are good. really appreciate your efforts here teaching us about the nut graf. to be honest, i thought this piece was going to be about a tragic accident involving a surgery upon some unlucky bloke’s scrotu … oh, never mind!

anyhoo, really enjoyed this piece, including the LATimes.com article on UCLA freshman, save for the misuse of “loathe” v. the proper “loath” (when reluctant). pedantic me … realizing what a wordsmith you are, I am loath to encourage your visit to read ANY of my pieces (including a writer’s exercise about a peripatetic Jew from Los Angeles in Austin, TX)!!

;)

Reply

betty April 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm

how interesting to hear from you all! i just had my morning nyu class read this post. after taking a poll, everyone agreed that “nut graf” is a dreadful phrase. so unappealing. so NOT warm and fuzzy. oh well…

my students also felt the examples were useful. but, the post is too long. and the l.a. times example is waaaaay too long. so i am going to edit the original post now. will try to shorten it up so that it will be easier to use.

on the bright side, they liked the acorns and the squirrels. i found them by googling “images” and then, “clip art” — which means you can snatch the stuff for free without needing to credit anyone. i jazzed them a little in both picnik.com and photoshop. it’s important to keep things as visually appealing as possible. :)

Reply

betty April 7, 2011 at 2:23 pm

did it! just knocked about 500 words out of the original post. so here we have nut grafs in about a thousand words.

and jackie, that’s pretty good for a first-ever nut graf! may i edit it bit? how about this: When I write to my business partners, I pad with a lot of b.s. to avoid hurting their feelings. But I’m going to start communicating more directly — and hope that no one hangs up on us.

Reply

Bria @ West of Persia April 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Betty, this is excellent info. Thanks for sharing it!

Reply

Jackie April 7, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Betty:

thank you for editing down my muck! :)

Reply

betty April 7, 2011 at 10:39 pm

you’re welcome, bria and jackie! btw, i just edited out another 200 words. so this post is truly down to 1,000 words. it should be a manageable length now. :)

Reply

Daniel April 7, 2011 at 11:20 pm

One editor I work with always seems to find something lacking in my nut grafs. So much so that I’ve taken to paying extra attention to them when reading, sometimes — I’m embarrassed to say — even circling them and going back after reading the article to see how the writer made good on the promise. On several occasions when I was pitching a story, my editor asked me what the nut graph would be before giving me the assignment. Your guidance on how to put one together is really useful even for someone who has written lots of them because each time I set out to write one, it’s a new puzzle to solve.

Reply

Laura Madden April 8, 2011 at 8:39 am

Betty, Thanks so much for this reminder! I always ask myself when I’m writing “What was it like before? What happened? What’s it like now?” because of taking your class.
PS- agreed, “nut graf” is not sexy, unless you like to geek out on industry slang.

Reply

tom moore April 11, 2011 at 10:20 am

betty – we just reviewed your nut graf post in our journalism class – thanks – it helped us understand nut grafs better. see ya out here at york again soon i hope.
-tom moore and his intro to spring 2011 journalism class.
york college cuny

Reply

betty April 11, 2011 at 11:35 pm

aw tom, that’s great! thanks for letting me visit to chat about nut grafs last week. the discussion with your students helped me to write this post. and i would love to visit again!

p.s., i just posted some photos from the visit on my facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=209261152426713&set=a.209261085760053.55732.107734672579362&theater

daniel, we all struggle with nut grafs…we’re really in this together. and laura, love how you put it: “nut graf” is not sexy — unless you like to geek out on industry slang. :)

Reply

Alyson B. Stanfield April 26, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Betty: It’s so fun to visit your site.

So, let me make sure I understand. The nut graf is the whole paragraph: the what was, new, now. It contains those three things.

And you recommend them for opening blog posts?

Is it possible that a blog post could be more mysterious and build to the punchline? Or is that ineffective.

I have no examples or reasons for my questions. Just trying to understand.

Reply

betty April 26, 2011 at 11:35 pm

Yes, Alyson, I strongly feel that the typical blog post should start with the essential info right up there at the top. People are coming to us for specific info. They want it n-o-w!
Of course, there’s always room to do something special for a special post.

I think the key is to pretend you’re one of your readers. Some things need to be served up instantly. A more reflective topic might give you room to breathe or wander a bit.

But even then, I’ll bet you’d write something like: “I ran into an old friend yesterday and it got me thinking about how precious relationships are.” Right there, you’ve got it all. What was (you have an old friend), what’s new (you ran into each other), what’s now (you have renewed appreciation for relationships).

What you haven’t revealed yet is the actual tale. The narrative is what keeps readers going. Just let them know what the ride is about.

Reply

Alyson B. Stanfield April 26, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Okay. I will attempt to follow your lead.
I try to do this at the beginning of newsletters, but I will aim for more vigilance in the future.
Thanks, Betty!

Reply

betty April 27, 2011 at 12:01 am

sweet, alyson. and here’s another way to look at it….think of what it’s like when someone is doing a google search online. if one of our blog posts pops up, we have barely two seconds to grab a potential reader. so that first line to the post has to scream “READ ME!” it doesn’t have to be a nut graf. but it would help. :)

Reply

Alyson B. Stanfield April 27, 2011 at 12:03 am

I kind of do a nut graf in the blog post “description,” which is what always pops up in a Google search. Not every blogger uses this feature, but I’ve found it to be worth the effort.

Reply

betty April 27, 2011 at 12:06 am

hmmm, i don’t know what you mean by the blog post “description.” is it how you open a post? because maybe you’re already doing a nut graf — but you’re calling it a description. maybe you could give an example? now i’m curious….

Reply

Alyson B. Stanfield April 27, 2011 at 12:09 am

The blog post “description” is a meta description – meta data that readers don’t see, but search engines might use. It’s a field I fill out along with my post before I publish the content.

I’m not sure if all WordPress blogs have them or not. It’s probably just the Thesis theme I use. But if you don’t have such a field with your theme, you might see if there is a description plugin. It’s worth it.

Reply

betty April 27, 2011 at 12:48 am

i have a thesis theme too! i just checked and there’s something called an “excerpt.” if i don’t manually write this excerpt (which is what you’re doing), my theme will automatically take the first 55 words of my post and excerpt that for searches.

and yes, the “description/excerpt” definitely is somewhat nut graf-y because you’re summarizing what the whole post is about. but the two things are different…

the excerpt is a very efficient summary that needs to inform and entice the reader. but it probably doesn’t feel like the most interesting way to start a post or story.

by comparison, the nut graf lets you give the reader a sense of what lies ahead. but you’re doing it in a way that leads them on. you’re storytelling, not summarizing! i think this is what you mean by being “mysterious” and “building to the punchline.”

i have no idea if i’m making any sense. but thanks for the discussion. i’m gonna think more about the excerpt thing. there must be a way to explain this more clearly! and, i think i’m gonna start experimenting with it.

at the moment, the excerpt gizmo that i have will summarize posts on my blog’s main display page. but i have figure out how to get the summaries to go to google and do the search engine thing. thanks for the tip, alyson. this is great. :)

Reply

betty April 27, 2011 at 1:03 am

and alyson, p.s. — loved your post on how to start a facebook public page. in one of my classes, i attached the link to a classwork handout. your step-by-step screenshots on how to navigate the instructions is very helpful! and for everyone else who might be interested, here’s the link: http://www.artbizblog.com/2010/09/fb-startfanpage2.html

Reply

betty May 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm

my nyu buddy and colleague fran stern sent me an email. she said that i could re-post her tips here. thanks, fran!

Hi, Betty – I so appreciate your sharing your nut graf lesson that I wanted to return the favor. My formula for writing a lead for a disaster, accident, fire story. (You can tell most of my work has been in hard news!)

Ask: Anyone dead? Anyone injured? How much damage?

If anyone’s dead, that comes first.

If no one’s dead, how many are injured?

If no one’s dead and no one’s injured, how much damage was there? Describe it. No numbers in the lead. Exact figures come later.

e.g. A fire in a wood-frame Queens home has left two dead, three firefighters slightly injured and extensive damage…

Three are dead and dozens injured as a tornado ripped through Jonesville Thursday leaving at least 20 houses destroyed…

Three firefighters suffered smoke inhalation in a fire at a strip mall in Jamaica…

Dozens of homes in East Chelmsford were completely flooded Wednesday as the Chelmsford River overflowed…

Reply

E'Layne Koenigsberg October 25, 2011 at 8:26 pm

This is fantastic..thanks so much for taking the time to write it and impart your wisdom…the 3 great writing tips rock.

Reply

Darcy May 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm

This is brilliant. I’ll definitely apply this method on my next research paper. Thanks, Betty!

Reply

betty ming liu May 21, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Darcy, you can use the nut graf on everything — try it on your next email. Or maybe a love letter. Thanks for visiting! :)

Reply

betty ming liu May 21, 2012 at 7:41 pm

Sydney, thanks for dropping us a line. And yes, my baby is a smartie. She can also be a wise-ass — haha! You

Reply

betty ming liu May 21, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Darcy, the nut graf is good for anything. Now that you know about it, I’ll bet you’ll catch yourself naturally blurbing! Good luck and you’re welcome. :)

Reply

Amanda H. December 10, 2012 at 11:14 pm

This is really great – I love being able to get a refresher on things I learned in your class and have now scribbled those three questions into my reporting notebook. You know what else would be great? Tips on writing ledes! Ugh, they are so frustrating, especially for features.

Reply

betty ming liu December 12, 2012 at 8:04 am

Ledes are tough. I usually write through the whole story and come back later to tinker with the lede. It’s always hard to get the opener going. But I will think about ways to write a bost about this. In the meantime, use your nut graf to anchor the feature. Once you get what was, what’s new and what’s now at the top of the story, the lede is easier to create. In the end, you might use the nut graf as your lede. Or, inspiration from the nut graf might make a feature-y lede very obvious.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Current ye@r *

{ 5 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: