Many writers make a fetish out of the so-called “nut graph,” usually defined as a sentence or paragraph that tells the reader what the story is about. The technique originated as the second half of an anecdotal lead, i.e., starting a story with a little vignette followed by a brief statement of what the story concerns.
Anecdotal leads delay readers knowing what the piece is about, and therefore make them harder to understand. A good lead serves readers by telling them the subject immediately.
The damage comes from thinking of the nut graph as distinct from the lead, as something else that has to come at the top of the story. A reporter once told me this adventure in literal-mindedness. His editor called him over and said, “Your story lacks a nut graph.” The reporter responded, “A nut graph tells the reader what the story is about. My lead tells what the story is about, so I don’t need a nut graph.” The editor replied, “Your lead does that, but you still need a nut graph.” The reporter said, “I don’t need a nut graph, because I tell the reader in the lead what the story is about.” “Shut up,” replied the editor, and wrote a nut graph into the story.
This type of nut graph has uses besides beefing up an anecdotal lead. When the story is very complex, and the beginning is unavoidably confusing, as some are, you can use a nut graph early to snap the reader into focus. In a long piece, you can use the nut graph to introduce a new section, telling what the next part is about. And when you’re about to explain something really difficult, you can start with a nut graph to steady up the reader before the hard trudging to come, like this: “So many mortgages are failing that bankers are considering a type of reduction procedure called a ‘cram down,’ rarely used, seldom successful, and difficult to understand.”
One reporter, who’ll remain nameless, told me she first heard the term as “nut grab.”
Some writers confuse things by using the term “nut graph” for two other functions. The “nut” may be a piece of information readers have to know to understand the story, such as that manatees are marine mammals that have to surface to breathe every two minutes or so; or that the Speaker of the House is next in line of succession to the Vice President. Such essential information must come early for maximum effect. Tell readers what they need to know before they know they need it.
A third kind of nut graph tells the reader at the very beginning why the piece is important, why the reader should read it. Here’s an example: “Proposed budget reductions will eliminate the teaching of music for your children.” Some organizations call this type of nut graph “the Hoo Ha” or “the So-What.” I prefer “the So-What” as more descriptive.
The combination of what the story’s about, why it’s important, and the key piece of information ensures a good start for the readers’ understanding.
[Care to share any stories about nut graphs?]