Shaping Delicious Stories With Nut Grafs
This month’s tasty Food Science books have me going a bit nutty for nut graphs, a term that comes from journalism. What’s a nut graph? I’m glad you asked…
A nut graf answers “so what”
A nut graph (or nut graf as journalists sometimes spell it) is a paragraph that tells your reader why they should care about your piece of nonfiction writing. It explains why the piece matters and why the reader should keep reading it. In other words, the nut graf answers “so what?”
The nut graph usually appears a few paragraphs into the nonfiction piece after the hook. The hook is how you open the piece, perhaps with an exciting anecdote or surprising statement that tugs your reader in. I talked about how to hook your reader in this STEM Tuesday post about starting stories. Once you have the reader’s interest, you have to keep it by telling them why your story matters.
So what’s my nut graf for this post? Students should learn to read for nut grafs, not just in news stories, but books and other writing too. That’s because nut grafs help reveal an author’s purpose. And, for student writers, the practice of writing a nut graf at the beginning of a writing assignment will help them structure their nonfiction writing.
Let’s explore nut grafs with a couple of samples from this month’s books.
Nut graf example – The Story of Seeds
Nancy Castaldo begins THE STORY OF SEEDS by having the reader imagine spitting out watermelon seeds. Then she challenges us to consider how we’d react if those were the last watermelon seeds in the world. Finally, she asks: what if instead those seeds were the last seeds of a staple crop like wheat or rice?
After that two-paragraph opening hook comes Castaldo’s nut graf:
“We’re in the midst of a seed crisis. Every day new headlines jump at us. Seeds are facing many threats. And when they are threatened, our food supply is at risk.”
And continuing into the next paragraph, “It may sound crazy, even improbably, but there are scientists who are risking their lives every day for seeds.”
Wow! I’m all in for this Indiana Jones-style adventure of scientists racing to save seeds so we have something to eat in the future. Nancy has shown us exactly why this story should matter to a young reader. If I had to summarize her purpose it would be to persuade the reader about the important work of saving seeds.
Nut graf example – Bugs for Breakfast
In BUGS FOR BREAKFAST, Mary Boone opens by having the reader imagine eating crickets and other bugs. After her two paragraph hook, she writes her nut graf:
“This isn’t a dare or some weird nature survival stunt. More than two billion people around the world regularly eat insects and arachnids. It is a practice called entomophagy, and it could be coming to a plate near you.”
Boone has just summarized her entire book in that paragraph. Why does eating bugs matter, and why should we care? Her purpose is to inform us that eating bugs is perfectly normal around the world, and to show how us how and why we might soon eat them for dinner.
Writing a nut graf helps the writer too
For student writers, writing a nut graf can help them shape their writing. It’s easy for writers to feel like they are drowning in information after they’ve done thorough research. Organizing it can be a challenge. But not all of it is relevant to the story they are trying to tell. What tool could help us make decisions about what to include and what to leave out? Writing a nut graf, of course.
To write a nut graf, review your research, then ask the following questions:
• Why are you writing this?
• Why should it matter to the reader?
• Why should they care?
• Why is it worth their time to keep reading?
Once you’ve done some brainstorming, write your nut graf in no more than five sentences (or better yet, one or two). Then let the nut graf be your guide. Use it as an outline as you write the rest of your piece.
Writing a nut graf isn’t a hard nut to crack. Now excuse me while I go make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Bon appetit!
Kirsten W. Larson
Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion, 2021), and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, 2023), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter and Instagram @KirstenWLarson.