Death to the Nut Graph

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.

Present Tense? Careful.

Somehow, I associate writing in the first person with writing in the present tense. They both seem like tools of young writers, though I am sure plenty of older ones use them, too. First person makes the center of attention the inside of the author’s skull, and what could possibly be more interesting than me? For its part, present tense lends a piece a racy, breathless immediacy that can sweep the reader quickly past a multitude of writing sins.

Both the first person and present tense are powerful drugs. They can be useful, even lifesaving. But they can also be addictive. And a present-tense addict is just as tedious as any other type of addict.

So before you lapse into either, ask yourself: Is this necessary to the telling of the story I’m telling? Why am I using present tense instead of plain old past tense? You may have a good reason. You may want drop a reader straight into a scene of a teenager feverishly defusing a ticking nuclear weapon, and putting it in the present tense might lend a sense that the reader is right there in the tower with her. But it is something about which it is worth thinking hard. An entire article in present tense — let alone a book — can be exhausting to read. Most of the time, we speak in past tense. “I went to the hardware store and bought a hammer,” though moments arise — when we want to add an ethnic flavor, perhaps, or we something truly extraordinary happened, when it sounds better in present tense. “I go to the hardware store and buy a hammer,” which sets up a punchline. “And I drop the thing on my toe before I’m half a block away.” That adds all kind of irony and woe-is-me to a sentence that might have simply said, “I went to the hardware store and bought a hammer. And I dropped it on my toe before I was a block away.” Hear the difference?

Point is, think hard about your choice. Past tense is the default. You might have a good reason for using present tense, but you should be ready to explain it.

I just spent all day today, in fact — April 25, 2018 — writing in the present tense. One time you should use it is in describing in a proposal the book you want to write. That’s what I’m doing now. Even if you’re summarizing a story, putting it in present tense signals you’re describing a book, not expecting the editor reading it to get engaged in the story. As in, “Frank plays a particular song — ‘Is That All There Is’ — on his stereo and has an epiphany: he should run for Orleans Parish Coroner.” Try that in past tense and you’ll see it’s no longer descriptive of an important plot moment, but just a scene from the book. Sample chapters should be in past tense — unless you have a very good reason for using present, but the barstool-to-barstool description of your book should be in present tense. See this file for tips on how to write a book proposal. 



Why do we do this?

Enough, for the moment, about how to make a living as a writer. Let’s go back to an even more fundamental question: why do we do this? Why do we put ourselves through the copious pain and disappointment of writing? All writers have their own reasons. Mine are, in no particular order: the fun of doing the research and reporting, the sensual pleasure of finding the clippety-clop of well-crafted sentences and paragraphs, being my own boss, the satisfaction of seeing my words in print, reactions from readers. 

    But there’s something else.  A democracy depends on the public being well informed. How, otherwise, can they make choices? People cannot fully inform themselves, any more than they can (usually) fix their own cars, rewire their own houses, remove their own appendices. They hire mechanics, electricians, and surgeons to do those things, and they hire us to tell them what’s going on in their world. Without getting too misty-eyed about this, ours is a sacred calling; we’re truly irreplaceable. 

    It’s important to do this job well because if you don’t, you’ll fail, and you’ll be denied the pleasures of reporting and writing for a living. But it’s also important to do this job well because our democracy depends on it. Think of what kind of dumbass we might elect president if we weren’t such an exquisitely well-informed public.

The I’s Have It.

The New York Times recently ran a rather depressing piece about the way college freshmen write and the difficulty of teaching them to write better. It seems they are bottled up inside themselves and have trouble freeing themselves to self-expression. Somewhere along the way, for example, they have absorbed the lesson that they cannot use the word I. 

First person — telling a story in the voice of the protagonist — is a strong drug. It can lend your writing warmth and intimacy, and free you of the burden of imagining what’s going on inside every character’s head. Some of the greatest American novels, from Moby Dick to The Catcher in the Rye, are written in first person. Ditto great American non-fiction, in which the first-person voice is less a protagonist than a guide. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas comes to mind. Much of John McPhee’s work. And Gun Guys: A Road Trip.  

More and more non-fiction magazine writing seems to contain licks of non-fiction, even if it’s as subtle as writing, “he told me,” instead of “he said.” Some writers and editors believe that it’s an effective way to put the reader in the room and make everybody in the story more human. It is also, arguably, more honest that leaving oneself out completely. If you’re going to describe, say, an ear-piercing factory whistle, you might need to explain to your readers how you know what that whistle sounds like. And once you’ve acknowledged that you know it first hand, it’s only honest to make a flesh-and-blood character of yourself so you’re not passing yourself off as some kind of spectral presence.

I’ve used licks of first person in my own non-fiction magazine writing. See the second half of “No Pulse” on the Articles page, for example. In the first half, I’m invisible — the omniscient narrator. Starting at about the word “drippy,” however, I, the writer, become as much a character as anybody else in the story. 

It made sense at the time. As I was writing it, the article felt like it was getting down too deep in the techno-scientific weeds and needed more narrative leavening. Using first person allowed me, I thought, to make more complete characters out of the doctors and patients who were the real protagonists. You judge whether I got hooked on the strong drug of first person and overdid it. 

A dollop of first person was essential to Gun Guys: A Road Trip because the book’s central conceit was that as a liberal, Jewish, east-coast Democrat who also likes guns, I had a unique perspective to explain both sides.

When I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal in the early 1980’s, the paper had a handy rule by which we reporters lived. We could not only use first person but start an article with the word “I” — but only if we were shot in the groin reporting the piece. I’ve never seen a Journal story begin with “I,” thank heavens. 

Take What You Can Get

If you’ve decided to walk Path Three after graduation — getting a job — you’re going to have to take what you can get. It is true that many fewer newspapers exist today than when I was looking for a reporter’s job. But the number is hardly zero. In fact, 1,300 dailies still operate in the U.S. — down from about 1,700 in the early eighties — and that’s not counting the weeklies and the semi-weeklies. In my day, we found reporter’s jobs by thumbing to the back of Editor and Publisherthe magazine of the newspaper industry, and looking through help-wanted classifieds. Now you go to E&P’s website and do likewise. Remember, too, sites like Reddit, Buzzfeed, and others that churn out  lots of copy. If you count online journalism, people are arguably reading more today than ever. So you should be able to find that first reporter’s job. (Do not work for The Huffington Post. They don’t pay writers.)

I hope you’re not one of those people who “has to be near the mountains,” or “couldn’t imagine leaving the beach,” or who places some other geographic limitation on the future.  Ditto the dog and the boyfriend/girlfriend. If what you want is to become a writer through newspapering, you’d do well to divest yourself of any limiting factors. Shoot the dog and ditch the sweetheart (but not the other way around) and be prepared to go somewhere you never imagined that you could live. If the job you can get is in Decatur, Alabama, off to Decatur with you. Hastings, Nebraska? See you in Hastings. As soon as you’ve filed your first story, you can start looking for your next job.

And remember this: the big stories of our time exist everywhere. Decaying democracy, poverty, inequality, discrimination, racism, corruption — they all are happening everywhere and need to be exposed with excellent reporting. Don’t tell me that covering school board meetings in Minot, North Dakota, is “boring.” Watching people passionate about public education — whether from a philosophical, Christian, socialist, or other perspective — is fascinating, and makes for reporting essential to the functioning of democracy. Inequality in Hastings is no less important than inequality in Los Angeles. So any place you find that first job will be terrific.


Another Non-Grad-School Path to Writing

If you looked at Third-Act Trouble starting with the word “skyrocket,” you already know that after getting a pay-the-bills job and trying to become a writer on my own in West Berlin, I took a job at a newspaper in New York. It was a dreary little trade paper for commercial and industrial energy managers, but it was a job that required me to put nouns against verbs. Even better, it gave me a taste for journalism and a desire to continue upwards from where I was: the very bottom of the newspaper food chain. I had a lot of fun over the next five years, and doing so ultimately led me to the freelancer’s life, and, even better, to Margaret.

So, three paths from college graduation to writing for a living: The solo high-wire act, grad school, and getting a reporter’s job, however lowly.


The Non-Grad-School Path to Writing

Another way to become a writer is to skip grad school and simply start writing. Find a mindless job that takes little of your mental energy but pays enough to buy health insurance, rent a room, and provide yourself with groceries, and use all your spare time to put words on paper (or disk). If you download Third-Act Trouble and do a keyword search for Cyclades, you can read about how I carved out two years to write in West Berlin, working for, variously, the American, British, and French armies. None of those jobs required much mental energy, so I had plenty to bring to banging out three terrible novellas on my little manual German-language typewriter. After two years of that, I returned to the U.S. and on the advice of my father’s friend, himself a writer, got what he called, “any job that will pay you to put nouns and verbs together.” Search in Third Act Trouble for the keyword “skyrocket” to read how I took no experience and no talent and from those built a career as a reporter, which led to freelance magazine and book writing.