The request came from Jacqui Banaszynski, editor of Nieman Storyboard. She and I are old newsroom cellmates. Yet she dared ask me, an ancient narrative editor, about nut grafs? Didn’t she fear I would come out of the gate snarling, hissing, and pawing the newsprint, spitting on the very words “nut graf” as an abomination of the worst Wall Street Journal variety? Something designed to undermine the sweet, seductive quality of a storyteller’s art with a crude interruption of the narrative line just as it’s aborning?
Well … I’m actually a semi-secret booster of the much-maligned nut, or at least its functional equivalent. After all, the nut graf, that concoction perfected by the Journal to follow an anecdotal lede and precede the body of a story, performs two essential pieces of work: First, it connects a piece of writing to the larger context. Second, it finds the core of meaning that unifies the overall story.
It’s that second function that warms my storyteller’s heart. After all, what piece of writing doesn’t need an axis on which to spin? Some editors call that a story’s theme or focus or premise. Call it what you will, but it’s the most important element in any piece of nonfiction (or fiction, for that matter).
And, if you can believe the editors I’ve quizzed in workshops over the years, one of the rarest. Dozens of them have complained about the disorganized, wandering copy they routinely confront — content that seemed to lack any center at all. Their complaints echo a running gag among writing coaches: The three most common writing problems are focus, focus, and focus.
The central story question: What does it mean?
Those complaining editors have only themselves to blame, of course, inasmuch as their principal job early in the story process is to guide a conversation with a writer to find the meaning in a story, be it a simple report, a news feature or a full-fledged nonfiction narrative. Those early conversations are key to guiding the reporting that follows, which avoids the wasted time that invariably follows an unfocused story beginning, and an unfocused writing process.
But regardless of how helpful the editor is at finding a story’s center, ultimately a writer has to face a keyboard with a clear idea of focus or risk losing everything in a mish-mash of words that add up to not much of anything. Which gets us back to Jacqui B’s original question. As it turns out, the answer to whether I have a method for guiding acolytes to understanding nut grafs is “yes,” although the phrase “nut graf” appears only in a short section in “WordCraft” and not at all in “StoryCraft,” my two tomes on the art of writing.
What does appear, in abundance in both books, are the word “theme” and the phrase, “theme statement.” I see both as keys to finding your way through the writing process efficiently, with a minimum of pain and a maximum of productivity. Here’s how it works:
Shortly after a story idea or article topic begins to take shape in a writer’s mind, he or she needs to begin asking the question that will recur throughout the entire process of developing the idea, gathering the information, drafting the rough, and polishing the finished work. What, writers much ask themselves again and again, does all this mean?
What, writers must ask themselves again and again, does this all mean?
The answer to that key question lies somewhere up the ladder of abstraction in the form of a theme statement. And that statement, as Bill Blundell once said, is the most important thing you’ll produce for any piece of writing – even though it may never appear in print.
Blundell, a national award-winning writer for the Wall Street Journal, knew a thing or two about nut grafs. But when he became the Journal’s writing coach, the technique he sold in his invaluable guide to nonfiction, “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing,” was the theme statement. It distilled the story to its essence, he said, by boiling it to the subject-verb-object form of the simplest right-branching sentences.
Blundell wasn’t entirely original when he came up with his pitch for theme statements. In “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” his influential 1942 guide to playwriting, Lajos Egri argued for the importance of a play’s premise, a three-part statement that went to the core of the play’s meaning. It was, in effect, a theme statement and took the classic subject-verb-object form.
Story theme in three words
The best theme statements are short, and honor the often-repeated advice from award-winning AP feature writer Tad Bartimus to “tell your story in six words.” I find that three words often will do, as Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Hallman Jr. and I demonstrated.
Whenever I coach a story, the early discussion always focuses on finding a theme statement. So when Hallman brought me an idea for a story about Gary Wall, a man fighting his way back from a crippling traffic accident, the question “What does it mean?” popped up early and often. Wall, who’d suffered a devastating brain injury, had lost his old identity, and was struggling to build a new one. Bit by bit, he built a life with a new job and new friends. Tom and I settled on a theme statement that reflected a concept I’d encountered in grad school, the notion that we develop a “looking-glass self” – an identity that reflects what we see ourselves doing. Tom’s theme statement became “Action Creates Identity.”
Voila! Those three words guided Tom’s choice of material through a 5,000-word piece of narrative nonfiction. What was important in the huge number of observations that Tom made during months’ of reporting were the choices Wall as he built a new life for himself: Deciding to go on a job interview by himself, to attend a church social, to bounce back after a love interest didn’t work out. The theme statement helped Tom choose which of the dozens of yellow Post-it Notes Gary Wall had plastered all over his apartment to include in his story. One of those — the one Gary had left hanging on his door as he left for a dance — provided the perfect kicker: “Believe. Don’t doubt.”
Pulitzer Prize winner Tom French suggests that writing a working title is one way to come up with a theme. As someone who once edited a newspaper’s Sunday magazine and who had to write thousands of article titles, I can vouch for the fact that thinking about titles is one way to cut to the heart of a piece of writing. But the nice thing about theme statements is that they don’t have to be clever or polished the way titles do.
Putting the theme statement to work
Theme statements can guide any piece of writing. You want a school board story to hang together in a meaningful way as well as a lengthy piece of narrative. They’re so universally useful that they’ve become an essential part of my writing process. You may want to consider the way I use them when you sit down at a keyboard:
The first word that goes on my screen is “Theme.” “Next comes the noun that serves as the subject of the theme statement. That’s followed by a verb – preferably transitive because that shows causality, which makes a statement about the nature of reality. And finally an object, which shows how something makes an impact on the world.
Only after a full theme statement exists on my screen do I proceed with any additional writing. Maybe I write a lede, maybe not. Ledes are intimidating, and I can skip it for the time being if I want. Or I can begin with a nut graf or some other element in the structure of the story. The lede will come to me sooner or later.
The theme statement guides the entire process.
The theme statement guides the entire process. It suggests the overall structure for the story. It tells me what to leave in and what to leave out. It tells me what goes where, and what deserves special emphasis. It eases my mind by reassuring me that I’m on track.
And because a theme statement is in rough form and not meant for public display, you can change it any time circumstances change or your reporting turns up something unexpected.
When I finish with the entire draft, I return to the theme statement at the top, highlight it and – the one at the top of this piece reads “Themes Simplify Writing” – hit “delete,” and Poof! – the magic trick is complete.
Jack Hart served as managing editor, training editor, and writing coach at The Oregonian, where edited four Pulitzer Prize finalists, and portions of the work recognized with the 2001 Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service and the 2006 breaking-news Pulitzer. He is the author of two books on writing and has trained narrative journalists around the world.