Ledes, nutgrafs and exam questions

I’m not exactly panicking… With just eight weeks to my first exam, I’m on a pretty tight deadline with revision and scanning past exam papers. But a priority right now is outlining exam questions and being sure that I can stitch together a coherent argument on exam day.

As I’ve said before on this blog, my course in Politics and International Relations isn’t exactly related to my full-time job playing clarinet in an orchestra, so it’s not like my day-to-day working life intersects with and enriches my studies. Study time is a separate part of my day, hours snatched in the evening or – if I’m performing – in afternoons before concerts. However, my parallel career as a part-time journalist and writer is helping me no end.


Even if I have absorbed my reading materials, I know that communicating that knowledge on the day of the exam is far more important. Framing my answers into a coherent argument will show how I can apply the facts into a convincing answer to the exam question.

Most of my freelance writing is done for The Irish Times – I’m the newspaper’s dance critic. Reviews of performances are 350 words and at this stage I must have written hundreds. There isn’t a set style, but often I find myself reverting to a personal form: Give a general overview and context for the performance; the reasons why the choreography was successful or not (with descriptive examples); how the other artists (dancers, composer, designer) assisted the choreographer’s vision; and concluding remarks about the importance of the work in a general dance landscape. I try to break out of this habitual formula, but always try to describe, interpret and evaluate what I see on stage.

A few years ago I was a contributor and Ireland Correspondent for the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor newspaper, covering economic, social and political events. Here the style was a bit more regimented, as the editors liked the lede to be followed by a “nutgraf.” The lede is the opening of the article and a way of grabbing the readers attention. It can be stylistically loose and even playful, such as this one.

The ‘nutgraf’ is basically one or two paragraphs that follow the lede and outline the main points of the story, like this.

This structured writing isn’t stifling, but simply offers a framework for endless possibilities. It’s something that I find in the format for exam questions. For me, it’s comforting to have a structure that I can use to frame my argument.

And there are some similarities: the lede in an exam question is how you demonstrate the importance of the question and the nutgraf is outlining your arguments and how you will approach the questions. The Strategies for Success Handbook has a useful outline to exam questions, but there is also great lecture by Neil Mclean on the Supporting Your Studies module on the VLE that is more detailed.

There won’t be any fancy ledes in my exam answers (although first impressions count and that opening sentence is important for grabbing the examiner’s attention), but hopefully I can use my writing experience to my advantage. No matter what, I’m going to practice lots of exam questions between now and May, as the one thing I’ve discovered as a freelance writer is that the more you write the easier it gets.