Journalists’ lives revolve around something called the “nut graf.”
The nut graf is one of the most important parts of any article. It’s the paragraph that explains the basics of what you’re writing about, plus any necessary background and context, so the reader can fully understand the story. It’s not the first paragraph, because that has to be the attention-grabber, but the nut graf is usually the second or third paragraph, high up in the story.
In journalism school, we learned the nut graf concept with a simple exercise: turn to the student next to you and tell them the very basics of your story. Boiling it down to two conversational sentences forced us to emphasize only the most important parts.
But it’s not only stories that have nut grafs. Our lives have them, too.
Say you meet a stranger at a party, and they ask you about yourself. What do you tell them?
How do you sum up you and your life in two sentences?
Our nut grafs are always changing, constantly being redefined. Over time, we add various qualifiers: college graduate, parent, company employee, marathon runner, traveler, entrepreneur. Adding a new element to the nut graf means letting go of something else, because you only have so much space.
With all that in mind, here’s a note a good friend from journalism school wrote to me in 2006:
The other night I was having a conversation with a friend — a magazine writer who also understands the nut graf, but in a much lazier, sprawling way that magazine people do. We were talking about ex-boyfriends, tragedies and beautiful memories. I started talking about how New York has really redefined me and allowed me to breathe new air — albeit smoggy at times. I don’t have memories trailing me wherever I go, and each morning that I awake I feel like the city is mine.
The cobblestone street in front of my slender Italian townhouse is mine. The bus stop where I hang like a hooker every morning waiting for my lift to work is mine. The gym in my neighborhood with a hot yoga teacher is mine. My office on the 9th floor of the [building name removed for privacy] is mine.
Why is this important? Because for so long memories have followed me around, and crowded me and vied for my time, my emotions and my existence. It is finally fading. I’m finally leaving that uncongenial shadow in the dust.
It hit me. Those distasteful events in my life are no longer my nut graf.
I no longer feel like I have to squeeze that clunky graf up at the top of my defining existence — my story. I can let the story flow, and put in a new forward-looking graf, one that is not rooted in a decaying past.
I re-read this note every year, and not just because it’s beautifully written and I can hear my friend’s voice in the words. This note reminds me that we all have the power to re-write our nut grafs.
We can’t change the past, but the future is ours to tame, to dance with, to enjoy. We choose our own future, or much of it, anyway. And you know what? That future overrides the past. What you do from here on out matters more than what you’ve already done.
What do you want your nut graf to say?