Crack the Code to Effective Writing: 5 Tips for Creating Nut Graphs

Flickr Creative Commons photo by  Svetlana P .

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Svetlana P.

When it’s time to sit down and start writing, some writers begin by creating an outline or by trying to craft a compelling opening.

I start with the nut graph.

If you were trained as a journalist or have ever worked in a newsroom, you're probably already familiar with the term nut graph, which refers to the paragraph in a news story that tells readers why they are reading the story.

Nut graphs often appear early in the story -- typically in the second or third paragraph -- and set the context for what follows. They can be full paragraphs, short sentences, or something in between. But no matter the length, a good nut graph offers a clear roadmap to what makes the story important.

I’ve found that a strong nut graph isn’t just useful for writing news stories. It’s an element that paves the way for all effective writing. If you’re writing a white paper, case study, news release, blog post, video script, or e-mail marketing message, a nut graph is the key that unlocks your entire narrative.

If you can quickly and concisely identify why your piece is important, you stand a better chance of convincing the reader why it matters.

This is true whether you’re trying to pitch a story to a reporter, inspire a reader to make a donation to your nonprofit, or convince a potential customer to buy your product.

Whatever you’re writing, it’s important to explain -- very clearly and prominently -- why the piece is important.

But how do you figure that out?

Here are the five questions you should ask yourself before you write that will help you identify and frame your nut graph:

What’s different?

The fact that you are announcing a new CEO isn't different. Every organization hires a new leader from time to time.

But the person you are hiring usually brings something different to the table. Perhaps she is the first woman to ever lead an arts organization in your city, or the first graduate of your program to lead it.

If you can identify something different that might help your announcement stand out, your nut graph becomes fairly easy. Here's an example:

"Jones, who is the organization's 17th director, becomes the first woman to lead a major arts organization in Gotham City."

Is this part of a larger trend?

Let's say you are having a hard time identifying what's different. In that case, maybe you can focus on how it connects to a larger trend.

By spotting and calling out a trend in your nut graph, you're helping readers understand how your piece fits into a larger narrative or provides insight into something that’s happening around them.

Example: "The new program is part of a growing trend among nonprofits: partnering with local community foundations to track and measure a city's progress toward improving adult literacy rates. Similar programs in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh are already showing great promise in addressing this important issue."

What’s the impact?

If you can identify how your subject will have an impact on the community it serves or a problem you're trying to solve, you have a ready-made news hook (and a nut graph that almost writes itself).

Example: "With this grant from Vandelay Industries, the Kramer Center will be able to provide housing assistance to 300 families that otherwise would not be able to afford rents in the neighborhood.”

Is it timely?

Perhaps you are writing about a topic that helps address an issue that is particularly timely or connects to a larger event in the news. Identifying a connection to something current can help give you the hook you need for your nut graph.

Example: "At a time when many local workers have lost their jobs due to the recent recession, this new program offers career training and placement services that are otherwise difficult to afford."

Can someone learn from it?

All of us are looking for information that can help us navigate our day to day lives. If your piece can offer practical advice that can help people be more effective in their jobs, with their finances, or with their relationships, it’s helpful to spotlight this information up front.

Example: "The new partnership is the result of months of deliberate planning and negotiations and provides a roadmap for other organizations that are looking to manage their costs responsibly."

What’s your best example of a nut graph? Share it in the comments below and we’ll spotlight the best nut graphs in a future edition of our newsletter.