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What is a nut graf, anyway?
They're both simpler and more complicated than they seem
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Hello friends, happy November! I hope you’re all having a productive beginning to end-of-year wrap-up stuff for your freelancing business. (Start tracking those expenses now if you haven’t already and get most of it out of the way!)
Today I want to get back to one of the basic, yet most essential, parts of putting together a story: the nut graf. (If you’re not familiar, graf is just short for paragraph.) This question comes up in nearly every writing and structure workshop I run, so I figured this would be a good place to tackle it.
A quick note: As I always say, almost all journalism and writing advice you’ll ever get focuses on guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, so this description absolutely won’t cover every story you write, but generally speaking, it should cover most.
In essence, your nut graf is the graf — or grafs — that encapsulates everything about your story and gives it crucial context, scope, and scale. It has the “kernel” of your story, hence the name “nut” graf. Think back to the journalistic tradition of answering the five W’s in your story: who, what, where, when, and why. (Or, if you’ve joined me on a pitching workshop, here is where you can answer the “What are we talking about and who cares?” of it all.) So long as you’re able to give concrete answers to most of those questions, you’re good.
Often you’ll end up addressing those answers in two grafs instead of one, so from here on out think of the “nut graf” as a concept and framework, rather than one specific graf in your story. And, in some cases, you’ll go ever wider with your nut graf(s) and lay out the themes, issues, and ideas you’re going to cover, particularly when you’re going long on a story — the exact placement of that graf will vary, too. (You could even consider these two very grafs a nut graf!)
One of my favorite explainers about nut grafs is this 2003 article from Poynter, headlined: “The nut graf tells the reader what the writer is up to.” To quote,
The nut graf has several purposes:
• It justifies the story by telling readers why they should care.
• It provides a transition from the lead and explains the lead and its connection to the rest of the story.
• It often tells readers why the story is timely.
• It often includes supporting material that helps readers see why the story is important.
So what does that look like in practice? Here are a few examples of great nut grafs from some recently published stories (I’m omitting the intros to these stories and including only the nut grafs):
The New Headache for Bosses: Employees Aren’t Quitting: Turnover has declined so steeply at some large employers that companies now find themselves over budget on certain teams, requiring leaders to weigh whether to postpone projects or to cut additional staff as the end of year approaches. Other bosses worry about how to keep star employees engaged when there are far fewer vacant positions internally, making it harder to move people into new roles.
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There’s a Reason Why You Overshare on Dates: Oversharing — exclusively talking about personal matters and neglecting to volley the conversation back and forth — with someone you meet for the first time can be awkward and even damaging, said Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk.” It can also lead to remorse and compounded stress as you stare at the ceiling at 4 a.m., kicking yourself for torpedoing your date.
“You can put yourself in a number of compromising situations when you share just too much information,” said etiquette expert Elaine Swann. Spilling sensitive details about your finances, bad-mouthing family members, bashing colleagues — these things can affect your date’s perception of you permanently.
‘Aging is a disease’: Inside the drive to postpone death indefinitely: We live in the gold-and-gene rush of Longevity Inc., an industry marketing the decathlon of wellness that Bank of America labeled “ammortality” and projected will reach $600 billion by 2025. Instead of a fountain of youth, we have a Mt. Olympus of supplements. Metformin, resveratrol and rapamycin are promoted as transformational wonders in slowing aging. In the pursuit of a longer and healthier life, nutrition, exercise, sleep, a swarm of biomarkers, emotional well-being and social engagement — basically everything — are areas for improvement and constant monitoring, a life meted out in metrics, often for a price.
The nut graf can take lots of different forms at lots of different lengths, but always remember to address that idea: What are you up to?
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