Nut-grafs, cosmic kickers and other obscure-sounding elements of traditional journalistic craftsmanship provide a great framework to improve your writing.
The panicking writer
A writer stares at a blank page, sweating. How to get started? If only there were a simple guide somewhere to writing articles for the Internet, newspapers or magazines!
So you want to write the perfect article?
Welcome. I’ll tell you how.
Nut-grafs: a clear central message
The essential starting point is that you must have a clear central message. What are you trying to say? What’s your point? Clarity on this makes everything that follows much easier.
3 posts to perfection
This is the second in a series of three posts about writing the perfect piece. Start by reading part 1 of this series Writing the perfect article or blog. It shows how to decide on your message and make sure what you are writing is relevant. Later, in part 3, Cosmic kickers: worked examples, you can see two published articles based on the model set out below.
Once you are clear on what you want to say, it’s time to get started. Structure is everything.
Many journalists use a simple template. There are lots of ways of doing this; but the following, based on advice from a US journalist friend, has worked well for me in numerous feature articles during my time as a freelance journalist. A worked example is at the end of this blog.
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Nut-grafs and cosmic kickers: the 4 key elements
Your article should consist of the following elements. I’ve set them out in the order in which they will appear in your article. You may want to write them in a different order – see below.
- Lede or intro: a colourful image or anecdote to engage the reader’s attention at the opening of the piece. This is the “shop window” to lure the reader in. You should ensure this is an instrumental lede which, in addition to grabbing attention, illustrates your core message. Length: short.
- Nut-graf: one or maximum two paragraphs setting out your core central message, following on from the lede. Nut-grafs are central to this approach.
- Body: the main part of the article, setting out points illustrating your core message, e.g. interviews, facts and figures, argument.
- Kicker: a closing colourful image or anecdote. Ideally this should be a cosmic kicker, i.e. which also illustrates your core message.
That’s it. You don’t have to stick to this formula, but if you at least use it as a reference point, you’ll find it easier to write professional-looking pieces.
One tip: if you’re writing for a newspaper, don’t worry about the title. Whatever title you choose, the sub-editors will change it. But you may find that giving your piece a working title early on will help you write it.
Nut-grafs: start here
In all articles you should start off – before doing anything else – by sketching the nut-grafs, in order to be sure you know what your central message is. Don’t worry about the drafting at this point – you can change it later.
Once you’re sure you have your central message in a sketched-out nut-graf, you should do your research – any interviews, quotes, checking of facts and figures, hyperlinks – everything you need to illustrate your central message. During this time you may well come up with ideas for your lede. The lede is vital to get people to read your article – a kind of shop window. You may find it useful to try out a few ideas – write them down and see how they look. You should also be thinking about your kicker. But the kicker, although it makes the article read well, isn’t as crucial as lede, nut-graf and body – and the sub-editors may cut it anyway.
Once you’ve done your research and sketched out your nut-graf and lede, you can get cracking on the body. If you’ve done things in this order you may well find that by this point the writing flows pretty smoothly.
When you’ve completed the article, read it through carefully for typos. If you have time, put it to one side for an hour, or a day, before reading it through again to make sure it makes sense. Then – publish, or send it to your target website or newspaper. Congratulations! You’re a writer!
Nut-grafs and cosmic kickers: worked example
The following article appeared in The FT Weekend travel section on 9 July 2004. I have shown below how the lede, nut-graf, body and kicker fit together.
You can find more examples, using the same template, at my journalism index.
‘We’ll all soon beg to fly business’ (950 words)
It’s 4 a.m. over the Indian Ocean. Should I say something? I don’t like to cause a scene. But the platitudes are driving me insane.
“Fighting for peace is like ****ing for virginity,” the passenger behind me roars. “That’s what we used to say.”
“War is always causing suffering,” the Norwegian teenager replies. He’s standing in the gangway. His interlocutor, a German filled with drink, is in the seat behind mine.
“Fighting for peace is like ****ing for virginity! Ha!”
That’s it. I turn around and ask the German, in the most non-confrontational language I can muster, if he could possibly keep the noise down.
“What’s wrong with you?” the peacenik rages. “Are you a policeman? Do you want an argument? Do you want me as an enemy? If so, you are making a dangerous mistake.”
The Norwegian returns to his seat. The German subsides, muttering. Silence falls, interrupted only by the ceaseless coughing of another passenger and the howling of a baby.
There’s a phoney debate raging in the travel industry about business-only airlines for business travellers. Phoney, because it’s obvious to any economy class passenger that the carriers’ real goal is to force every one of us to choose business in the fond belief we’re exercising our free will.
Think that’s paranoid? Here’s the secret list, assembled at great personal cost to me by research in recent months, of how the airlines are plotting to make economy class so ghastly we’ll soon all be begging to fly business.
Limitless alcohol: that German behind me boarded the plane as a bright-eyed, smiley fellow. The first time he raised his voice was when the stewardess suggested he’d had enough to drink.
“It is not good to drink too much alcohol when flying.” She made as if to push her trolley, loaded with a colossal array of spirits, towards the next passenger. “Just one more Cognac,” the German pleaded. The stewardess smiled and sloshed Martell into his glass.
The airlines say they have responsible alcohol service policies. Right. Their policies are responsible for turning coach-class cabins into hotbeds of alcohol-fuelled air rage.
Rubber chicken: as a veteran of dozens of Aeroflot domestic flights in the early 1990s, I know a thing or two about rubber chicken. But lately, the dreaded bouncing birds have been turning up on the menus of some quite respectable airlines. Even for breakfast. When the alternative is a turkey-meat sausage, it’s clear the agenda is to serve up food only the hungriest passengers can steel themselves to eat.
One well-known airline announced recently it was setting up a “Congress” of no less than 12 celebrity chefs to advise them on their menus. A congress of chefs. Like, no-one knows what too many cooks are famous for.
Narrow seats: this will transform the most equable neighbour into an intrusive, sharp-elbowed oaf. And woe betide you if they’re any more corpulent than an anorexic stick-insect.
On a recent 12-hour flight, I sat next to a fat man. Let’s be fair: he was perfectly friendly, and by no means so overweight as to stand out in a crowded pub. But his girth, combined with the pitifully narrow seats, meant that his generously-proportioned forearms either had to be in the laps of the adjacent passengers, or raised above his head. In the latter position, which he somehow managed to maintain for hours at a time, his armpits were inches from the nostrils of his neighbours.
Wedged into his seat, he spent 12 hours fidgeting forwards and backwards and shifting from side to side, rocking an entire row with him.
At 3am, tormented by discomfort, he rolled up his T-shirt to reveal a tight white beach ball of distended flesh. The pressure of the seat-arms on his midriff affected his respiration. Every breath was a laboured wheeze, like a dying cowboy. Every few minutes a wet cough, inadequately harvested, spattered me with spittle at point-blank range. This happened except when he fell asleep, and began to snore. The fact that none of this was his fault didn’t help me enjoy my journey.
Lousy in-flight movies: it’s tough, sitting still for 12 hours. Boredom can make anyone fractious. Especially children. That’s why in-flight entertainment programmes include hundreds of movies of no possible interest to anyone, least of all children. That’s why airlines leave movies running with the sound off during key plot revelations, while the pilot makes a three-language announcement about weather conditions, the distribution of landing cards and the location of transit desks in airports at which we’re not arriving for hours.
On one recent flight they cut the feature off half-way through and closed the system down for four hours during the night. They then left the curtain to business class tantalisingly open, so that tormented economy class passengers could see their pampered counterparts in the forward lounge toying with sleek lap-top personal DVD players.
The airlines calculate that none of these measures individually will leave them vulnerable to legal action or refund claims. But taken together, their impact is powerful. Once passengers have been plied with alcohol, stuffed with stodge, pummelled by their neighbours and bored literally to tears, the cost of an upgrade will start to seem a small price to pay.
[Cosmic kicker example]
There’s been a blissful silence from the row behind me for ten minutes now. I can feel myself nodding off. “I’m so sorry!” A hand on my shoulder, shaking me. “I didn’t mean to disturb you! The Norwegian boy kept asking questions.” It’s the German passenger, full now of remorse. I tell him it’s OK. I just want to rest. Silence falls. Sleep is on its way.
Suddenly the hand is on my shoulder again. “I’m really, really sorry!”
Nut-grafs and cosmic kickers: more resources
I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece introducing nut-grafs, cosmic kickers and their cousins. If you’ve found it useful:
(iii) find resources to turbo-charge your fiction writing in these posts:
- How to write a novel: five ways to get in the habit of writing.
- How to write a novel: plan in advance, or not?
- Writing fiction: 7 ways to deal with writer’s block and rejection
- How to write gripping fiction: scenes, sequels and cliff-hangers
- How to write a novel: edit as you go along, or not?
- Writing tips: 7 ways to improve your manuscript
- How I write
(iv)try these writing courses:
- Writing courses: Loutro, Crete
- Queen Mary 2 Literature Festival at Sea
- Writing courses: Skyros
- Writing courses: Arvon
(v) Take a look at my most recent books, such as “Palladium”, below.