Somewhere along the way, a convention of daily newspapering seeped into the very different art of long-form magazine journalism: the nut graph.
For those unfamiliar with the term, the nut graph is the paragraph that purports to explain what the whole story is about. In newspapers, it usually appears anywhere from the third to the sixth paragraph from the top. In really short stories it can be the first paragraph.
In a daily newspaper story, the nut graph is a useful thing: It signals that a busy reader, in his feverish attempt to gain an understanding of the wide world in as few minutes as possible, need read no further. The reader has the nut, or the essence of the story, and has executed the duty of an informed citizen. Read further, the nut graph says, only if you have some particular personal interest in the topic.
Magazine stories perform precisely the opposite function. They inform, sure. But mostly, they entertain. They are literary instruments, ideally as complete and self-contained as a painting. For a reader to stop reading before the end is akin to a museum-goer looking only at one corner of a canvas or a concert-goer walking out before the last movement. The point of a magazine story is the whole. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.
So the trick is to avoid giving the reader an opportunity to stop reading. I am amazed at how many magazine stories contain nut graphs. Usually, they’re farther down inside the story than paragraph three or six. But they’re there all the same — a paragraph that nicely sums up the message of the article. This happens, I suspect, because the natural career progression for most reporters is from newspapers to magazines. Ditto their editors. who fail to spot the offending paragraph and thus sentence the writer to unreadability.
If, when writing a magazine story, you feel you need to tell readers what it is you’re writing about — why they should keep reading — then you’ve made an insoluble error at the very top. The nut graph is the last refuge of the writer who’s lost his way, who is asking himself, “Where is this going? Why should anybody keep reading?” and thinks he can solve the problem by baldly announcing his intention. He can’t. What he needs to do at that moment is save and close that document, open a new one on his screen, drag nothing from the earlier version, and start afresh. It is as painful, and as ultimately satisfying, an experience as sawing off a gangrenous limb. (See the blog posts Strangle Your Babies in Their Cradles and The Gangrenous Limb.)
Even if you’re writing about something deadly serious that the public simply must know about in order to be good citizens, remember that a magazine article is fundamentally about the pleasure of reading. You need to get readers all the way to the bottom of your three or five or ten thousand words. If they stop at any point, you might as well not have reported or written everything below. Busy people stop reading long magazine stories for all kinds of reasons — because you’re written a clunker of a sentence, because you’ve made a grammar or syntax blunder that slightly muddied the meaning of a phrase and broke the spell, because you’ve made an assertion you’ve inadequately backed up. Readers are looking — begging — for an excuse to stop reading; they’ve got plenty else to do. If you fall back on the crutch of a nut graph, you’ve handed them a perfect excuse to stop reading. Don’t do it.