4 Ways to Improve Your Scholarly Writing Using Storytelling (PART I)

One night over dinner at the Hambidge residency for artists & scholars, I spoke with a social scientist who was finishing up a paper on a deadline. She was frustrated with how to get the nuances of her work across in a readable manner. I asked if she had considered using narrative elements. Her answer was a resounding no. Never ever would she use story—it would compromise her legitimacy. "It’s anecdotal, uses biased samples, and manipulative," she said. "It’s not science."


Narrative writing has a bad reputation in the sciences—despite being scientifically-proven to benefit communication. Using story aids comprehension, shortens reading time, and increases recall (Graesser and Ottati in Wyer, 124). Glaser et al. state that narrative assists in four stages of processing information: “motivation and interest, allocating cognitive resources, elaboration, and transfer into long-term memory” (429-447).


If that’s the case, how can scholars use story and maintain legitimacy?


Use narrative in small chunks. The entire work does not need to be a narrative. Story elements can introduce an idea or illustrate a particularly difficult section. Readers not familiar with the topic can follow this narrative path to understanding.


Use select elements of storytelling. Use one or two creative writing tools to enhance the readability. Carefully consider which elements are most suitable the work at hand.


In this series, we will look at four narrative elements you should consider using: Plot, Story, Description, and Characterization. 


PLOT: When you want to hook your reader with a conflict.


Plot creates the sense of forward motion in the work; it keeps the readers’ attention because they want to know what happens next. Master filmmaker Martin Scorsese explained on season 3 of Dinner for Five that plot is a “sequence of events,” nothing more. Novelist E.M. Forster would disagree: in his 1927 book, Aspects of the Novel, Forster stated that plot is a series of causal events (130-134).


Even though Scorsese sees plot as a simpler chronological set of events and Forster insists on a causal chain, neither of them ever misses the opportunity to create and intensify conflict. Conflict is the driving force behind the series of events, and it is the most critical aspect of plot for a scholarly writer.


In thinking of conflict, you can consider your work as a mystery novel: the attempt to solve a problem (a crime) with a question (“whodunit?”) Along the way to solving the mystery, detectives collect evidence and run up against bad leads, liars, new danger, and distractions. Science writing is easily set up this way with a hypothesis or a research question, but the path to getting the solution is often obscured in a research paper because the format does not leave much room for a chronological telling of a series of events—where readers would find the interesting journey through "bad leads" and "liars" to your discovery.


It doesn’t have to be that way. You can use the research format to build plot by rethinking the sections. If you have six sections—the introduction, literature review, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion—you can utilize the first two and last two as forms of story while keeping the methods and results sections as you always do without compromising your research.


To enlist the use of plot, consider variations on these parts:

Introduction—What problem are you exploring? Why does it matter? Introducing a hypothetical situation or the beginning situation of a case study, along with risks, creates a greater investment in even a non-expert reader if they know what is a stake in circumstances they can see. They can see the criminal is running free and needs to be stopped.


Literature Review—What is already understood? Where are the gaps in knowledge? How have we failed to resolve this conflict before this research? If the reader sees that there are no previous tools to address the problem, their investment in your results become stronger, just as they can see how all the detective’s previous tools don’t work to find this particularly clever killer.


Writing these two sections with plot and conflict in mind will help create that forward motion into the methods and results sections. These sections can remain the same, though the results can often benefit from some description and character. (We will cover these elements in future posts.)


Discussion—How has your study changed understanding? How has it filled gaps? This allows you to show how the story changes its course of action. In terms of plot, this is the climax—it tells readers how the crime is solved, the murderer revealed, the conflict addressed.


Conclusions—What is different in the landscape of your topic? How can readers now see a changed world? This is what is often called the resolution of the story: the lesson learned. What was inevitable here? What tools can now be used to outsmart future criminals?


Next month we will look at the differentiation between plot and story and how to use story to get readers to relate to your research. Don’t want to miss future posts on how to improve your writing? Follow us on Twitter.



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