“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.”
While news structure uses the lede of the inverted pyramid to show readers the main focus of the story, features have a new way of presenting the fulcrum of an article —the central focus that tells readers, “This is what the story will be about.”
We call it the nut graph.
It is the point of the story “in a nutshell” and its goal is to tell the reader what the story is about. It contains the who, what, when, where, why and how, as well as the feature or value — is it timely, tug at human interest, have proximity to the reader, etc. The nut tells us why this article is for these readers in this publication at this time. Admittedly, it is a lot of work for something that is usually (and often most effectively) a single paragraph, and that is why crafting it well is crucial to an article’s success.
It is from the nut graph that the entire story gets its structure and shape, and the key elements represented in the nut graph should be in evidence throughout the body.
Conversely, if you have not set out a specific idea in your nut graph, it should not appear in the body. And if it does, you need to think about rewriting your nut graph.
“It’s easy to overwrite the feature,” Melissa Hoppert of the New York Times said. “You get caught up in the moment and use big, sweeping words. You have to rein yourself in. You don’t want to be so simple that you can’t put someone in the scene and story, but it’s a balancing act. You can be so observant and write down everything but miss the conversation, and you can’t be so caught up in the interview that you don’t really see the experience. Listen to what they say but write down the scene and the colors. Make sure to ask enough to ask questions.”
The style and structure of the nut graph are fairly simple:
- One paragraph of one or two sentences.
- It comes after the lede and the lede must take us toward the body.
- Contains the main facts: who, what, when, where, why and how.
Consider this story pitched to the Ohio State Alumni magazine about Dr. Brian Scansen, a vet at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center who is using human medical techniques to treat animals in a program called Interventional Medicine. The goal is to reduce invasive procedures and improve quality of life.
When I finally wrote the story, “Big Dog, New Tricks,” here was the nut graph:
The patient in this surgery was Maxwell, a 5-year-old Bullmastiff, and he was just one of the numerous animals to benefit from the Interventional Medicine program at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center. Led by Dr. Brian Scansen, the program utilizes the latest techniques from human medicine to provide minimally invasive procedures for animal patients suffering medical issues that involve the heart, lungs, vascular and urologic systems, and cancer.
Notice how it provides the key facts:
- Who (Ohio State Veterinary Medical Center)
- What (offers interventional medicine)
- How (utilizes the latest techniques from human medicine on animals)
- Why (provide minimally invasive procedures)
- The when is implied as now
- The where is the same as the who.
One of the biggest challenges is crafting a lede that takes us to the nut graph.
Consider this example from a writing class.
The story idea was about why Chinese students often adopt American names when they come to study in the United States. The first draft of the article came in like this:
Lede: Wenxin Xia, was sitting in kindergarten beginning to learn English for the first time when her teacher randomly assigned her the name Sally.
Nut graph: Many international students at Ohio State use English names while studying abroad in the United States. Xia, a fourth-year journalism major. . .
Can you spot the challenge?
Sally got the name in a kindergarten class, not college. And we don’t see her selecting her name; we see it being assigned.
On revision, we looked to focus on the facts we knew that would take us to the nut graph we sought.
Lede: When Sally Xia first introduces herself, she is often greeted with a quizzical look.
Xia, a native of China, knows her Americanized first name can throw others for a loop, but it is a whole lot easier to say than her real first name of Wenxin (pronounced wen-sheen).
Nut graph: Xia is one of many Chinese students who have adopted European-style names while studying in the United States. Many say it makes communication with native-born classmates easier while they manage to maintain their Chinese culture.
Xia, who was first dubbed Sally in her Chinese English language class in kindergarten, said the name has made her feel more accepted.