I didn’t have to think long when asked recently for the number one problem I see in students’ writing. It’s the nut graf, that simple but hard-to-execute idea of telling readers why they should care about your story and, importantly, why they should take the time to read it to the end.
The nut graf near the beginning of a story signals what’s truly important and why, explains and puts into context the lede, helps organize the story for both the reader and the writer. It’s a roadmap that suggests where the story is headed
You should start thinking about the nut graf as soon as you get an assignment. Who cares? Why is this important? What are the bigger issues this story reflects? Most of your reporting – notes, research, quotes, details, scene – should be aimed at answering those questions. When you’re coming back to the newsroom, jot down in your notebook a brief summary of what matters in your story. After all, if you can’t answer that, you’re going to have a lot of trouble writing a coherent story from top to bottom.
Here’s a little secret. Even if your editors (professors) disagree with your judgment about what’s truly important, you’ll still write a stronger, more cohesive story than if you can’t decide. Here’s another little secret. You’ve probably been warned about not drawing conclusions but if you’ve done the reporting, you’ve got the authority to summarize what really matters in your story.
Lisa Riordan Seville explained in the Brooklyn magazine, Overflow, what all the fuss has been about in a debate over whether to clean up the Gowanus Canal under the federal Superfund program:
The yearlong argument over whether to include the canal in the federal program to clean up toxic spaces was not about if the notoriously noxious South Brooklyn canal should be cleaned. Nearly everyone agrees, at least in principle, it should. Wrapped up and bowed in terms of agencies and jurisdictions, the Superfund fight was about the future of a neighborhood.
While I stumbled over the “wrapped up and bowed” phrase, the strong takeaway line is that the “Superfund fight was about the future of a neighborhood.” In the second graf of a 38-graf story, Lisa hooked me into reading what turned out to be an excellent explainer on the issue and why it’s so important to the future of one of Brooklyn’s landmark neighborhoods.
For one of the best discussions of the nut graf, its history and uses, here’s a piece by former Poynter professor Chip Scanlan. Editors and reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Scanlan notes, described the nut graf as the section of the story that answered this question: “You may have wondered why we invited you to this party?”
Indeed, the nut graf is the way you invite your readers to enjoy your story all the way to the end.
Another focus here at Write Stuff is story-telling detail. In a story about how a man used the subway to move his stuff to a new apartment in NYC, Eugenia Miranda caught our attention:
Min and two of his friends from his language school transported an air conditioner, collapsible double-rod closet, dishes (including serving platters and utensils), laptop, linen, quilts, books, clothes, picture frames, a soup cauldron, Korean medicine, condiments and a 40-pound bag of rice. There was one casualty in the move; his air conditioner broke midway to his new place.
We’re glad the rice bag held up, but it made us smile to see a reporter who took the trouble to write down every single item that was taken on the subway. By the way, at what stop did the air conditioner break down?
Finally, drawing on his two-year experience at a tough Chicago Southside school with Teach for America, Patrick Wall wrote this authoritative explainer:
Data, which is not just a term but an ideology in the education world, has been known to make many an old-school educator’s skin crawl. Nonetheless, data-driven instruction — wherein educators routinely assess students’ progress according to state and national standards, then use that information to target student deficiencies in their lessons — has been widely accepted as the model of effective modern teaching. Karen Duncan, a second-grade teacher at the school, cut through the educational jargon to explain the real-world value of student data: “I see what my kids are struggling with,” she said, “and those are the areas that I’ll use to help that child.”
Note the way Patrick really punched home the idea with a strong, storytelling quote.
Just a reminder that we’re here to help. We’re in Rm. 413 and often in the newsroom:
Heath Meriwether, 12-6 Tues; 12-6 Wed; 12-3 Thurs.
Tim Harper, 12-2, 5-6 Tues; 12-3 Wed; 1-5 Thurs.