On Writing Process

Some journalists have a strict writing process. I don’t. I just start writing wherever I can.

Many journalists like to start with what’s called the “lede,” which is an intentional misspelling of “lead” and basically means “introduction.” Others like to start with the “nut graf,” which is the paragraph that explains the point of a story in a nutshell. (“Graf” is another intentional misspelling. Journalists use a lot of these.)

In a straight news story that follows the traditional inverted pyramid format, the lede is usually a simple statement of the most important fact or facts of the story. For example, in this Oregonian article the lede is: “Precision Castparts notified employees Wednesday that it will shut down its main Portland site this month, blaming the coronavirus outbreak for eliminating demand for its heavy industrial products.”

The nut is the very next sentence: “The news is another indication that Oregon’s economic calamity, which began when restaurants and shops closed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, is now spreading to manufacturing and other key economic sectors.”

In other journalistic writing, like features or long-form stories, the lede can be almost anything. A fact, a statistic, an anecdote, a question. For my digital divide story, I went with an anecdote: a specific person who is struggling to complete her online course work because she lacks reliable internet access at home. The nut is the fourth graf:

Medina is one of millions of people in the US who lack reliable broadband internet at home, either because they can’t afford it or because it simply isn’t available where they live. This digital divide has always left children and adults alike with fewer educational and economic opportunities. But with schools, libraries, and workplaces closed during the coronavirus pandemic, those without broadband are struggling to access schoolwork, job listings, unemployment benefit applications, and video chat services that others use to keep in touch with friends and family. For those on the wrong side of the digital divide, working from home isn’t an option.

I think I actually started writing that piece with the fifth graf, however.

I’ve tried being more disciplined about my process. Donald M. Murray recommended in Writing to Deadline that you should start by writing a bunch of possible ledes before you start writing other parts of the story. That doesn’t work for me. I mean, it’s nice when I have an idea for the lede when I start. I can usually write an article more quickly and the whole piece will usually hang together better if I start writing at the beginning. But forestalling work on the rest of a piece until I have an idea for the lede leads me to procrastinate on getting started and, ultimately, worse writing on my part. The lede is often the last thing I write. Getting the rest of the story down often helps me figure out what sort of a lede I need. For example, will a pithy sentence do or do I need an anecdote?

Starting with the nut is easier, and I’d say it’s the most common way I write. But sometimes I don’t know how to articulate the importance of a story. In those cases, I just start with something I do know. For example, I think I started my WireGuard story by explaining how the project got started (the section with the subhead “Lessons From Consulting”). I went back and wrote the top of the story later. Working on the other parts gave me more perspective.

Other times I realize that what I thought was the nut, well, isn’t. Sometimes these false-nuts end up making good ledes. Embarrassingly, there have been times that I thought I’d written a serviceable nut only to have an editor say “we need a nut graf in there somewhere.” I’m not sure this piece has a nut at all. Perhaps the lede and the nut are one and the same.

This piece started as a tweet in response to tweet by New York Times tech reporter Kate Conger. But when I started working on it as a separate essay, the first thing I wrote was the second sentence: “I just start writing wherever I can,” which felt appropriate.

I struggle often with “kickers,” or endings. But very occasionally I’ll think of a snappy last line or spot a good kicker-quote in my notes before I even start writing. When that happens I’ll just start writing with that, then go back to the top of the document and write the rest. When I’ve written until I get to the point that the kicker makes sense, I’m done. It’s a surprisingly satisfying way to write.

This essay was adapted from my e-mail newsletter