If, threatened with waterboarding, I were forced to choose the biggest writing problem I see, it would be the nut graf. It’s talked about a lot in Craft classes but I still find myself questioning students about why their stories don’t explain to readers why they should care.
What makes a good nut graf? I use the words sweep, context and road map. I want to know how the story will help explain the importance of an event, incident, or personality (the “sweep”). I want to know how the story fits into the history and culture of our times (the “context”). Finally, in a rich nut graf, I want to discover the themes, the landscape of the story, the “road map” that tells me where the story is going and whether I want to take that journey.
Said even more simply, a good nut graf tells readers what’s in it for them, what they’ll learn, and why they ought to take the time to read your story.
Read almost any consequential story in the Times, WSJ, or Daily News, and you’ll see good nut grafs. The same goes for broadcast scripts. In profiles of people, such as the live-ins that Craft I students are now working on, Prof. Svoboda calls the nut graf the “Joe is not alone” graf. What is it about ‘Joe’ that reflects a larger theme, a recurring pattern, an emerging trend? That’s a useful way of thinking about it.
The nut graf – btw, it’s not always just one graf, but one cohesive idea — is so important that I often recommend that reporters write it first, or at least make notes for the themes and details to include. That can start as you take notes, and can continue as you come back to the newsroom to file your stories. It’s important to think about what you’re about to write. Put yourself in the minds of the reader and ask why they should care. Force yourself to take the helicopter view, to see the story in all its dimensions, and then provide that perspective to the reader.
The nut graf also benefits the writer. By organizing the thinking about what makes the story important, the nut graf will give the writer a structure and organization that will allow the story to flow naturally from one theme to another. It also will allow the writer to more easily choose the best story-telling quotes and details to advance the arc of the story.
Rima Abdelkader’s recent story on how foreign media handle American colloquialisms – a story that helped push page views at NY City News Service to record levels – did a nice job of explaining why a reader should care:
Joe Sixpack. Hockey Mom. Maverick.
Even for those passionately following the presidential election, the definition of these campaign buzzwords can change with the voter, pundit or reporter who interprets them.
Imagine, then, how foreign language journalists must struggle to put the terms into context for their audiences when such words often have no direct translation.
That problem faced Al Jazeera reporter Abderrahim Foukara when he wrestled with how to describe “maverick.” The world’s most watched Arab network finally decided to define the American colloquialism as “a bird that sings outside the flock.”
For Al Jazeera, and foreign-language media throughout the world, the issue of how to translate the language of American politics is more than just a matter of journalistic accuracy. Their decisions reflect their own diverse histories and cultures, as well as their ethical guidelines about bias in translation.
The last three paragraphs provide a cohesive summary of why the reader should care: the sense of the story, a specific and interesting example and the sweep and context of the issue. It caught the attention of readers as diverse as the editors of the Huffington Post to an individual American blogger in Guatemala.
Last point: Whenever you read stories in print, scripts, online or blogs, find the “nut graf” and ask yourself whether it succeeded, and why. Take away those lessons and apply them to your own stories.
Use storytelling quotes, not quotes that simply convey information better paraphrased by the writer. Craft professors, appropriately, urge students to make sure to put quotes high in their stories. But student reporters often overcompensate with too many boring or rambling quotes rather than a few sterling, storytelling ones.
My advice is to establish a very high standard for any quote. It must help you tell the story, reveal a personality or express outrage or joy. With many quotes, you can capture the essence and write it far stronger yourself.
Karina Ioffee used strong storytelling quotes in her story about Colombian parents who attended the sentencing of the man who had killed their son seven years ago:
Residents of Bogota, Colombia, Leonor and Armando Garzon got on the first flight to New York after hearing about the attack. Both parents sat with their son — one of three children — as he lay in a coma for weeks.
“I caressed him and talked into his ear, in case he might hear me,” Leonor Garzon said. “But he never woke up.”
“Our lives the past seven years have consisted of knocking on doors seeking help to bring to light this merciless and cruel crime that you committed,” Leonor Garzon said at the sentencing, speaking directly to McGhee. “You’ve deprived us of living a full life in our old age and of family unity….we can never be together again.”
Everyone contributed mightily to our lights-out election coverage, which makes it hard to single out any one person. But Jere Hester deserves a loud shout out for the planning and leadership he provided for the entire effort.
I’m always looking for a felicitous phrase that shows writing chops. Here’s how Carla Murphy summarized what happens at a storefront church headed by the Rev. Terry Lee:
All rely on Lee’s storefront church, in which the Holy Spirit is invited to enter, wipe its feet, disrobe, chat, eat, drink, dance, jump and relax, for up to six hours at a time.
That satisfied my craving for active verbs, and whetted my appetite for more.