What is a nut graf?

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 42 Comments

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.

squirrelUntil 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:

Other names for the nut graf

  • 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.” Replay in your mind your most recent get-together with friends. Examine the dialogue. Chances are, you each share the latest personal news. I’ll bet nearly everyone offers a quick, summarized update, followed by backtracking to fill in juicy details. Of course, there’s always one in the group who just goes on and on. If you think about how this person talks, he or she probably takes forever to get to the point — and could use the help of a nut graf.

5 nuts

Easy trick for using the nut graf

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. This is a very simple formula. The equation looks like this:

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

nut graf rules

To get the hang of the nut graf, let’s go through a few examples. By the way, a nut graf does NOT need to be the very first paragraph of a story or anything you write. It can even be more than one graf. In long stories, a nut graf might meander over several grafs. In all situations, though, the nut graf needs to be high up in your writing, near the beginning.

But the five examples below all come from articles that start with a nut graf. Wait until you see how efficient nut grafs can be.  

Ways to use the nut graf

Example #1: The nut graf chat

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.


Example #2: The nut graf love note 

You just received a sweet scribbled note from an admirer. This is what it says: “Before we met, my life was dreary. Now, every day is exciting because of you.”

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” moments. They show that we naturally tend to nut graf. Without even thinking about it, we instinctively reach for 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.


But there’s more! Professional writers swear by the nut graf. Since I insist that my students read the New York Times, let’s check out three examples from this very fine daily newspaper.

Example #3: The nut graf in a 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.

This is the opening line from “So Tell Me Everything I Know About You,” by Joanna Pearson. It ran in The Times as a “Modern Love” column. With a great nut graf like this, readers are sucked right in. We want to know more.

  • What was: She met a guy 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.

Example #4: The nut graf in a news-y story

Workers made incremental progress at the stricken Fukashima 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.

This is the opener to a detail-filled story: “Radioactive Iodine Detected in Ocean, Despite Gains at Japanese Plant.” It’s dense, the way some news stories can be. But look at what a big job this nut graf does. If you stopped reading right here, you’re still updated on exactly what’s going on with this issue.

  • 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.

Example #5: The nut graf in a 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.”

This summary opened a piece entitled: “In a Tiny Universe, Room to Heal.” It’s about an artist who worked in miniatures. In this one nut graf, we get a summary of his entire life. All the trauma that made him who he is, is right there. From here, the story unspools the details. But thanks to the nut graf, we now have an overview of what we’re in for.  

  • 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.

5 nuts

Well, that’s the nut graf tour. Please feel free to bookmark this page. Many professors, teachers, writers and instructors already have! After inventing this nut graf formula, I put it right up on this blog. Now, it’s yours to share.  

By the way, every single post on this blog opens with a nut graf. Click around and you’ll see just how useful nut grafs can be. I hope you’ll keep reading….and subscribe to my blog!   :)


Comments 42

  1. Post

    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. :)

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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)!!


  6. Post

    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. :)

  7. Post

    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.

  8. Post

    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. :)

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. Post

    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. :)

  13. 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.

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