Nut Graph and Angle: Keys to Strong Openings


The nut graph is the context paragraph, the place where you orient the reader, making clear the circumstances of the story and what it means. Nut graphs are used with all leads. It’s crucial to include such a paragraph in every story, otherwise the reader can quickly become confused, especially in stories with a scenic opening. Here’s how to write a great nut graph:

  1. Make sure to answer all the questions that haven’t been answered in the lead—Who? What? When Where? Why? How? You can leave the how for the rest of the story but the other questions need to be answered.
  2. Why is the most important question to answer. Don’t neglect it. Make sure that the reader understands why the story is important. Give the reason for its significance. “Sell” the story to the readers. Make a case for why they should read it.


Getting the right angle is the key to writing compelling stories of all kinds. Without a strong angle, your story will ramble along through a jungle of prose without any clear path or direction. Readers confronting such meanderings will lose heart; few will want to hack their way through the luxuriant undergrowth to find the story’s meaning. Make it easy on them. Figure out the angle in advance and make sure your story supports and illustrates it.

  1. Find one aspect of the story to highlight. In a profile choose one aspect of the subject’s personality to bring to the fore. What larger trend does their life illustrate? What is unique and distinctive about him or her? You want the best angle, the most interesting aspect of the life to highlight.
  2. What is the larger point you want to make? This is often related to the angle. What idea should the reader take from the story? What do you want the reader to learn?

These are just two of the topics I’ll address in my fall Seattle writing class, Revising Your Life.

Summary Leads: The Quickest and Easiest Way to Open a Story


These leads allow you to get to the point of your story quickly and easily. The trick is to make them appealing as well. Writers using summary leads often employ wordplay or humor to liven them up.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens

“The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once famously observed that “Hell is other people.” And he worked from home. Imagine if he had been one of the millions of us who are forced to navigate the psychic minefields of the modern corporation.”

From a book review in the Wall Street Journal, 4/4/06 by Martin Kihn.

Normally, the milk of human kindness doesn’t leave a sour taste. Unless, that is, you happen to be a Northerner taking too big a gulp of Southern hospitality.

From the Wall Street Journal, 10/29/96, by Eleena De Lisser of which discusses the reception Northerner’s get when moving to the South.

This lead works because it puts a surprising twist on what normally would be a cliché (ie. the milk of human kindness). In this way, it intrigues and appeals to the reader, encouraging the reader to find out just what she means by all this. The second line introduces in summary fashion the subject of the story.

De Lisser then introduces a quote which backs up and further explains the lead:

“It’s the most irritating thing I can think of,” complains Diane Kuhn, an ex-New Yorker now living in Nashville, Tenn., referring to the South’s idea of highway hospitality. “Drivers will let 12 cars” enter their lane, she says. “I say you let one in. Maybe. If you’re in a good mood.”

Then De Lisser moves to the nut graph, which introduces the larger issue:

For the most part, the North these days can’t seem to get enough of the South–its music, its cooking, its John Grisham (of Oxford, Miss.) A lot of Northerners are coming on down.

She then goes on to explain that the Northerners don’t appreciate the social courtesies of Southerners. Such a topic would confound most newspaper journalists, but De Lisser handles it with deftness, humor and aplomb.

I’ll be discussing summary leads and other ways of opening a story in my fall writing class, Revising Your Life.