Improve Your Blog Posts with Nut Graphs

Photo of a walnut shell

In a typical day, I read all or part of 25 to 30 blog posts on B2B communications and journalism. Often, one or two of those stories will share something special—a new way of looking at a problem, a brilliant insight, or an argument that I find compelling. When that happens, I turn to Delicious to bookmark it for future reference. So far so good.

But all too often at that point, I’m stumped. When I look for the key sentence or paragraph from the post to save with the link, I can’t find it. I may have to cut and paste a few sentences from the beginning, middle, and end of the piece to indicate the main point, or, in the worst cases, write my own summary statement.

In a way, this is a good sign. What it says is that the author’s idea was so good that it still shone through despite the lack of a single statement that encapsulated it. But how many good ideas in other posts have slipped by readers because the authors just couldn’t capture their essence in a few definitive sentences?

What these stories lack is a vital element pioneered by The Wall Street Journal: the nut graph (or graf, if you can stand spelling it that way). As Chip Scanlan defines it in in a superb overview,

“The nut graf tells the reader what the writer is up to; it delivers a promise of the story’s content and message. It’s called the nut graf because, like a nut, it contains the ‘kernel,’ or essential theme, of the story.”

Though the nut graph originates in journalism, it can benefit all business bloggers.  It is designed specifically for an informal approach to writing, one that, like so many blog posts, typically begins with “anecdotal leads that hook the reader.”  (Yes, you’ve just read my nut graph.)

Many writers have been exposed to the 5 Ws of the news-lede approach to news writing, and the related inverted-pyramid structure of news stories. But that approach is wrong for most blog posts, as it is for much journalism. As Scanlan notes, the problem with the news lede/inverted pyramid is that by telling the gist of the story at the very start, it gives the reader “a built-in excuse to stop.”  When the goal of your writing is engagement, though, you want to sell the story to the reader first.

Most business bloggers, I think, get that much. But what they too often don’t get is that you still need to deliver the kernel of your story pretty quickly. In Scanlan’s words,

“At the same time, the nut graf required in every story served the function of the inverted pyramid’s summary lead: providing readers with the gist of the story up high. If they chose to stop, they at least knew the broad outlines of the story. If they chose to continue, however, they knew they would be rewarded with even greater understanding and enjoyment.”

Deciding where to put your nut graph and how much to give away in it are not easy things to do, which is no doubt why many bloggers don’t. But they should.

If you’re not already a “nutsheller,” as experienced nut-graph writers are called, Scanlan’s article can help you become one. The process of crafting a good nut graph will help clarify what you want to achieve in your blog post, and help ensure that you effectively convey it to your reader.