Editor’s note: This week we tackle the never-ending debate over what is called, in journalese, the “nut graf” — that so-what paragraph or section that pulls out of the news or narrative to provide context and significance. In an earlier post, veteran writer and story coach Chip Scanlan weighed in with a strong caution about the dangers of the nut. Below is my view, that the nut should be thought of as an array of elements to use as you need. Then we offer a “nutcracker suite” of perspectives on the subject from more than 20 top journalists.
Journalists are obsessed with naming things. Proper names, spelled correctly (we hope). Precise names for programs and groups and laws and procedures and titles — but on second reference we switch to a one-or-two word stand-in that identifies the function rather than repeat the bureaucratic jargon. We even strive to name the objects we use to illustrate our stories: The make of the car, the brand of shoes, the type of wood, the color of nail polish and, yes, the name of the dog.
Specific names ground our stories in careful reporting. They pull individual pieces out of the generic muck and help them stand out as singular moments in the running narrative that is the news. In actual narratives, they create a cinematic quality: It’s one thing to mention someone’s dog; it’s another to write about a 23-pound Miniature Pinscher Terrier Whatever, with stand-up ears and an anxiety disorder, named Spike. (Real dog, by the way. I babysat him once, at his home in Maui.) If the object or item is relevant to the story, or helps readers be inside a story, then names matter.
So why have we been so inept about naming, and defining, one of journalism’s most basic tools: the nut graf?
In a post earlier this week, veteran narrative writer and teacher Chip Scanlan tackled the never-ending debate over the nut graf, and why it is an anathema to many narrative storytellers. He quotes no less than Pulitzer winners John Branch and Dan Barry of the New York Times and Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times to make his case. He even invokes the late, great novelist John Gardner, who is considered something of a philosopher-savant on writing. In a tweet flagging the Storyboard post, Scanlan said this about nut grafs in narrative: “I think they’re toxic.”
I get his point, which is shared by many friends who are among the finest nonfiction writers I know. I also trust those friendships enough to disagree.
I think the nut graf suffers a bad rap for three reasons:
- It is poorly named. The term has its roots in American newspapers, specifically the Wall Street Journal in the 1970s. As such, it is American journalistic jargon, often unfamiliar to international journalists, magazine freelancers, nonfiction storytellers from film or photography or podcasting, or those without a j-degree from a certain era or place. (For more on this, see the chapter on “Transitions” in the wonderful book “Follow the Story,” by Pulitzer winner and long-time Journal editor James B. Stewart.) For anyone who doesn’t know the history or the shorthand, the term leans towards the literal: it implies a single paragraph that has to do a lot of heavy lifting and leaves little room for graceful writing. Even the code spelling of “graf” is a speedbump to understanding.
- It is poorly applied. It often gets wedged into a story as that single graf, a clunky chunk that destroys flow or ease of read. A colleague of mine once said the “nut” of a story should not be forced down the readers’ throat as an “indigestible goat-choker,” but drawn out as a “nutritional IV drip.”
- It is hard — damn hard — to write in ways that serve both the story and the reader. Reporters in the weeds of a story can’t easily pull out to see the bigger picture; to them the importance of their information is obvious. Editors who try to insert a nut need to truly understand the essence of a story, and be able to channel the writer’s voice. Short of that, they risk shoe-horning a polka oom-pah into a delicate waltz.
I’m aware of all that can go wrong with the much-maligned nut. Yet I remain a reverent fan. In his post, Chip Scanlan talks about being schooled by Joel Rawson in the glory days of the Providence, Rhode Island, Journal. The mission was to not to report articles, but to tell stories. And stories were insulted by lumpy slather of a nut graf.
My own history involves being thrown into the deep end of the journalistic pool in college, when I interned for the Wall Street Journal’s Boston bureau. After college, my early career years were at small newspapers where filing fast and getting things right mattered far more than any writerly elegance; I was well over my head and taking on water. I was so broke that I babysat, mowed lawns, and dated in exchange for the occasional restaurant meal. But I kept up my subscription to the Journal, and spent many desperate evenings diagramming front-page stories. My fat black marker would draw boxes that revealed the various parts of the story. Over time, I internalized the linkage between the lede and the nut section (also called the “transition” at the Journal) and how, together, the two set up the rest of the story.
Over time, I internalized the linkage between the lede and the nut section … and how, together, the two set up the rest of the story.
It wasn’t a one-and-done, of course. I struggled at the keyboard every time I wrote. And usually the struggle came at the exact point I needed to get from my precious lede — too often the wrong one — to the bulk of a piece. But time, attention and some gifted editors kept shining the light on the twins of journalistic magic: practicality and possibility. For me, both were birthed in what we call the nut graf.
In his piece, Scanlan lists a range of names that have been slapped on the nut graf. (One I had never heard, but laughed at in recognition: “hoo-hah.”) A star-studded cast of writers and editors have offered their own short wisdoms on the subject; that’s coming tomorrow. For now, rather than circle once more around this circular debate, I offer a few thoughts about how we can use the nut to help ourselves and our stories.
Know what it is. I think of the nut an authoritative summary that encompasses three primary things:
- A tether to the news or issue your story is attached to. (Note that I said “tether” — a light thread — rather than dead-weight anchor.)
- A tiny bit of context that sets your story in a bigger world: perhaps politics, economics, history, culture.
- A sense of the significance or import of your story.
In complex stories, you might need a second summary nut that outlines, in brief, the range of debate coming in the piece, or the sub-issues that will be dealt with in the body of the story.
Think of it not as a single graf or hard nut, but as elements of context, understanding and meaning. This lets you zero in on the necessary tidbits that make up the whole. If you don’t know what they are, you might not know the center of your story.
Include those tidbits in a way that is best for the story you’re writing. Sometimes it helps to force-feed the reader — to step back and, high in an investigative or enterprise or explanatory piece, turn to them, take their hand and dare to say: “This is what happened, and this is why it matters.” But in many profiles, features, narratives, character sketches, scene pieces and essays, those tidbits can be laced in gently along the way, in the finest of threads.
Match the tone of the nut elements with the tone of your story. Sometimes the nut interrupts the flow of a narrative not because of where it’s placed, but because the music of the language has suddenly changed. (This is why, as hard as it can be, it is usually better for the writer to come to terms with the nut elements, rather than letting an editor do it.)
Use the nut to focus your story. Focusing a story — zeroing in on what your story is about at core — is the gnarliest challenge facing most writers. In most cases, it eclipses the struggle with structure. Indeed, if you can figure out the center or essence of your story, the structure becomes apparent. But if you can’t write a working nut, you probably haven’t figured out what you’re really trying to say.
Use the nut to pitch your story. Many writers try to sell their stories with a long recount of the work they’ve done, the people they’ve talked to, the dead ends they encountered. Pfft! The editor needs to know three things first: What is your story about? How is it tethered to the news or societal conversation? Why does it matter to your audience here and now?
Respect the reader. In Scanlan’s post, John Branch made a pointed comment in defiance of the nut: “I tend to trust that the reader will follow along without a pause and rhetorical flashing lights.” He was referring to his iconic narrative “Snow Fall,” which he says has no nut graf. I agree we must trust the reader. We must also trust that they have other demands on their time and attention. If we’re going to ask them to invest in a complex story or long narrative, we need to let them know that their investment will be worth the effort. That doesn’t mean giving the story away; it means signaling that they are in good hands (you, the writer, know where you are going), that they won’t be jerked around along the way (misled), and that the journey will offer something more significant than a few minutes of entertainment. In other words, they will learn something that helps them better understand a complex world.
I agree we must trust the reader. We must also trust that they have other demands on their time and attention.
Let go of the literal; the “nut” is a shapeshifter. Branch says “Snow Fall” has no nut. But check out the second section, called “Tunnel Creek.” It pulls out of the opening moments of the deadly avalanche and puts that single event in the context of location, geology and extreme sports. When the readers are dropped back into the cascading snow, they are doing so with insights they lacked before. They are introduced not just to action, but to meaning. Some narratives have only a phrase or two of foreshadow to provide the nut. Some come to it later in a piece in a way that suddenly frames an individual story as part of a more universal question. In some cases, it comes not in the story but in the dek hed (secondary headline). In songs it is usually in the refrain; “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles leads with a nut: “Ah, look at all the lonely people.” In novels, a version can be found on the inside flap of the book jacket. In movies, it is the moment when our hero is launched on his journey by an inciting incident; we know what the complication is, and why he must resolve it. Done well, with both trust in and respect for the reader, those things don’t ruin a narrative — they enhance it.
When in doubt, lean on Shakespeare. Or maybe Ken Burns. I have every sympathy for storytellers who don’t want their stories gummed up by a clumsy nut or a giveaway headline. But sometimes writers fight over the wrong things. They mistake the real dramatic lure of their stories. They get stuck on the journalism of what happened, rather than building their narrative around how something happened, or why, or where it led. When The New York Times produced “Snow Fall,” it was already known that three elite skiers had been killed in a monster backcountry avalanche; the genius of the project was taking the reader along on the ride of how and why. Everyone knows how the Civil War turned out, but Burns’ documentary on the subject is watched again and again because it takes us inside moments, characters and emotions that bring history alive — and make us wonder if it could have been different. As for Shakespeare, consider the 14-line prologue of “Romeo and Juliet,” which, in my mind, is the mother of all nut grafs. I know everything about what happened before the play opens: two young people from warring families have the bad luck to fall in love; in despair and an attempt to be together, the young lovers screw up and kill themselves (by line six!); and only then do the opposing clans figure out what matters more than their stubborn feud.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
So why would I sink into “Romeo and Juliet” multiple times, in print, on stage, on screen? Because it is the larger messages of the story — grudge, love, grief, forgiveness — that carry me along, and that have given birth to countless stories since.