my secret weapon for story organization

I’m not at all organized in my normal life (just ask my long-suffering husband), but I pride myself on writing well-organized stories. And I owe it all to the nut graf.

“Nut graf” is one of those pretentious journalism school terms, but the concept really revolutionized the way I write. It refers to the early paragraph that gives the crux of your story “in a nutshell.” My cranky Intro to News Writing teacher referred to it as the “So What?”: It’s when you answer questions like, “Why am I reading this? Why do I care?” for the reader.

Most writers know to start their story with a great lead — an opening sentence or paragraph that will grab a reader’s attention. But once you’ve hooked them, you have to follow through. The nut graf gives them context, explaining why the story is important or relevant. It should include any recent news that makes the story particularly pertinent, and be written in a very straightforward, concise style. If you can follow that graf with a quote from a source that illustrates your point — this is often where I put my very best, or “money” quote — you have a killer opening that sucks your reader right into the story.

The Washington Post Style Section, a major influence on me as a young writer, offers an excellent example of this formula in a piece a few weeks back on Hillary Clinton. Here’s the first graf:

Hillary Rodham Clinton ran a presidential campaign notoriously insular and unhappy, managing a group of egos and backstabbers whose dysfunction may have cost her the White House. Understandably, people wondered what kind of management style she would bring to the State Department.

Got your attention, right? A ballsy assertion. OK, I’m interested, but why should I care? The next sentence, the nut graf, tells me:

But a little over a year into her tenure as secretary of state, allies and detractors alike say Clinton has made a vigorous effort to widen her circle, wooing and pulling into her orbit the agency’s Foreign Service and civil service officials, many of whom said in interviews that she has brought a new energy to the building.

This brings the story into the now. It’s close to her first anniversary as Secretary of State, always a good time to look back and assess. And there seems to be a pattern emerging that’s worth examining. But why should I take your word for it, Washington Post reporter?

“We have had other secretaries of state who have cared deeply for the institution,” said Patrick F. Kennedy, undersecretary for management and a senior Foreign Service officer. “None who have done as much internal outreach.”

BAM! The money quote: Someone in the know confirms the premise. Now the reader has several good reasons to keep reading.

This formula — lead, nut graf, money quote — is something I learned and practiced daily in my semester of news writing, but now I rely heavily on it for almost everything I write, from short, service-y departments to in-depth features. I find if I draft the story that way, even if I make some adjustments (a short piece may not have the room, whereas a profile like Esquire’s recent outstanding one of Roger Ebert can get away with a longer, scene-setting lead) those bones usually remain in some form and anchor the beginning. If you’re struggling with how to organize a story, it’s a good place to start.

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One response to “my secret weapon for story organization

  1. Pingback: wednesday in the weeds « Get edited.

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