4 Ways to Improve Your Scholarly Writing Using Storytelling (PART 3)

In this series, we explore how to use four narrative elements of creative writing to enhance research writing: Plot, Story, Description, and Characterization. Missed Parts 1 or 2? You can catch up here.


Keep in mind that, when integrating narrative elements into research projects, it is useful to...

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 will follow this story path to understanding.

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


DESCRIPTION. When the writer needs to guide the reader.


Both plot and story benefit from description. To contextualize the research for a non-expert reader, visualize a place or a situation, and then use language outside the realm the discipline. Yes, use language of the five senses, active and vivid verbs that illustrate a motion or mood. Used briefly during a narrative section that illustrates the research, this kind of description can involve readers in the drama of the conflict and let them connect to the material.


For example, in a 2016 article in Astronomy, UCLA solar physicist Roger Ulrich states that “[t]he toroidal field is like a big rubber band wrapped up inside the Sun. It has kinks that pop up as sunspot pairs” (Dorminey). In this case, he uses an analogy of a rubber band so the reader can see how the toroidal field functions and then uses the descriptive words wrapped, kinks, and pop to help readers further visualize, and even hear his explanation.


If using research in persuasive writing, the description may go on even longer.


Biologist Edward O. Wilson is known for his ability to communicate complex material to the public. In his 1993 essay “Is Humanity Suicidal?” Wilson could have mentioned “environmental disaster” and then discussed the opposing sides. Environmental disaster, however, is vague to most people. Instead he asks the reader to imagine watching the event unfold on Earth while sitting safely in a space station on “an icy moon of Jupiter.” From here, the reader can see “the retreat of glaciers and scattershot volcanic eruptions” and “forests shrink[ing] back to less than half their original cover.” The reader watches, over only a few centuries, as “[t]he ozone layer of the stratosphere thins, and holes open at the poles. Plumes of nitrous oxide and other toxins rise from fires in South America and Africa, sere in the upper troposphere and drift eastward across the oceans.” By giving us descriptive verbs like retreat and shrink (as if in fear or cowardice), as well as giving nitrous oxide a shape (plumes), movement (rise), and action (sere and drift, as if creating a spreading desert of the sky), he makes sure the readers know what “environmental disaster” really means, and they understand the urgency.


Using narrative tools strenghtens Ulrich's and Wilson's communication to non-expert audiences, and neither loses legitimacy when they employ elements of story at the right time.


Next month we will look at how to use characterization. Don’t want to miss future posts on how to improve your writing? Follow us on Twitter.

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