Rocks with a question mark

EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week and this, we’re offering support to editors and educators for how to guide writers through an effective nut graf — however you spell it and whatever you call it. Go to the homepage for recent articles or search “nut graf” for more.

I am not a big fan of the nut graf. We divorced a long time ago when I said goodbye to feature reporting and began writing true narratives. Still, I found my editors (but not Jan Winburn) asking: “Where is the nut graf?”

I like to show my students Eli Saslow’s stories. I especially like the one he wrote about a young woman in Roseburg, Oregon, who struggled to go on with her life after being severely wounded (“A survivor’s life”) in a mass shooting at a community college. The fifth graf of the story reads this way:

It had been 20 days since the last time Bonnie left Cheyeanne by herself – 20 days since she was shot along with 15 others in a classroom at Umpqua Community College. Nine people were killed that day, adding to the hundreds of Americans who have died in mass shootings in recent years. And seven people were wounded but didn’t die, joining the ever-expanding ranks of mass-shooting survivors. There are thousands of them. Fifty-eight gunshot survivors at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Three at the Washington Navy Yard. One at a church in Charleston, S.C. Nine in Colorado Springs. Twenty-one in San Bernardino, Calif. And seven more in Roseburg, Ore., where Cheyeanne had been sent home from the hospital to a flea-infested rental with reinforced locks and curtains darkening the living room.

And that’s it. The story moves forward from there with scenes with Cheyeanne and Bonnie. To me this is the perfect nut graf. It’s all the reader needs to know.

Reporter and journalism Moni Basu

Moni Basu

After reading this story, I changed the way I approach the “nut graf lesson” with my students. Here is what I ask them to consider when they are writing theirs:

  • Why is your story relevant?
  • What do readers absolutely HAVE to know to get your story? Consider the most important background material.
  • What is the context in which you are telling the story?
  • Where should this information come in your story?
  • What is the essential theme of your story and how can you convey it here?

If they struggle or fail to write an adequate nut graf, whatever that might be, I ask them to do two things:

  • Print out your story and highlight the three sentences that you think are crucial.
  • Then write, in eight words, what your story is about.

I find that generally, this exercise brings clarity. Either they are able to write a nut graf or its equivalent with ease after this, or they realize they are lacking in their reporting.

~ MONI BASU Former reporter for newspapers and CNN Digital, now teaching at the University of Florida

Oy, this is a hard one. Not sure I ever did it very well.

Retired magazine editor Dale Keiger

Dale Keiger

I agree about the importance of at least having a nut graf in the head. I liked talking through a story with students (and the occasional really lost writer). Something about that often clarified matters. Lost count of how often I’d work with a student or intern on a thorny bit, said to them “not sure what this means/what you’re going for here,” and the student would reply with something good and I’d jump on it: “That! Right there! Write that down! That’s how you should have said it in the story.”

At Hopkins Magazine, I had to read too many impenetrable books of literary theory or culture criticism or academic history. Several times, interviewing the author, I’d say some variant of “Is this what you’re saying here?” And the prof would say, “Exactly! That’s a great way to say it!” And I’d say, to myself, Then why didn’t you say it that way?

I also found it useful, even with more experienced writers, to ask, “Okay, what’s the story here?” Frequently, I’d get the writer’s answer, then say, “No, that’s the topic. What’s the story? What story do you want to tell?” The last was the most important question because if I could get them to write whatever most wound them up, I’d get much better results. Not every time — some writers just can’t do a story unless I’d paint arrows and lane lines on the floor — but it often worked well.

~ DALE KEIGER Retired editor of Hopkins Magazine and instructor at Johns Hopkins University

I tell young reporters to think of this as the WHOGAS section, as in “Who Gives a Shit.” As a bonus, you might think of it as the WHYGAS section, as in “Why (should I) Give a Shit.”

David Umhoefer, Pulitzer winning reporter and journalism program director at Marquette University

David Umhoefer

It’s also a good place, in my opinion, to own up to what the story is and is not, to what you’ve been able to prove or show, and what you have not, to what’s new vs. not so new. This is great for building reader cred, for enticing both readers new to the topic and experts into staying a little longer, and for managing reader expectations after you’ve hooked them with your brilliant lede.

On a more practical level, especially on longer-term reporting projects, reporters should have a special place, electronic or not, where they can record the flashes of insight you get while reporting. These flashes can help form your nut section. These are the connections you start to see between events, the understanding that you’ve got something truly original, the realization that you’ve gotten to the core of a person or an issue. Often they are fleeting and drowned out by the flood tide of reporting; when you get them you must record them immediately.

A great tool for developing both nut sections and bulleted “findings” sections is the timeline of events. Just the act of compiling it enables many flashes of insight.

~ DAVID UMHOEFER Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who now is director of the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University

Further Reading