Strong from the start: leads and nut grafs

bySteve ButtryOct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

Updated at 10:40 a.m. on May 25, 2018

Readers give you just a few seconds to capture their interest before their eye moves on to the next story or photo. You need a crisp lead and a strong focus to keep the reader going.

Keep a Sharp Focus

To write a strong lead, you need to identify and understand the focus of your story. Using any or all of these techniques before you even start writing can help strengthen your story, especially the critical top few paragraphs:

Ask what the story is about. As you gather information and as you write, ask yourself frequently why a reader would want to read it. Bruce DeSilva of the Associated Press suggests asking these questions as you try to find the story's focus: Why do you care about this? Why did you want to write this story in the first place? What touches you emotionally? Who is benefiting/being harmed, making money/losing money? How are readers being affected by what you have found? What is new here? When you know what the story is about, you know what you need to tell the reader at the top of the story.

Write a theme statement. Jack Hart of The Oregonian suggests that before you write the story, try writing a theme statement of no more than six words. This will help you identify the focus. As you write the lead, the nut graph and any difficult parts of the story, refer to the theme statement and make sure you're maintaining the focus.

Write a headline. Writing a headline for your story might help find your focus. Or a logo, if it's a series. Or a budget line. Whichever of these devices you use, you have to write a good one. As DeSilva says, "no 'Unit Mulls Probe' garbage." After you've finished the story, take another look at the headline. Make sure the point that you addressed in the head is high in the story or you lost your focus.

Tell your story in three words. Bill Luening of the Kansas City Star recommends identifying your focus by boiling your story down to a three-word sentence: a noun, an active verb, and an object: "These generally emerge as themes, rather than a story focus, but they can lead to a theme statement. Maybe, if the story is a narrative, you can get them to outline the complication, development and resolution this way. The story of the Pied Piper then would be, Rats Overrun City. City Hires Ratman. Ratman Kills Rats. City Stiffs Ratman. Ratman Steals Children. Moral: Keep Your Word. Or...Flutists Kick Butt."

Tell someone about your story. Especially if you are struggling to find the focus, you may find it helpful to tell someone about the story. For some people, conversation forces brevity and focus. DeSilva suggests the bus stop test used by Henry McNulty, former ombudsman at the Hartford Courant: "Suppose you are at a bus stop and someone leans out the bus window and shouts, 'What is that story you are working on?' The bus engine starts and begins to pull away from the curb. What are you going to shout?"

Find the surprise. Did something surprise you as you researched this story? Maybe that should be your focus.

Identify the emotion. Luening asks writers, "Where does the emotion lurk? Where, as a friend of mine here calls it, is the 'emotional center' of what they've discovered?"

Use story elements. You can find your focus by identifying the story's most important elements. Is this a plot-driven story, or is character the most important element? Or setting? Or conflict? Or theme?

Organize your information. Identify the most important points of your story and the information that most clearly supports those points. This should be the heart of the story and in many cases the total story. If you identify more than three or four points, you probably have too many. An outline may help you organize.

Writing your lead

Your lead sets the pace for your story. A brief, breezy lead invites the reader into a story with the promise of a lively pace. A ponderous lead invites the reader to move to the next story, in which case it doesn't matter how long or how good the rest of your story is.

Start early. As you're reporting, think about the lead. Are you observing an exchange that might provide a scene the lead? Did you just hear the fact that belongs in the lead? Don't lock in on one lead so that you miss a better one that comes up. Use the reporting process as an audition for potential leads. Write them down as they occur to you, either in your notebook or on the screen.

Write as you report. After your first interview or two, start writing. You may not have your lead yet, but starting to write gets your mind into the story earlier. Keep writing after subsequent interviews. Write each time as though this is the story. You may write two or three leads before you're finished with the story. But have you hurt your story if your seventh paragraph, or your 15th, has as much polish as your lead?

Avoid the blank screen. Too many writers spend too long laboring over the lead before they get started writing. If you don't have a good idea for a lead, write a simple declarative sentence and get on with the story: "This is a story about the Fayetteville School Board meeting." Yes, it's dull. No, you'd never turn that in. But it may get you started and keep you from wasting time staring at the blank screen. Writing the story may help you find your lead. Then you go back and write the better lead.

Use story elements. Decide which is the strongest element in your story: plot, character, setting, conflict, theme. Your lead should focus on the strongest element. Or perhaps the lead should highlight the intersection of two elements: a character in conflict, perhaps. If plot is the strongest element, beware of starting at the beginning. Newspaper readers and editors may not read long enough to find out how it comes out. Consider starting at the climax, or at least at a critical moment that establishes the conflict.

Don't forget the basics. If you're stuck for a lead, ask which of the five W's or How is the most important question for this story.

Expand on the basics. Maybe your lead lies not in one of the five W's, but in a related question: How much? So what? What next? Why not? Who benefits? Who's hurt?

Write without your notes. This is a helpful technique for your whole first draft, but it's especially helpful in writing the lead. Notes can be a distraction. Go back to them later when you're checking facts.

Get to the point. If you use an anecdotal or scene-setting lead that delays your explanation of the underlying issue, introduce or at least allude to the issue in your lead.

Entice the reader. Don't treat your lead as a suitcase into which you will cram as much as you can fit. Make it brief and enticing. If your lead captures the essence of your story in a few words, the reader will read on to learn the facts. You don't need them all in the lead. A long lead shows a lack of confidence, like you don't believe I'll read the whole story so you have to tell me as much as you can as fast as you can.

Strengthening your lead

Once you've finished the story, go back and strengthen your lead, even if it's good and especially if it's long.

Challenge every word. However long your lead is, consider whether it could be shorter. If it's longer than 30 words, it's almost definitely too long. A lead that long has to flow smoothly to work, and few leads that long flow smoothly. Try writing a lead of 10 words or fewer. Maybe you can't for this story, but it's always good to try. Especially if your lead is more than 20 words, challenge each piece of the lead and ask whether that actually has to be in your very first paragraph.

Challenge the verbs. Are you using the strongest appropriate verb? Is it in active voice? Never use a form of the verb "to be" in your lead without trying some alternatives. Sometimes it's the only accurate verb, but see if a stronger verb works. Challenge other weak verbs, such as have, do and get.

Avoid vague phrases. If your lead starts with (or uses) vague phrases such as there are or it is, see if you can rewrite it with strong, specific subjects and verbs.

Keep it simple. Ask whether you're trying to tell too much in your lead. Are you answering all the 5 W's, when a couple could wait till the second graf? Don't try to cram everything into your lead.

Make one point. Does your lead have multiple points? If so, perhaps you haven't decided what the story truly is about. Decide which point is most important and write a lead that makes just that point.

Remember the news. Does your lead get right to the news? Does it emphasize the news?

Stamp out punctuation. Many of the best leads have one piece of punctuation, a period. Regard multiple commas or dashes as red flags. See if you can write a smoother sentence with just one comma or none. If you have lots of punctuation in the lead, read it aloud so you can hear whether it's choppy or whether it flows smoothly.

Minimize attribution. Attribution lengthens a lead, as well as weakening it. Can you state something as a fact, rather than hedging it with attribution? If not, do you need to bolster your reporting, so you can write more authoritatively?

Subtract numbers. If you use any numbers in your lead, their impact must be strong and their meaning and relationship must be immediately evident. If the reader has to stop and ponder the numbers, they don't belong in the lead. (They may not even belong in the story, but in a graphic). Rarely could you justify using more than two numbers in a lead.

Challenge prepositions and conjunctions. Identify each prepositional phrase in the lead and consider whether the information it adds is worth the words it adds. Can it be replaced with a single adjective or adverb? If your lead contains and, or or but, consider whether you're introducing another element that you should save for the second paragraph.

Challenge adjectives and adverbs. Consider whether the lead would be stronger without each of the adjectives adverbs. What do they add? Can you tighten and strengthen an adverb-verb combination by using a more specific verb or an adjective-noun combo by using a more specific noun?

Challenge phrases. Can you eliminate a phrase without hurting the lead? Can you replace a phrase with a single word? Write an alternative lead. Write a shorter lead and evaluate the two side by side. Or write a lead taking another approach. Don't accept a long lead without testing it against a shorter lead.

One hedge is plenty. If you've hedged the central statement of your lead, with a "may" or "might," do you really need to hedge again by attributing it? Consider whether you can write a stronger statement in the first place. Or at least consider whether you can make the hedged statement without attribution.

Don't sweat the details. An important detail might strengthen your lead, but many details bog down a lead. Tighten your lead by cutting details that can wait until later in the story. Rarely do you need both a person's name and identification in the lead. If the name is not immediately recognizable to the reader, just use the identification in the lead. Or if the person is in the story as Everyman, just use the name and tell the reader later who he is.

Don't get lost in process. On many beats, particularly government and court beats, reporters must learn and understand lots of processes. Sometimes the reporter loses perspective and thinks the process is as important to readers as it is to sources. Readers care most about results. If your lead focuses on process, or includes some process details, consider whether it would be stronger focusing on results. Try to make fun of your lead. Did you write any obvious statements that will draw a "duh!" from the reader? Do you have any awkward juxtapositions or double entendres? If you know a smart-ass colleague who makes fun of such stories in the paper, enlist his aid by asking him to read your story in advance. If something does get by him, at least you know he won't be the one making fun this time.

Focus on reader impact. Does your lead tell the reader why this story is important to her? If not, should it?

Say what is, not what isn't. Sometimes you have to tell the reader what isn't, but usually you should tell the reader what is. If your lead has a not or a never, consider whether you can recast to say what is.

Punch quickly. Examine the first few words of your lead. Are they strong? Do they get to the point immediately? Can you open with key words that immediately identify what the story is about?

Close with a kick. Examine the last few words of your lead. Are they strong? Do they carry the reader right into the next paragraph.

Keep it rolling

Your lead is just the first hook for the reader. The first few paragraphs make your case to the reader. Especially with a page-one story that jumps, the reader has plenty of reason to move on if you don't make the point of the story clear and make the story compelling in the top several paragraphs.

Write without your notes. You have most of the story in your head. You know what the most important points are. You remember the embarrassing contradictions, the clever quotes, the damning evidence. So tell the story, without the distractions of that mess of notebooks and faxes and photocopies. Flipping through notebooks can distract you from your focus. Of course, when you're done, you need to return to your notebooks and other resources to ensure accuracy.

Give the reader a promise. A narrative story presents a challenge at the top. You can’t simply write like a novelist and trust the hurried newspaper reader to read to the end. But a “nut graf” that tries to sum the story up in one paragraph isn’t appropriate either. Ken Fuson of the Des Moines Register advises giving the reader a “promise,” which hints at where the story is going without giving away the ending. Identify the conflict and promise that it will be resolved without giving away the resolution.

Keep the end in sight. Decide where you want your story to end. Keep the end in view as you write, and use the information and anecdotes that lead you to that end by the most direct route.

First Five Paragraphs. Gannett newspapers teach staff members to give stories a strong focus by making sure that the first five paragraphs cover these four elements: news, impact, context and human dimension. If that seems too formulaic to follow with every story, it's still a valuable tool to use if you're having trouble focusing your story. For more on the "First Five Paragraphs" approach:;  

Nut grafs

Journalists disagree about the necessity (and sometimes the definition) of "nut grafs." But this much is difficult to dispute: High in every story, you need to tell the reader why she should read this story today. A good nut graf often is the best way to achieve that.

A nut graf may be an elaboration of the theme statement you wrote before even writing your story. Stories that often need nut grafs include stories with anecdotal leads, issue stories or controversy stories.

Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry offer this explanation:

The nut graf is used when the lead is anecdotal or indirect. If the lead begins with a desert scene, the nut graf describes the significance of the scene: it was an important atomic test site in the 1950s. If the lead begins with the description of a funeral, the nut graf offers the basic news value: the dead person is the first woman killed in an underground mine accident. The technique gets its name because the graf contains the 'nut' or 'hard center' of the story.

Jack Hart of The Oregonian elaborates:

At their most basic, these simply literary devices tell readers why news and feature stories are relevant to them. That alone demonstrates that writers and editors are concerned about reader needs. But effective nut paragraphs can do far more. They can answer any questions raised in leads, explain why stories are significant and place stories in meaningful contexts. They help writers organize their own material. They provide cues for headline writers, copy editors and designers. They shorten stories by creating a tight organizational focus, and they suggest an outline for the story to follow.

Most importantly, they provide a rationale for reading by suggesting benefits. Just like the paragraph you just read.

Curtis Hubbard, Boulder Daily Camera:

Nut — or 'so what' — grafs are a great tool for deadline/daily reporting in two respects. They help reporters focus on the story at hand and, in my view, trail only headlines and photographs for their ability to draw short-on-time readers into a daily story. Are they always necessary? Certainly not. Kudos to the writer who can keep readers' attention without them.

Rich Jaroslovsky, former Wall Street Journal editor and reporter (writing about the need for nut grafs in the "A-hed" stories in column 4 of the WSJ's front page):

In my experience, lack of a nut graf was never an impediment to a good a-hed -- in fact, was often an advantage. The best a-heds often had no reason why the reader should have read them -- except that they were great reads.

Nut grafs were, and are, an essential part of the recipe for Journal leaders. But even there, you would occasionally find an apostate. One of them was Dennis Farney, one of the best writers I ever edited. Dennis used to say something like this, as I recall: "At some point in every leadr, usually about the fourth paragraph, there is an absolutely logical point at which to step back, crystallize the theme of the story and explain its significance. Resist this temptation at all costs. It will only slow down the story, and if you have done your job well, the reader will know why the story is important and what it is trying to say without your having to hit him over the head with it.

It often worked for Dennis; alas, those of us mere mortals found the nut graf much more of a necessity than he did. But not for a-heds.

Kate Long of the Charleston Gazette cautions against writing a nut graf that becomes "flour in the brownie":

You're eating this nice brownie, and suddenly you hit a chunk of dry flour. Young reporter is trying to satisfy the editor who (reporter thinks) insists on the graph, so he/she sticks in a dense paragraph that breaks the flow of the story.

This post originally appeared on journalism trainer Steve Buttry's blog and was first republished on IJNet with permission on June 27, 2008.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Antonio Mantero.