Link: The tension between telling a story and telling readers what is going on

An article by Chip Scanlan at Nieman Storyboard displays an insider’s knowledge of the nut graf, the part of a journalistic article that explains to the reader what the rest of an article is about: “Nut grafs: Overused, misused — or merely misunderstood?”.

The big idea in the article is the tension between writers who want to create a kind of suspense in their stories, and readers who want to know what the heck a story is about before they commit to reading all of it. The so-called “nut graf” is an invention to enable readers to get the gist of an article early on, so that if they choose not to read the rest, they’ll know more or less what they missed. It’s not exactly Cliff’s Notes, but it helps.

Evidently some writers hate the idea because the nut graf is usually written in an omniscient voice that pulls readers out of a narrative.

We toss out the word “story” every day. “Great story!” “Why wasn’t my story on the cover?” And the highest praise, “I wish I could write that story.” But as the legendary writing coach Jack Hart noted, most journalistic pieces are not stories, but articles, well reported and organized, accurate and fair. But no child ever looked up from their pillow at night, eyes wide with excitement, and beseeched, “Daddy, tell me an article!”
Stories have characters, not sources; settings, not addresses; dialogue, not quotes. Instead of nut grafs, they use transitions—a term from the musical world— subtle, elegant turns that mark the passage from one scene, subject, or place to another.

This is a tension that often occurs in science writing. When I teach, I like to assign narrative pieces by writers that tell human stories. But I also like to assign textbook chapters and scientific articles.

Stories are valuable, and they can do things that more neutrally written articles cannot. But a story can be the ultimate cop-out for a writer who is addressing scientific subjects. And the idea that an article must be “well reported and organized, accurate and fair” belongs to a mythological world that probably never existed.

A written piece is a machine for thinking. There will be no single right way to write, because readers are rightly suspicious of any writer’s motives and abilities. Narrative can be an effective way to convey some information, but readers should be wary of the biases hidden in stories about individuals, especially when the stories are a sugar-coated way of introducing a scientific subject.