How story-telling will transform your paper and proposal

My main focus when I edit papers and proposals for my clients is to introduce or strengthen its narrative. Here, I explain why you need to think in terms of story when writing up your scientific findings or ideas.  

Maybe you’re familiar with Netflix asking you whether you are still watching and the feeling of slight embarassment that comes with it? You’re not alone getting drawn in by TV shows, films or books – I can assure you that. Because there’s a reason for it: We love a good story. But what exactly is a story and why is it necessary that we use it in academic writing?

Story can mean various things. You might think about the good night stories parents tell their kids, about that magazine article you read the other day, about a fairy tale, or about what you made up as an excuse for not coming in to work yesterday. In fact, when looking in a dictionary you find more than ten different definitions. One meaning of story is that it is a piece of fiction or even a lie. That might be the reason why some scientists are skeptical about using story-telling in their writing.

But the kind of story that, I believe, is crucial for writing about science is a different one, namely, what Collins dictionary calls the “narration of a chain of events”. And I’m going to define this further: A story – also described as a narrative – should contain essential elements that are arranged in a certain structure: a plot. One of the most crucial element is tension. Without a problem, an unsolved question or friction, every story remains boring.

But why would you need to care about something that movie script writers and book authors use? Because story is so powerful that you’d miss out if you wouldn’t use it to communicate your research too. The reason for that?

Our brain on story

Before people learned how to write and read, it used to be normal for humans to tell each other stories to pass on information. In fact, humans could speak, exercising their story-telling skills, for at least 100,000 years but first signs of written communication are thought to be less than 6,000 years old. The majority of human societies only became literate a hundred or so years ago – really quite recent in comparison.

Therefore, our brains have evolved in a way that they find it much easier to process information when told or written in a story. We also find a story more entertaining than a list of information – or did you ever fancy reading the telephone book instead of a novel? Neuroeconomics professor Paul J. Zak at the Claremont Graduate university in California has an answer to this. He and his colleagues found out that narratives get our attention when they develop tension. Once sucked in by a story, the scientist found that it evokes emotions in us caused by the hormon oxytocin.

Why use story-telling in a scientific paper

Emotions are also known to aid to remember facts and events. Gordon Bower and Michal Clark from Stanford University in California discovered in 1969 that stories themselves can boost our memory. They asked their study participants to remember twelve sets of unrelated nouns – one participant group was instructed to simply rehearse them word by word and the other to construct meaningful stories with each word list. The result? The subjects who were allowed to use a narrative recalled the nouns about six to seven times better than the control group with a success rate of 80 to 100%.

So, stories do three things: They get our attention, they get us emotionally engaged and they make us remember. Don’t get your hopes up too much, nobody is likely to binge-read your research articles and be able to recall the details a year later. But the easiest way to have more people interested in and understand your research is by giving them a story. And it doesn’t hurt when they feel a little entertained. This includes the editor you’re sending the paper too. They might receive dozens of manuscripts a day, but when they feel captured reading your stuff, and actually get what it is about, it doesn’t seem too unlikely that they will at least pass it on to some peer-reviewers. Some high-impact journals even require you to use story-telling in your papers.

In the next blog posts, I will take you on a little excursion into dramatic theory. You will get to know the eight most essential elements of a story in general and how you can implement them in your academic writing and communication. 

I’d love working with you to get the story right in your manuscript or proposal. Just send me a quick message or check out the different coaching and editing packages I offer.

About the Author:

I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.

I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.

I’d love to connect on Twitter (@scientistswrite) and Instagram (@scientistswhowrite)