So you want to write a brilliant blog or newspaper article? Help is at hand, in three easy stages.
First: decide your message, and make sure people want to read about it. Part 1 of this series, 7 tips for writing the perfect article, explores how to ensure your piece will land well (links in bold italics are to other posts on this web-site).
Next: structure your article. Part 2 of this series, Nut-grafs and Cosmic Kickers, sets out a simple 4-step template to write your piece – including how to get started.
What else? Practice makes perfect. Read pieces critically. Understanding how others use these techniques will help you do the same. Here, in Part 3 of the series, are two more worked examples. I hope you find them helpful. If you do, please feel free to re-post this series, or draw it to the attention of others.
Nut-grafs and cosmic kickers: two worked examples
The following article appeared in the Financial times of 22 October 2004. It includes all the four elements – Lede, Nut-graf, Body and Cosmic Kicker – set out in Part 2 of this series.
Where even experts fear to tread
The Valluga II cable car above St. Anton is one of those boxy, old-fashioned affairs that sways from one mountain peak to another across a gulf of nothingness. At the entrance is a sign showing a pair of skis, crossed out. Next to it, to avoid any confusion, the words: NO SKIS.
“What’s that?” I ask Willi, a fellow skier with whom I am about to enter the six-person cabin.
“It’s OK,” he says. “It means no skis unless you have a guide.”
For skiers who have mastered the basics, the benefits of skiing with a guide are not always clear-cut. Holidays are all about freedom to do what you want, when you want, and to escape the workplace hierarchy. So it seems perverse to yoke yourself to someone who’s going to tell you where to go and what to do when you get there, especially when you have to pay them handsomely for the privilege. But a good guide can raise the quality of a day’s skiing from enjoyable to sublime. That’s why, when I make my next annual pilgrimage to Lech, in the Arlberg region of western Austria, I’ll be joining Class 3A (or maybe 2B) for at least half my stay to be guided around a resort I already know intimately.
Looking up the hill after the passage of a 3A class in Lech, February 2019
On our first visit to Lech, my friend Nick isn’t convinced. He’s been skiing 30 years. “I haven’t taken lessons since I was 15,” he says. “Let’s just ski together.”
“No offence,” I say. “But the biggest argument is trust. I’ll follow a good ski-guide anywhere. But if it’s just us, and you suggest we go off-piste to explore some promising-looking powder, how do I know it’s skiable? What’s underneath? How about avalanches?”
“Wimp,” Nick says.
At the summit of Valluga II, the wind blasts a frozen steel platform atop a rock pinnacle. Our guide goes off to record our imminent departure in the mountain rescue log-book. All around us, spectacular snow-capped mountains march into the distance. But Class 2B, comprising 10 skiers from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, isn’t admiring the view. We’re looking down, trying to make out our route. Before we start skiing, we must carry our skis down a 100m ice-ridge, cross over a wooden bridge, then side-step down a snow gully studded with rocks and protruding steel spikes. Blood has drained from the face of the best skier among us, a guy from Innsbruck. “I’m not doing it,” he says. “I don’t like heights.” A shudder passes through the group.
“The trouble with groups,” Nick says, “is that they’re always too slow. You never know what the other skiers will be like.”
It’s true this can be a problem. In Lech, there are literally dozens of ski-groups ranked from 6 (absolute beginners) to 1 (born wearing skis). Groups rated 3A, for example, tend to attract experienced skiers in their 40s and 50s (but also some fit 70-year-old Germans who spend four to five weeks in the Alps every year) who enjoy off-piste without wanting to climb too far to reach it. Groups rated 2B, the minimum standard for skiing Valluga II, tend to be younger, to involve more climbing, and to avoid pistes altogether. The instructors are reluctant to demote slow skiers, which can lead to delays. But if you want to go faster, promotion to another group is straightforward.
“I suppose,” Nick says, “with a guide you do get good snow.” The ice steps at the summit of Valluga II are treacherous. We struggle to balance our skis on our shoulders, grasp the steel hawser which passes for a hand-rail, and avoid looking down the vertiginous drops on either side. Karin, a German student, nudges me. “Fun, isn’t it?” I try to smile.
On our skis at last, we side-step down the gully and are confronted by an immense snow-bowl. There have been no fresh falls for days, but the snow is perfect: great fields of powder lie undisturbed. Far below, parallel tracks from previous parties descend from sun to shade. There are no lifts, pistes or roads in sight. Nor are there any other skiers. Our guide has found us our very own mountain, and it’s breathtaking.
“But it must be lousy,” Nick says, “when you get a duff instructor.” It is, indeed, the pits. Two years after my first descent from the Valluga II, I stand with another group at the summit. Our instructor is a veteran of many seasons, his weather-beaten face set in a mask expressive of equal proportions of exasperation and disgust. One of the group is a German woman who skied this run with the same guide last year and knows she doesn’t want to be there.
“I told him,” she says. “I never want to ski the Valluga again.”
“Why did you come this time?” someone asks.
“He refused to say where we were going. I can’t ski back now, on my own.”
In the course of the next hour, descending deep, heavy snow, the woman falls ten or 15 times. The guide is economical with his encouragement.
“Nicht jammern!” he says, “Ski fahren!” (“Don’t whine! Ski!”)
The woman says little until we are back in Lech, drinking hot chocolate. “Next year,” she says, “I think I will ask for another guide.”
The rest of us nod. We’re feeling guilty that we enjoyed the run, despite her torment. A shadow hangs over the day. Mostly, though, the guides are worth every cent.
On the third day of our holiday in Lech, and after much deliberation, Nick joins a 2B group. When I see him that evening he is red-faced with exhilaration.
“It was fantastic,” he says. “We explored these hidden valleys, they were beautiful, the snow was perfect. Pristine. Plus, you feel so intrepid, like you’re boldly going where no skier has gone before. No way I’d have risked that without a guide. Even if I’d been able to find it.”
“So joining a group was worth it?”
“I owe you one,” he says. “I think it was the best day’s skiing I’ve ever had.”
Here is a second worked example. Again, it includes a lede, a nut-graf, the body of the article, and a cosmic kicker. It appeared in the Boston Globe on 2 September 2007. Since this article was published, St Helena’s new airport has opened, making the wonderful island more accessible than ever before.
History in the Tropics
SAINT HELENA – Lot’s Wife stands near the Gates of Chaos, gazing over the South Atlantic. The rusty cannons lining the beach were left behind by the English after they recaptured the island from the Dutch in 1673. There’s a group photo, then we surge up the hill, led by “Buffalo,” who came in first last year. Ahead of us lies the volcanic column that is Lot, about a mile up the valley from his wife; the Diana’s Peak National Park; and, eight miles distant, the island’s capital, Jamestown. The Saint Helena Nature Conservation Group is off on its annual sponsored walk.
The island of Saint Helena, midway between Africa and South America, offers a stimulating mix of the familiar and the exotic. Lush pastures top sheer volcanic cliffs. English pubs serve local prickly pear spirit. Giant tortoises wander the garden of the governor’s Georgian mansion. Tropical flowers surround Napoleon’s tomb. And now the only way to visit one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands is on the last working oceangoing Royal Mail Ship.
Arriving on St Helena on the RMS St Helena – Photo Robert Pimm
The voyage on the RMS Saint Helena takes three to five days, sailing from Ascension Island to the north or from Cape Town or Walvis Bay, Namibia, to the southeast. (Saint Helena, Ascension Island, and the island group of Tristan da Cunha make up this British Overseas Territory.) The ship is staffed mainly by Saints, as the people of Saint Helena call themselves, and acts as a gentle introduction to the island’s way of life.
“I enjoyed the trip,” says Tina DuPlessis of Swellendam, South Africa. “There’s absolutely no chance of getting stressed.” Beef tea is served every morning at 10:30. Organized entertainment includes deck quoits, fancy dress parties, and quizzes. A daily newsletter announces the day’s activities (“Join Peter Steyn to learn about the history and people of Tristan da Cunha”) and gives guidance on what to wear (“Rig of the Day: The Captain and Officers will wear White Uniform during the day and Mess Dress in the Evening”).
Arrival on the island is an event. The great, green-brown bulk of the volcano looms from the sea and is flanked by pillars of rock. As you step ashore you’re following in footsteps as famous as Napoleon’s: the Duke of Wellington, Captain Bligh, James Cook, Charles Darwin, and the astronomer Arthur Halley all came here.
The island oozes history. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 and settled by the English East India Company in 1659. The British have been here ever since, except for an interlude in 1672-3 when the Dutch seized the island. After its recapture, the Royal Navy built defensive “lines” across every potential landing place and stationed countless batteries of cannons. By the time Napoleon arrived in October 1815, four months after the Battle of Waterloo, the island was as secure a fortress as any in the British Empire.
Napoleon lived at Longwood House until his death in 1821. He was buried in the nearby Sane Valley, which he chose for its tranquillity and beauty. In 1840, his body was exhumed and removed to Paris. All the Napoleonic sites are open to the public. Each is fascinating, but I found the tomb most evocative: a fragment of world history in a silent, tropical glade.
There’s more to Saint Helena’s heritage than Napoleon. Jamestown is a Georgian architectural gem at the bottom of a rocky valley, shielded from the sea by a moat and high walls. Jacob’s Ladder, built in 1829, rises 600 feet in 699 steps to the top of nearby Ladder Hill. Complete the climb and you’re entitled to a certificate from the excellent Saint Helena museum nearby. Or you can scale the stairs in the cool of the night. To stand at the summit with a blaze of stars above is sublime.
Another must-see is Jonathan, the oldest of the tortoises in the garden of Plantation House, the governor’s residence. Jonathan was around 50 years old when he arrived in 1882 from the Seychelles, off the coast of East Africa. He weighs 440 pounds. “It’s amazing to come into contact with such an ancient being,” says DuPlessis.
The landscape and scenery on the island are spectacular. “I’ve been all over the world, and by far the best view I’ve ever seen was out of a kitchen window on Saint Helena,” says Eva Ravenel of Charleston, S.C. “Each part of the island is different,” says Eric Arnold of London. “You come around each corner and there’s something surprising.”
That includes unique flora and fauna. The Peaks area is home to 22 species of spider. The wirebird, a symbol of Saint Helena and the island’s last surviving endemic land bird, is critically endangered, with only a few hundred of the ground-nesting adults remaining. But I see several of them when I visit Deadwood Plain, and on a walk in the woods I’m buzzed by the exquisite, inquisitive fairy tern. Other local specimens are more plentiful. “The coastal trip was a highlight,” says Barbara Mosdorf of Cape Town. “The sea was boiling with dolphins.”
The Millennium Forest is the site of an ambitious rescue plan for one threatened species. To mark the year 2000, islanders planted over 4,000 saplings of the endemic gumwood tree on the exposed slopes overlooking the site of a new airport, due to open in 2012. The forest now has over 6,000 trees. Visitors can plant saplings for a small fee. It’s wonderful to walk through the brilliant green groves and feel you’ve done something to make Saint Helena a better place.
Saint Helena is a nice place already. That owes less to the dramatic landscape and historic heritage than to the Saints themselves. “People are so open and friendly,” says Ravenel. “The second day I was there someone stopped and said, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ Thirty minutes later we were still talking.” ‘It’s like time has stood still,” says Mosdorf. “In Saint Helena they have time to stop and talk.”
That doesn’t mean Saints aren’t competitive. Raymond “Buffalo” Young does the coast-to-coast sponsored walk over Diana’s Peak in 1 hour 54 minutes, two minutes ahead of the next competitor. I take around four hours.
With the coming airport, some visitors wonder whether the island’s charm is under threat. “Let’s hope they don’t ruin it,” says Susie Gollwitzer of Windhoek, Namibia. “They’ll have more money but less peace and quiet.”
It’s too early to say how the airport will affect the island, though it seems sure to boost its economy. But I sense the Saints will be OK. On the walk we pass Banyan Cottage, advertised on the local radio as having “running water, a wood stove, and NO ELECTRICITY.” Saints, living on this remotest of islands, say they go to Banyan Cottage “to get away from it all.”
As we sail away from Saint Helena, a fiery sunset fills the sky. Doug Wakeling of Valla, Australia, stands at the ship’s railing. “I’m glad I came,” he says. “It’s one of the world’s last exotic little hidden paradises.”
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