News Features: Focus and Nut Graphs

For your next assignment, story #3, you might be inclined to go with a delayed lead. A delayed lead doesn’t give you the 5 Ws, How and So What right up top. Instead, this type of lead entices the reader or lis­tener into the story by hinting at its contents. A delayed lead is often used with feature stories. It could be one sentence long, or several sentences if it’s an anecdotal or narrative lead. Anecdotal leads give an example to illustrate what the story is about. For example, here is an anecdotal lead to a story about Brazil’s murder rate and gun laws by NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro. This came from a good lead is everything  from NPR.

At the dilapidated morgue in the northern Brazilian city of Natal, Director Marcos Brandao walks over the blood-smeared floor to where the corpses are kept. He points out the labels attached to the bright metal doors, counting out loud. It has not been a particularly bad night, yet there are nine shooting victims in cold storage.

We understand right away that the story will be about a high rate of gun-related murder in Brazil. And this is a much more vivid and gripping way of conveying it than if Lulu had simply stated that the rate of gun violence is high.

In any case, the gist of the story gets moved to what is called the focus or nut graph.  In journalism, a nut graph (nutshell paragraph) is a paragraph that explains the context of the story. In essence, it’s very similar to a summary lead, but the structure is a bit different and often builds on what came before it.

Here is the NPR’s story nut graph

Almost 60,000 people were murdered in Brazil in 2014, most with guns. While some Latin American countries have higher per capita murder rates, in absolute numbers, Brazil is the deadliest place in the world outside Syria.

Here is an assignment we would have done in class yesterday.

Write an anecdotal lead based on the following information. It’s a story about apartments that violate city codes and are considered hazardous, but are often rented to students anyway.  Don’t use 1st person. But you can show the subject in action.

You interviewed a student who lives in an attic apartment. His story is similar to the stories of many other students in this neighborhood, known as the Wesley Neighborhood. As you climbed the steps to his apartment, you noticed that duct tape keeps the banister in place on the stairs. Some of the wood step risers are warped or loose. You saw that the kitchen is infested with roaches and you notice mouse traps on the floors. The student, Ted Drake, took you to the bathroom and said it has no electricity. He uses a candle to light the room. The sink itself is rust stained. “It’s a dump,” said Drake, a senior majoring in architecture. “But it was the cheapest thing I could find.” This apartment is located at 1032 Bank St. in Towson.

Here is the nut/focus graph of the story: Drake’s story is becoming all too common. Each year, dozens of unsafe and derelict apartments in Wesley and nearby neighborhoods are rented to area college students.

And here is the story using an anecdotal lead with nut graph:

The [steps] leading to Ted Drake’s Wesley Neighborhood apartment can be [treacherous]. Duct tape keeps the bannister in place and the wood step risers are warped or loose.

The [conditions inside] get even [worse].

His kitchen is infested with mice and roaches. The bathroom lacks electricity and Drake has to wash his face by candlelight over a stained sink.

“It’s a dump,” said Drake, a senior at Towson University majoring in architecture. “But it was the cheapest thing I could find.”

Drake’s story is becoming all too common. Each year, dozens of unsafe apartments in Wesley and nearby neighborhoods are being rented to area college students.

I put in brackets what are called focus words. Focus words are built-in transitions that setup what is to come. When you construct a sentence, where you place certain words and phrases can add impact and help focus the story. It can also help naturally transition you into the next sentence.

The words “steps” and “treacherous” are placed at the beginning and end of the sentence to add impact and reverberate in the head of the reader. Just by placing them there the reader WANTS to know just how treacherous these steps are and what specifically about them makes it so. The next sentence provides that and you don’t need an intervening sentence or phrase to transition you there. The transition is natural and invisible, the way good writing should be.

Likewise, the focus words “conditions’ “inside” and “worse” lead the reader to the next paragraph and set of details. In essence, they foreshadow what is to come. The reader is expecting you to take them inside and show how bad the conditions are in there. Again, no awkward transition needed, the copy just flows.

When you’re building a story, try to find the right focus words and placement for them to move the story forward and lead into details.





Published by Rienzi

A writer/teacher based in Maryland. Former New Yorker and avid baseball fan. You can often find me running, although not from anyone in particular.

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