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.

3nuts1

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.

3nuts2

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.

cashews

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!   :)

 

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Comments 42

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    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.

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    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. :)

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    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….

  4. 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.

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    Author

    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. :)

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    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…

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  11. 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.

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      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.

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