Writer’s Diary #2: About Nutgrafs

There is a concept in journalism known as the nutgraf, a portmanteau of the words “nutshell” and “paragraph.” It’s a paragraph in a news story, placed near the beginning, that summarizes what’s coming and explains the main point or purpose of the story.

So what does the ‘nutgraf’ of a book look like? It’s a paragraph, placed early on, that summarizes the book’s main purpose, argument, and structure.

My first book had two. The first, in the preface, was 450 words in and 162 words long.

How does a gold rush shape the lives of those who live alongside it? There is no single answer. Dwelling on the hopes and the dreams, the successes and the failures, the strategies and the tactics of those after el oro in the most impoverished region of Latin America’s second-most inequitable country tells unexpected stories of the production, accumulation, and transformation of value. I offer contradictory stories in three parts. In the first, gold is a high-value export commodity, which makes panning the core of a rural livelihood strategy and a complement to subsistence household production. In the second, the metal is embedded in a cash economy, which offers a way for miners from the Chocó and elsewhere to attempt to accumulate a little cash. In the third, gold is part of global legal and extralegal flows of capital, in which value undergoes processes of transformation, rather than creation. Together these three parts, which each consist of two chapters, create a study of gold embedded in informal and precarious shifting livelihood strategies.

The second nutgraph was in the Introduction, 450 words in, and 262 words long.

This book considers the ways Antonio and others experienced the boom times of a gold rush and the ways that this gold rush was embedded in wider legal and extralegal economies. It would be easy to fall into a narrative found in much writing about the commodification of nature and natural resource extraction, but I strive for a different complexity by weaving together stories about the lives of artisanal and small-scale miners and those who live in the communities where these miners work. Gold enables some forms of autonomous livelihood, even as it disables others. Mines create freedom and unfreedom; they are at once destructive and constructive. The conditions of extraction and the environments affected and the miners themselves matter at least as much as the mere presence of mining. This book offers insight on the contradictory ways that gold both liberates and subjugates as mines become sites of exploitation and emancipation. What results  is a twofold investigation: First, stories of lived experience drawing on the lives of a handful of miners on artisanal and small-scale gold mines. Second, stories of money laundering through gold by cocaine traffickers and speculation on mining projects by multinational corporations wherein gold facilitates other economic processes. These accounts, nevertheless, remain stories from the margins, because their setting is the poorest and most discriminated department in Colombia and because the stories focus on those who make a living through “precarious” and “informal” shifting livelihood strategies—strategies which themselves offer a certain freedom, especially when compared to the nonexistent alternatives.

Both are examples of a certain conciseness I was striving for in Shifting Livelihoods: they appeared early, were short, and explained the purpose and outline of the entire book. Each took, I suspect, weeks to write.

I am working on the introduction to my new book about Makeshift, and today I focused on the paragraph, which comes after the opening scene. As I thought about it, I thought it should be at the bottom of page two, about 350 words in, and about 300 words long. This paragraph should flow from the first scene, which I think of as an “ethnographic short,” and connect to the next. For the short, I’m on the floor, lost, trying to work out the purpose for a new writing project.

My task, for an hour this morning, was to revise a paragraph into something under 300 words that makes the point of the book and ends with a transition to the next section. I failed. While I am familiar with the formula, I ended up with 1,000 words.

This means either:

  • Makeshift doesn’t need a 300-word nutgraf;
  • Makeshift needs a 300-word nutgraf, and I need to move the 1,000 word on the purpose of the book to come later.

I’ll tackle this decision, first thing, tomorrow. I suspect the wright answer is the second.