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Aug 12

How to Write for Web Pages - Part 8 - The Nut Graf

Posted by Bill Anderton

While many “civilians” know about the lead in a story, few will have heard another journalistic term, “nut graf.” In this installment of the tutorial, I will discuss the use of this important element of the story.

In the previous installment of this tutorial, I wrote about how to write a lead. I also made the assertion that the lead is arguably the most-important journalistic component of your story. Many of the stories that you will write for websites will indeed be news stories where writing a direct lead in subject-verb-object construction will be appropriate. However, you will also write a large number of feature stories too, and these will require another specialized journalistic element in addition to a lead.

Feature stores often use longer leads, written in narrative or antidotal style instead of as a direct lead. Due to their length and style, they may not immediately drill to the heart of the matter like a news-type direct lead does. A writing mechanism is needed to do some of the same functions as a lead but placed after the creative narrative lead. This special writing component is called a “nut graf”, or also called a perspective paragraph. A nut graf is a summary of the essence of a story often used in feature stories with narrative leads, typically near the top of the story but below the lead.

Similar to a lead, the nut graf is also high-stakes writing with specific objectives. It is perhaps the second most important piece of text in your story.

This installment of the tutorial will discuss how to write nut grafs.

The Term

The “nut graf” is a term that perhaps no one outside of journalism has ever heard. The term is news-room slang. Although its use can be traced back to the 1800s, it is rarely used outside newsrooms. As a result, only working journalists ever use this term or know its meaning and importance.

The nut graf term is a simple contraction. It is a paragraph (“graf”) that is the nutshell (“nut”) of the story.

In a feature story, a nut graf typically is placed after the lead and is used to provide many of the same duties of a news-style direct lead by giving the reader the essence of the story.

Because the term is jargon, there are several alternative spellings for nut graf, including:

  • nut paragraph
  • nut 'graph
  • nutgraph
  • nutgraf

The nut graf appears just below the lead of a feature story with a narrative lead, perhaps in the third- or fourth paragraph of the story and describes the essence of the story.

Nut Grafs Are Promises

Use the nut graf to make a promise to your readers.

While the narrative story style is important and valid types of stories, they do present challenges at the top of web pages. You can’t write a feature story like your would a book. You can’t trust that the web-page reader will read all the way to the end of the feature story (or even below the fold.) You have to capture the reader near the top of the page the nut graf.

In a news story with a news-style direct lead, the lead itself captures readers’ attention by their inherent construction. However, the problem is creatively challenging for a feature story with their longer more-creative leads. You can’t simply write a nut graf as a formalistic simple summary after the lead. It would stick out and disrupt the creative flow of the story.

Therefore, write a nut graf as a promise to the reader. Hint at where the story is going. Don’t give the ending away but identify the conflict. Make a promise to resolve the conflict but don’t give away of the resolution. Entice the reader to read the story to find how things get resolved; how the conflict works out.

Use of a Nut Graf

In a feature story, the nut graf appears after the lead but near the top of feature stories and some news stories.

A feature story is a special type of human interest story. It is not necessarily tied to a current or recent news event. They focus not on the abstract but particular events, people and places. Feature stories are written in detail, often great detail, regarding their subjects. As a result, feature stories tend to contain more words than news stories. Also, feature stories tend to have a longer shelf life on a website.

In straight news stories, leads answer the classic 5Ws and an H questions: who, what, where, when, why and how. The lead doesn’t have to answer all of these questions, but it does answer some appropriate subset of the questions that are relevant to the story.

In feature writing, narrative- and antidotal-leads are often used and are more appropriate for this style of writing. The narrative leads in feature stories are typically longer that the typical less-than-40-word news-style direct leads, often much longer.

Longer narrative leads in features are appropriate to this creative style, but the needs (and pressures) to engage readers quickly still exist. Therefore, nut grafs are placed below leads in feature stories to meet these needs.

A nut graf summarizes the essence of the story in straightforward terms for the reader. It contains the underlying idea of the story. In one paragraph (or sometimes one sentence), it puts the story in context for the reader. Nut grafs can also tell readers why the story matters.

The nut graf will include some, but rarely all, of the information that would normally be in a news lead

Whereas nut grafs may are not always in news stories with a direct lead but may be used optionally depending on the type of lead used, they are necessary for features.

Nut grafs are almost always expository writing. Used after a narrative-type lead that “shows” the reader in its word picture, the nut graf explains, describes, gives information or informs. The nut graf is important because it explains that the story told in the narrative lead is not just an isolated incident, but also affects many people.

Like a lead, the summary and conclusion provided in a nut graf are used throughout the remaining body of the story to measure the information presented in the main body of the story. The nut graf is the rubric for the remainder of the story.

Nut grafs serves the same function as leads to keep readers interested and to get them to continue on to the body of stories. The exposition in nut grafs clearly tells readers why they should continue reading the story.

Relationship Between the Lead and the Nut Graf

 There is a symbiotic relationship between the lead and the nut graf.

The lead introduces the story by highlighting an individual case. The nut graf then illustrates how an individual case in the lead is representative of a bigger overall picture or trend.

The nut graf is central to this widely used formula by many publications and websites. Some much so, many editors don’t think you can have a story without the nut graf. They consider the nut graf the main theme statement of the story.

With the lead and the nut graf at the top of the story, even if readers read no further, they know what the story is about and its essence.


To help you understand the use of a nut graf, here is an example.

The nut graf (highlighted) is from Christopher Ortiz’s article in his Denver Post article titled; Teens cut a deal: Spiff up library for pride, cash:

"Long after school had let out for the summer, sawdust and noise filled East High School’s woodworking shop one morning last week as a group of students sanded down tables they were building for the school library.

The library is being renovated to restore it to its original 1925 look. But instead of hiring professionals to do it, East Side wood-shop students were given the task.

Nine students have been coming in mornings, working on renovation projects. While they are receiving $1,000, plus school credit, for their work, wood- shop teacher Joel Noble said it is more than money bringing them in.

"Not even for a good paycheck can I get them up here until noon (each day)," said Noble, a 1989 East graduate. "There is a lot of pride in the work. Nothing like this has been done before."

Students had different reasons for doing the work, spearheaded by the East Library Renaissance Project.

"It's cool to do it for the library," said Carl Heinz, 17. "(It's) going to be rewarding to come back and see what we did."

For some, it's about giving back.

"It means a lot to the East community," said Luke Eiley, 15."

Above, the example story is redacted, but you can read the whole story at http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_2826147

Note that the highlighted paragraph isn’t a buried lead but, instead, the nut graf. It provides the readers with the gist of the story. It is below the lead but near the top of the story. It tells the reader, in a quick way, what the writer is up to. The paragraph provides the transition from the narrative lead. It also explains the lead and its connection to the rest of the details in the story.

In the example, the first paragraph is a good narrative lead, the second paragraph is the nut graf that tells the reader the essence of the story and bridges between the narrative lead and body of the story.

Tips for Writing Nut Grafs

As you will see, writing nut grafs are very similar to writing leads.

  • Think through your story and figure out what it is about and why readers should read it. Then, write your conclusions in a short paragraph of a few sentences.  Explain the story as you would to someone who knows nothing about it. That explanation would be a good start on a nut graph.
  • Before writing your nut graf, give some thoughts about the newsworthiness of your story. Consider its newsworthy elements such as timeliness, impact, prominence, conflict, proximity, uniqueness, human interest. Ask yourself, “Which are most important.” Or, “Which are most important?”
  • Also give some thought to the classic questions, who, what, where, when, why and how. In a nut graf, you decide which of these could help you capture the essence of the story, which will elaborate its newsworthiness. For example, combine the why question with the timeliness newsworthy element to form a question, “Why is the story timely?” or “Why is the story being written?” Also, intersect the who question with impact for, “Who is being impacted?” or “Who is potentially affected most?”
  • A good nut graf captures the sweep of the story. What is the story’s context, relevance, importance, significance?
  • Justifies the story. Tell readers why they should care.
  • You should provide a transition from the lead. Explain the lead and its connection to the remainder of the story.
  • Don’t write your nut graf to tell too much of the story. Don’t tell so much that they don’t have a reason to keep reading. Sell a story, but preserve the suspense.
  • Cultivate the curiosity created in the lead.
  • Don’t give the ending of you story away.
  • Always anticipate the questions your reasons will have early in reading the story. Answer them.
  • Don’t hedge. Provide in clear language reasons read more.
  • If your story is about a significant milestone, a record achieved, some sort of first or a landmark, these could be the basis of your nut graf.
  • If your story is about a trend, it could also be your nut graf. Trends in nut grafs are particularly appropriate for stories with anecdotal or series leads. In these types of leads, they often illustrate the trend with a prototypical example or two.
  • Nut grafs are good places to point out who stands to lose or gain in the context of what you are writing about.
  • The action in your story can also make a nut graf; true for both news stories as well as features. If action is the essence of the story, it can keep the story moving forward. Action does have to be only physical action, by any action of causes and effects or moves and counter-moves.
  • Consider your story as a whole. Which facts or elements would say to the reader, “Listen to this.”
  • As you write your story, refer to your nut graf often and refine it if needed.

Polish your Nut Graf

As I noted in “Paramedic Method: A Lesson in Writing Concisely” in Part 7 of this tutorial, like leads, nut grafs are so few words that you can (and should) invest the time to polish your writing using the Paramedic Method.

The nut graf is exposition, but it should be good exposition and crisply written.

Also, like leads, nut grafs are high-stakes writing because of their important missions. Invest the time to polish and hone you nut grafs to improve your writing.

Category: (08-14) August 2014   Tag:

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