An acorn on the ground

Editor’s note: We’re looking 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 this post, veteran writer and story coach Chip Scanlan weighs in. I counter with a perspective on the myriad ways to employ the elements of the summary nut. We close (for now) with a “nutcracker suite” from more than 20 top journalists.

When the multi-media package Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek appeared in The New York Times in December, 2012, it was heralded as one of the most innovative newspaper narratives in recent times. It won a slew of prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and a Peabody Award for digital storytelling, and was acclaimed as a “break point in online journalism.”

But for all its glory, “Snow Fall” is missing something, says John Branch, the Times sports writer who crafted the 17,000-word story that was paired with stunning video, animation and photos. “I’ve joked,” Branch told me recently, “that not only is ‘Snow Fall’ one of the longest single pieces to ever run in The New York Times, it’s probably the longest piece to run without a nut graf. It doesn’t have one.”

Whoa! Haven’t editors for decades been telling writers that every story, even—and, perhaps especially—a narrative, needs a nut graf? That’s been the prevailing wisdom since the 1970s when a new journalistic artifact began to appear in news features and trend pieces on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal, then soon spread to newsrooms nationwide.

“It’s a paragraph that says what this whole story is about and why you should read it.” That was how Ken Wells, an award-winning Page One Editor at the Journal, explained it when I interviewed him in 1994 for “Best Newspaper Writing,” the annual anthology of American Society of News Editors awards published for many years by the Poynter Institute.

Whatever it’s called, some version of the summary nut graf has become ubiquitous in American journalism. Despite that, it remains a source of some contention.

The nut graf—or, in a longer story, multiple paragraphs—usually appeared high in a piece, right after a brief anecdotal lead. It pulled out of the specifics of a story to a sweep of context and significance. That gave the Journal’s time-pressed business readers a choice, Wells said at the time: “You can decide to proceed or not. But if you go no farther, you know what that story is about.”

Like a piece of hardware, the nut graf is a fastener, designed to connect a story’s parts: Lede to Nut Graf to Story Body to Kicker. (“Graf” is journalistic shorthand for “paragraph,” just as “lede” is industry lexicon for the top of a story.) The nut graf goes by other names—kernel, theme, hammer, context, hypothesis, even hoo-hah. But my favorite descriptor is the one popular with staffers at The Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid-80s: “You may have wondered why we invited you to this party.”

Whatever it’s called, some version of the summary nut graf has become ubiquitous in American journalism. Despite that, it remains a source of some contention. ”The reader needs to know what the story is about up high,” editors argue. “Let the reader find out by reading it,” writers argue back. For the most part, the editor wins. If a writer doesn’t include a nut high in a story, chances are an editor will insert one.

Branch assumed that’s what would happen with “Snow Fall.” He didn’t set out to omit the nut graf in his six-chapter tale about death and survival on a backcountry ski run in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. “I tend to trust that the reader will follow along without a pause and rhetorical flashing lights. ‘This, Dear Reader, is why we are telling you this,’” he tells me. “So I just wrote. It was almost a silent dare: Can I get away with this?”

“The reader needs to know what the story is about up high,” editors argue. “Let the reader find out by reading it,” writers argue back.

As the story went up the editing chain, he worried that some editor would demand his story be interrupted with some version of a summary nut. But it never happened. He won the bet with himself, he believes, because “the story had an element of surprise to it, including who lives and who dies. A nut graf would have given a lot of that away.”

The experience led him to a counterintuitive conclusion: “It seems the longer the piece, the less we rely on a nut graf. We let the narrative explain the nut more organically, maybe more slowly and less obstructively.”

Shorter narratives can manage without one just fine, too. A recent case in point: ”As deadly flames approached, a mother called her daughters to say goodbye,” by Corina Knoll of the Los Angeles Times, published last November. Just 1,018 words long, it is a classic narrative, written on deadline, about a nurse trapped in Paradise, California, where monster wildfires swallowed up more than 18,000 buildings and left 86 dead.

“There is nothing traditional about how she tells the story,” Julia Shipley recounts in a Storyboard interview with Knoll: “No official sources. No direct quotes. No context beyond the moment she puts us in. Not even the hint of a nut graf.”

Is that a lack in the story, which was done under extreme stress? Maybe. But the Times saw fit to run it, as written, on Page One.

I have no problem with nut grafs. I have crafted hundreds in two decades as a newspaper reporter and freelance magazine writer, and taught them to hundreds of student and professional journalists. Done well, they can be a precision instrument guiding the reader quickly past the unfamiliarity of a lede, especially if that lede is an anecdote—something that has become another cliché of contemporary newswriting.

But if they do appear in a narrative, they should be precisely milled, elegant devices.

Look to the work of Lane DeGregory, the Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative writer for the Tampa Bay Times, who believes in the mission of summary nuts. “It’s a way,” she says, “to get readers invested in continuing to immerse themselves in the story—a foreshadowing of what they can expect, and, maybe most importantly, why it matters.”

But she prefers to think of nuts as something she learned from the great narrative editor Jan Winburn, who calls them “the promise of the piece.” An example can be found in Part One of “Lincoln’s Shot,” DeGregory’s recent eight-part series about a family with a history of children dying—sometimes within minutes of birth—as victims of a fatal, inherited disease.

For nearly 1,600 words, DeGregory draws the reader into this heartbreaking story up to the moment that a new baby, Lincoln, is born. Only then does she step back to identify the rare genetic culprit and news that researchers are treating and fixing the same condition in animals. With her readers now hooked, she grabs them fully with the promise line of her project: “Maybe Lincoln would be lucky.”

It comes much later than a traditional nut graf, and provides a stunning moment of suspense that pauses the forward narrative. From that intimate line of hope for the dying baby, DeGregory pulls out briefly to show the broader perspective, which is as close as she comes to a nut graf, and also serves as a road map for readers about where the story will lead:

He was born just as research, money and medicine were braiding to repair rare genetic disorders.

For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government was considering approving controversial treatments that would alter human DNA.

Could Lincoln live long enough for science to come up with a cure?

I worked at the Providence, Rhode Island, Journal in the 1980s, under the leadership of Joel Rawson. More than once we would meet reporters from prestigious papers like the Inquirer who’d say, “Providence? You’re the guys that don’t use nut grafs.” We’d puff out our chest in response: “That’s right.”

Rawson was a passionate believer in the power of story. At his retirement in 2008, he was lauded by many of his disciples. Among them, Dan Barry, who went from Providence to The New York Times, where he has become one of America’s finest storytellers. “He knew how to instill excitement in the craft of nonfiction writing,” Barry said.

A harsh nut graf, if it had sound, would mimic the ear-shattering “beep-beep-beep” of a truck in reverse.

Rawson taught us to look for moments, like the scene of avalanche that opens “Snow Fall,” where Branch has us barreling downhill with the skiers, with no idea what’s going to happen next. Don’t reveal the outcome until the end. Never interrupt the seductive voice of the storyteller with the jarring omniscience of a nut graf. Under the rules of Rawson, we didn’t write nut grafs; we wrote stories.

We toss out the word “story” every day. “Great story!” “Why wasn’t my story on the cover?” And the highest praise, “I wish I could write that story.” But as the legendary writing coach Jack Hart noted, most journalistic pieces are not stories, but articles, well reported and organized, accurate and fair. But no child ever looked up from their pillow at night, eyes wide with excitement, and beseeched, “Daddy, tell me an article!”

Stories have characters, not sources; settings, not addresses; dialogue, not quotes. Instead of nut grafs, they use transitions—a term from the musical world— subtle, elegant turns that mark the passage from one scene, subject, or place to another.

In “Snow Fall,” that transitional turn comes in “Tunnel Creek,” a 1,300 word section that follows the lede. Branch opens the story with 17 terrifying paragraphs that capture the moments after an avalanche “the size of more than a thousand cars barreling down the mountain” plows into 16 skiers and snowboarders.

Then he pauses the action, holding the story—and the reader—in suspense. But instead of a nut graf, he backs up, opening the aperture to give a wide shot of the location—“an unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” where avalanches are a common occurrence. He then launches into mini-lessons in history, geology, and the thrills of high-risk skiing before coming to rest again with a brief description of a plan underway for a  “big posse” of high profile skiers and snowboarders to head down Tunnel Creek the following day. After that, the story follows strict chronology as Branch unspools the tragedy in excruciating slow motion.

Transitions are a vital element of the fiction writer’s toolkit that narrative writers borrow from, along with exposition, action, suspense, climax and, most important, the relentless accretion of physical detail. In “Snow Fall,” Branch relied on foreshadowing to heighten suspense. All these elements combine to create an indispensable feature of compelling stories, what the novelist John Gardner called a “vivid” and “continuous” dream in the reader’s mind. Break that trance and the story fails.

A harsh nut graf, if it had sound, would mimic the ear-shattering “beep-beep-beep” of a truck in reverse. The dream would be broken, the trance interrupted. And it signals something even worse, according to Branch: “That you don’t trust the reader, or trust that your information or storytelling abilities are strong enough to compel the reader to continue.”

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