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How to Write an Obituary

A lot of older people go to church, my grandfather used to say, because they’re cramming for the finals. My grandfather was not particularly serious about much, and that included death. After he turned 75, there was hardly a family gathering at which he didn’t make some joke about how he expected to kick the bucket sometime soon. When I was younger, “kick the bucket” had been a puzzling phrase. A memorable phrase, but puzzling.

People like euphemisms for describing death, the more euphemistic the better, it seems. I read the obituaries in the print edition of The Toronto Star every morning (yes, I am a dinosaur) and I am frequently struck by how few people have died; they have, instead, “passed away.” There is an art to writing a good obituary, and I wanted to share some advice from years of reading great ones.

  • For starters, check to see if there’s one about you. If not, proceed to the next point. Otherwise, see a doctor immediately.
  • By sheer happenstance, people in big city newspapers tend to die in alphabetical order.
  • Obits cost a lot of money, so not everyone who dies gets their name in the paper. If you read the death notices in the Saturday Star you might reach the conclusion that death is confined, perhaps, to the wealthy and well-educated. But the death rate is the same no matter what demographic a person belongs to: one per capita.
  • Believe whatever you read in a person’s obituary, but remember that it’s likely only part of the story. The thing about the obituaries section of the newspaper is that, for a lot of people, this the only time they will ever be publicly recognized. This is why most obituaries focus on the deceased person’s small acts of heroism, the “Anne-frequently-traveled-to-the-Galapagos-Islands-to-wash-oil-off-birds” stuff. They generally omit the tedious (but frequently more relatable) “John-spent-Saturday-mornings-reading-death-notices” stuff.
  • Beware euphemistic language used in obituaries. As mentioned, most obituaries make no mention of the word “death.” I don’t know for certain, but I’d be willing to bet that the person who thought of “passing” as a euphemism for “dying” is the same person who decided to start referring to “shell shock” as “post traumatic stress disorder” and the fifth year of high school as a “victory lap.” Language in obituaries frequently obscures, rather than clarifies, meaning. So, if a person is described in an obituary as “strong-willed” and “passionate,” in most instances that is code for “miserable S.O.B.” Learn how to read between the lines.
  • Maybe this is just me, but I feel perturbed when I see typos in obituaries. There was one in The Star in the last couple of weeks, which described a man in his 60s having died “after a long battle.” But I think there were a couple of missing words, as it didn’t say, for example, “a long battle with cancer.” For all I know, this fellow died after a long battle with an army of centurions. I know that most newspapers have long since done away with copy editors, but there was a time when proofreaders took more care with obituaries than in stories about city politics. After all, the death notices are really the only part of the newspaper people cut out and pass along through the generations. They should be written with this in mind.

In closing, obituaries are, paradoxically, the happiest part of any newspaper. It’s where we get to read accounts of full lives lived by ordinary people, most of whom die naturally when they’re supposed to. This is the part of the paper where we get to read about caring moms, fun-loving dads, eccentric aunts and uncles – people who never made the news until this moment. Yes, the obituaries are a happy place in the newspaper, and they’re frequently written with such care, affection and grace that they’re some of the best nonfiction reading around.

Recommended Reading

For more fun Saturday morning reading about death notices, check out Mr. Bad News, Gay Talese’s 1966 Esquire profile of New York Times obituary writer Alden Whitman. Talese’s classic piece Frank Sinatra Has a Cold is probably better known, but this feature is just as good, if not better.

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What Is a Nut Graf?

Nut graf is a slang term used by editors and copy editors at magazines and newspapers, and it refers to the paragraph or sentence that summarizes a story. The term is derived from the expression “in a nutshell,” combined with the word paragraph.

In periodical writing (whether magazines or newspapers), a nut graf puts a story in context and tells readers why the story matters. The nut graf justifies the point of the story, provides a transition from the lead to the rest of the story and tells readers why the story is important.

How It’s Written

In a standard news story, the nut graf is written in a news style, with the facts of the story included in the first sentence or two (a.k.a. the lead). A good lead answers who, what, when, where, why and how, quickly and succinctly.

For example, a news story about unemployment statistics might look like this: “The federal government has announced the rollout of an emergency benefits program, while unemployment rates are soaring, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada last week.”

If the same story were written in the style of a feature, however, the story would begin with a narrative. The first few paragraphs might introduce readers to a woman who receives monthly disability benefits, but does not qualify for the new program. Then, in the third or fourth paragraph of the story you would introduce the nut graf to explain why it’s important and include most (not all) of the information from the lead in the news article.

Keep In Mind…

  • Don’t reveal the ending of the story.
  • Think about what questions a reader who knows nothing about the topic of the article would have early on – answer those questions in the nut graf.
  • Give readers a compelling reason, a hook, to keep reading beyond the first couple of paragraphs.
  • Think seriously about what your story is really about and why people should read it – then type out those thoughts in one or two sentences. This is often a good basis for your nut graf.
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Query Letter Tips

One of the things I have noticed is that crafting a successful pitch often presents a daunting barrier to new writers. Anxious thoughts haunt them – How can I write this so my idea won’t sound stupid? Editors get thousands of these – how can I make mine stand out? How do I sell a piece? Here is my advice:

  • Target a specific editor at a specific publication. Many publications have writers’ guidelines on their website; some want detailed proposals and others like pitches to be no more than a paragraph or two. Find out who to address it to. Sending a pitch to the wrong person wastes everybody’s time.
  • Spell the person’s name correctly (first and last name). This seems like a no-brainer, but when I was editing an online publication a few years ago, I received a pitch in which my first name was misspelled. I’m not too sensitive about that, but when I see evidence that a writer hasn’t bothered to proofread their pitch, I’m less likely to trust them with an assignment.
  • Craft the pitch. The pitch is like an audition, so it should be written in the style of a feature. It is critical to have a clear focus and to write a clear and engaging opening graf; many pitches begin the same way the article would. Use a micro to illustrate a macro, and include your POV if applicable. The pitch should answer questions, not raise them.
  • Explain why that specific publication would want your idea and what its readers would learn/gain from your story.
  • Explain how you’ll produce the story (I’ll interview…; I’ll attend…) but don’t state the obvious (such as, I will interview the person I’m profiling).
  • Why you?
  • Why now?
  • Make sure your pitch doesn’t sound like PR (I know this person really well and want people to see how great she is…)
  • Don’t promise an article that will be funny, fascinating, detailed, etc. in a pitch that has none of those elements.

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Hi there! Thanks for checking out my website. I don’t know how to introduce a blog, so I’ll keep it brief. This is where I’ll be sharing some posts if you’re interested, or even if you’re not. Stay tuned.