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The number 5 painted on a wall

 

I love a good nut graph.

After a meaty description of a scene or complex idea that pulls me into a story, my brain wants to know why I just read those paragraphs. The nut graph tells the reader which of many possible paths the writer is going to follow. If the rest of the story takes me on the journey that the nut promised me it would, I generally stick around for the ride.

Freelance journalist and educator Emily Sohn

Emily Sohn

But when I started trying to teach nut graphs to undergraduate journalism students at the University of Minnesota, I ran into some issues. For one thing, some perfectly good stories don’t have a clear nut. (Take this one, about a bare-butt bear bite, which jumps right to a dramatic tale, no nut graph to be found).

When nut graphs do appear, they can take on many forms. In some stories, nut graphs are more like “nut phrases” or “nut sentences” within a longer paragraph. Other stories seem to contain a multitude of nuts, or a nut that gets chopped up and sprinkled through multiple paragraphs.

My quest for a universal definition of the nut graph led me to Twitter, where I discovered that it is possible to love, hate, or love/hate the nut. Nuts mean different things to different people, and individuals sometimes change the way they think about them over time. Despite the ambiguity, many writers agreed that learning how to use a nut remains an important skill, especially for people just starting out in journalism. **

“Critical,” tweeted Erika Check Hayden, director of the science communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “I teach my students to write them before sitting down to write the first draft, because the nut graph is both clarifying for the reader and clarifying for the writer in helping distill down what story they are actually trying to tell.”

Defining the nut

So what is a nut graph? My Twitter respondees described them as “mission statements,” “contracts,” and “traffic management.” Lisa Grossman, astronomy reporter for Science News, shared a mantra someone once told her, although she can’t remember who it was: “The nut shines a light down the rest of the story so the reader can see where they’re going.”

Strained metaphors aside, nut material generally appears a few paragraphs into a story. That placement is important: Even if readers don’t make it to the end, the nut graph will have told them the essence of what they needed to know.

Nuts show the reader “why they should care and especially why they should keep reading,” wrote Liza Gross, a wide-ranging freelancer who now is a reporter at Inside Climate News.

Nut graphs guide readers, but they also guide writers who grappling for structure. For teaching, nut graphs can be particularly useful, says Kim Todd, an author and creative writing professor at the University of Minnesota: “It’s an exercise in asking students — particularly beginners — to confront the significance of their story.”

Strong feelings

Nut graphs can be so useful that some people develop deep affections for them. Science writer Pakinam Amer, a former Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, compared nuts to Dwight from “The Office.” If the lead is the regional manager, she reasons, the nut graph is the assistant.

“I (heart emoji) nut graphs,” she wrote. “They’re as important as the lead in pulling the reader in by providing enough context/background and a bit of a summary or hint of what’s to come to keep them going. In its own way, nut graph = ‘Look, this is why you should care, dear reader.’”

Others loathe nut graphs with equally expressive emojis. Some said the struggle to write one exposes their own uncertainty about what they are trying to say. And when it comes to longform narratives, nut graphs appear to present a particular kind of buzzkill.

“Hate them. They should be illegal,” wrote Rowan Jacobsen, who writes about science, nature and food. “They destroy any hope of a complex narrative and violate the fundamental tenets of storytelling.”

Revered nonfiction author and New Yorker writer John McPhee appears to hate nut graphs, too, pointed out magazine freelancer Brent Crane, who linked to an excerpt from “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” McPhee’s long-awaited book on how he writes. “That sort of structural formalism,” McPhee wrote, “is a part of the rote methodology that governs the thought of people who don’t have better ideas.”

Some writers have found ways to coexist with nuts, despite mixed feelings. “Frenemies.” That’s the description used by author and Atlantic project editor Michelle Nijhuis, who considers nuts an essential part of the writing process and an often-essential part of published stories, even as they carry the risk of draining suspense from stories and masquerading as good structure.

“In writing and editing I use them in drafts but try to pare them down or even eliminate them in the published story,” she wrote. “Sometimes a single sentence, or the right structure, is all the reader needs for guidance.”

How to teach them

Undergraduate journalism classes need to teach the skills that put philosophy into practice. After absorbing the nutty reflections that I heard from other writers, I sat down to create a lesson.

For help, I turned to Check Hayden at UC Santa Cruz, who generously shared a video of her own nut graph lecture with me. For science stories, she teaches a five-sentence nut formula that students need to finish before writing the rest of their drafts. I adapted it for non-science stories.

Here’s how it goes, with a fictional example I created about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on cat cafes in Minneapolis. I also encouraged my students to make sure their nut graphs root the story in the past, present and future by telling readers what happened, what’s happening and what’s going to happen.

Sentence 1: State the problem or issue. This is the “what happened” statement.

My fictional cat-cafe example: During the pandemic 95% of cat cafes in Minneapolis closed their doors, threatening the livelihoods of both storeowners and felines.

Sentence 2: The “now” statement. What’s happening? Bring us into the present.

Example: One year later (now), cat cafes are reopening across the city.

Sentence 3: Write a single subject-verb-object sentence that describes what the story is about. This sentence begins to expand your story from a specific event or example in your lead to the bigger picture of what that example represents.

Example: Dozens of cat cafes are luring customers with new safety protocols and furry incentives.

Sentence 4: What is the scope or implications of the issue? This is the “what’s going to happen” or “what’s next” sentence. I also think it has the job of expressing the idea that “this issue is super-important because…”

Example: Their efforts offer hope that cats and cat-lovers will once again thrive in the Twin Cities.

Sentence 5: Quote someone about the big picture. If you’re still reporting, sketch out the purpose of the quote you’re seeking.

Example: Quote a cat-cafe owner expressing hope that cats will help the city finally recover from the pandemic.

Putting it all together, my example nut graph would look like this:

During the pandemic shut-down, 90% of cat cafes in Minneapolis closed their doors, threatening the livelihoods of both storeowners and felines. A year later, cat cafes are reopening across the city. Dozens of cat cafes are luring customers with new safety protocols and furry incentives. Their efforts offer hope that cats and cat-lovers will once again thrive in the Twin Cities. “If there’s anything that can bring our city back to life, it’s cat snuggles,” said XX, owner of XX.

Now what?

The beauty of plotting out a clear nut graph is that it can guide the rest of your reporting. What kind of details do you need for your lede to set up the nut? Who will you need to interview next? What will you need to ask them?

I spent a full class session with my students grappling with the nuts for the feature stories they wrote for their final projects. As they reported and revised, we kept coming back to their nuts to see what could be condensed, what needed to be added in, and whether they had more or different reporting they needed to do.

By their final drafts, most nuts had changed. Some were no longer five sentences long. But all were better than when they started. And my students, I believe, had learned about the power of clear thinking and the importance of dwelling on the purpose of the stories they want to tell.

** Note: In case you missed it, this is my nut graph. Did the story do what the nut graph promised it would?

***

Emily Sohn is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis who writes for several national publications. She also teaches, leads workshops, and writes books for young people.