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The Art of Storytelling in Academic Writing: 5 Steps to a Better Research Paper

Life is about stories. We each have one. Humans use stories to create social connections, to share ideas, to entertain, and to inform. Communication takes place through stories, whether fictional, historical, or contextual. But what many people don’t know is that storytelling is just as important when it comes to academic writing.

Manuscripts submitted for publication, dissertations, and other research reports tell the story of a scientific investigation. Stories consist of five major components: setting, conflict, character, plot, and theme. Each component has its parallel in academic writing.

Since I don’t have time to dissect an entire manuscript or dissertation, I’m going to use an abstract to illustrate the concept of storytelling in academic writing. An abstract contains all the major elements of a research report: background, method, results, and conclusions.

Consider the following sample abstract:

The United States is currently facing a shortage of family practice physicians, resulting in fewer preventative health care options for patients and an increasing number of non-urgent visits to hospital emergency rooms. Despite a steady increase in medical school applications, student enrollment is limited due to a shortage of clinical faculty. Previous studies have identified high turnover rates among clinical faculty as a major challenge for medical schools. In the present study, the factors related to successful recruitment and retainment of clinical faculty were investigated by exploring the lived experiences of novice clinical faculty during the role transition from clinical practice to clinical educator.
Three common themes associated with positive role transitions were identified: orientation, training, and ongoing support. The results of this study may assist human resources personnel in medical schools with the development of programs to improve recruitment and retention of novice clinical faculty.

1. The Setting

In a research report, the setting is provided by the background information, which is drawn from the scientific literature. The reader needs to understand the overall problem and how the research topic addresses the problem. A good introduction takes the reader from a broad description of the problem to the specific focus of the study in a series of logical, sequential steps.

In the example above, the abstract begins by describing a nationwide crisis: the shortage of family physicians. The shortage of physicians is due to a shortage of clinical faculty to teach medical students. The shortage of faculty is due to high turnover rates. The high turnover rates are due to issues with recruitment and retention of faculty, which is what the study aims to address. Thus, in a few sentences, the reader is taken from a broad
problem (nationwide shortage of family physicians) to the focus of the study (recruitment and retainment of clinical faculty) in a series of logical steps that clearly explain the relevance of the study to the issue at hand.

 

2. The Conflict

In stories, the conflict is a struggle or an oppositional situation that involves the central character. In research reports, conflicts are based in the scientific literature. Two main types of conflict in research are discrepancies in results and gaps in the literature (i.e., unanswered questions).

When writing a paper or dissertation, a clear description of the conflict serves to engage the reader and imparts a degree of importance to the study. In the example above, the conflict is a gap in knowledge regarding the reasons for high turnover rates among clinical faculty in medical schools. The importance of the study is emphasized by connecting the gap in knowledge to the broader problem: the shortage of family physicians. Importantly, the consequences of the present situation are clearly identified: emergency rooms are being taxed by visits from patients who would be better served by a family physician, and family physicians often engage in preventative health measures to further reduce the need for hospitalization. Thus, in this case, the conflict is presented as a crisis situation with implications for healthcare costs and the health of U.S. citizens.

 

3. The Character

Once the background (setting) has been presented and the reader is made aware of the conflict, it is time to introduce the main character: the study. The study should be introduced to the reader as the solution to the conflict. I like to think of it as the hero swooping in to save the day.

In the above example, the problem has been clearly presented in the first three sentences. The fourth sentence introduces the study by presenting it as the potential solution to the
conflict.

In the present study, the factors related to successful recruitment and retainment of clinical faculty were investigated…

The reader has already been made to understand how the successful recruitment and retainment of clinical faculty relates to the overall problem (the shortage of family physicians). The study is introduced as a means to resolve the problem (by identifying the factors involved in successful recruitment and retainment of clinical faculty). This introduction not only emphasizes the importance of the study to the reader, but also continues to engage the reader and maintain interest. Importantly, the reader is clear about the role of the study in resolving the conflict, and the need for the study is apparent.

Aside from presenting the role of the main character (to resolve the conflict), the reader
also needs to be introduced to the main character. The sentence fragment above ends with the following brief description of the methodology that not only explains how the study aims to resolve the conflict, but also describes the nature of the study itself:

…by exploring the lived experiences of novice clinical faculty during the role transition from clinical practice to clinical educator.

The qualitative nature of the study is made apparent by the description of the method (exploring the lived experiences of novice faculty). In addition, the reader learns that the phenomenon of role transition provides an outcome measure for the study. In other words, factors that are associated with successful recruitment and retention of clinical faculty are assumed to be associated with a positive role transition. Thus, the study is also phenomenological in nature.

With this information, the reader can create a framework, a mental context in which all the information that follows will be interpreted. Once again, this technique serves to engage the reader and reinforce the importance of the study.

 

4. The Plot

The plot consists of the events that happen in a story that relate to the central conflict. In a research report, the plot is simply the description of the study and the results. However, as with fictional writing, the connection to the central conflict must be made clear to the reader throughout the manuscript or dissertation. Confusing plotlines are the bane of any writer.

The purpose of the methods section is to provide a context in which the reader can interpret the findings and to allow other researchers to reproduce the study. Ideally, the methods section is written in a logical order that follows the sequence of events that comprise the method, beginning with sampling and followed by data collection, sorting or filtering (if applicable), and data analysis.

Results should be presented in a format that is easy to follow using visual aids such as tables, graphs, and illustrations as appropriate. The goal should be to make it easy for the reader to access the results. For example, lengthy textual descriptions of measures or statistical data should be avoided. No matter how groundbreaking the research, nobody wants to slog through paragraphs filled with numbers.

Results should be presented in a way that clearly connects them with the research topic. One of the more common mistakes I find when editing a dissertation is the presentation of results that have no clear connection to the research topic. Like a plotline that has no clear connection to the main conflict in the story, such tactics leave the reader with the impression that the material was added to provide bulk rather than substance.

 

5. The Theme

The theme of a story is the central idea or belief that the author wishes to convey. In a research report, the theme is largely found in the discussion of the results and the conclusions drawn from the findings, including implications for future research.

In the sample abstract above, the findings are necessarily brief. However, they convey a central message: novice clinical faculty need proper training, orientation, and support in order to be successful in their transition from practice to teaching. The implications are clear: implementing these practices will help retain novice faculty, which will boost the number of medical students and increase the number of family physicians.

The theme of a study is important: it emphasizes the contribution of the study to the body of knowledge in the field, it offers explanations for unexpected or potentially conflicting results, and it provides the reader with a sense of direction for future studies. In the sample abstract, the last sentence leaves the reader with a sense of future directions for the research.

The results of this study may assist human resources personnel with the development of programs to improve recruitment and retention of novice clinical faculty.

There is an art to writing about results. The researcher must be honest about what the study found (or did not find), point out limitations while not making the study appear weak, and draw conclusions that are clearly supported by the data. While major findings are easier to present in a positive light, the reality of scientific investigation is that studies often yield negative or conflicting results. The ability to demonstrate the importance of such findings is the mark of good academic writing.

I’ve mentioned reader interest and engagement frequently in this article, and you may ask yourself why, as a researcher publishing a study, these things should matter. The truth is that scientists, like many other professionals, succeed by convincing others of the importance and relevance of their work. This is achieved through clear communication
that engages the reader.

Storytelling has been a method of information exchange for humans since we first began to communicate ideas. Thus, applying the concepts of storytelling to academic writing can promote the conditions that are necessary for success. Grants are awarded, promotions are granted, and presentations are well attended all on the basis of clear, engaging communication. There are thousands of scientists out there who possess a high degree of intelligence and are doing work in important areas of research. To stand out among the crowd, you’ll need clear and effective communication. The best way to do that? Tell a good story.

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5 Stages of Becoming a Fiction Writer – (A bit of Humor mixed with Truth)

Every aspiring writer sets out to write the great novel that will make him or her famous. You
may be on this journey yourself so let us prepare you with a review of the five stages you will go through on this journey.

Stage 1 – Being the Invincible Writer with the most fabulous story.

You begin the journey knowing that you have the best idea for a story ever to be told. You tell everyone about this book. Your phone calls go unanswered as your friends avoid listening to you tell them about your great book idea. In this stage you are euphoric, happy, and spend hours writing the outline and smirking about the plot twists and turns you are devising. You can already imagine the royalties, movie offers, and red carpet treatment you will receive once your book is published. Hold onto this feeling for as long as you can, because the next stage gets a
bit rough.

Stage 2 – Paranoia that your characters are out to get you.

As you enter Stage 2, you find that the plot has a few holes. You begin having your characters help fix the plot and then all of a sudden you find out that one is mortally injured. How did that happen? What are you going to do know? You begin to look back and try to figure out how your character misled you. At this stage you begin speaking to your characters (some authors go so far as to yell at these fictional people). You imagine that your characters are plotting against you and have no idea the level of greatness you will achieve as a writer. In some cases, you go back and delete that character completely or you find ways to bring her back from the brink of death and the best part – you expect her to be thankful to you for the rest of the book. Characters are characters. The darn book would be easy to write if all the characters behaved.

Stage 3 – I just want to finish this story.

At this stage in writing your first book, you are exhausted. Maybe you are still working the day job to pay your bills and all you want is one more weekend to finish this book. You are losing sleep, spend all the weekend in sweat pants, and your friends wonder if you are still alive. At this point, you throw the plot out the window and write rapidly to make it to the end. You have now become the speedwriter with one goal in mind: writing the words “THE END.”
Stage 4- I hate my Editor.

The book is finally complete and you realize it might be good to have an editor look this over. You have poured your heart and soul into this book and re-written sentences and used the grammar lessons from Ms. Clark, your fourth grade teacher. You email the book to your editor who turns it around in 48 hours and you open the edited file…and begin to cry. Eight hundred and twenty-seven changes and 47 comments later you realize now that you hate your editor more than your characters. The editor asked questions about the plot and how a character made it back from near death, not to mention changing all your punctuation.

Stage 5 – Please Mom just buy a copy and I will never ask you again for anything.

Finally, after making it through the edits and getting the final book in perfect form, it is
published. Maybe you have chosen traditional publishing or gone out on your own and used
self-publishing. Either way you sit back and get ready for all the good feelings you dreamed of in Stage 1. Eight days later, with no sales reported just yet, you call your mom and have the following conversation.

Author “Hi Mom…do you have a minute or two?”
Mom “Of course dear.”
Author “Mom, I promise to never ask for anything again and you will be the best mom in the world if you do me this one favor.”
Mom “What do you need dear?”
Author “Would you please purchase a copy of my book?”
Mom “You wrote a book?”
end conversation

For all you aspiring authors, this is just a bit of humor to help you through the process. Many of us have walked this path already. We know you will succeed. Keep smiling, keep writing, and know that you are not alone on the journey. In the end, the joy is in becoming a writer with a published book…welcome to the club.

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iBooks Spotlight Roundup

We love the iBooks spotlight. It’s an Apple newsletter that features new and noteworthy books. It’s a great way to discover the next book on your reading list. We rounded up some recent books iBooks highlighted:

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 Set for July release, “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee is back at it.

Gabriel Allon is on the hunt for the murderer of a controversial British Royal.

Renowned blogger and video blogger, Felicia Day, releases her endearing memoir.

A brand new Thunder Point romance where emotions run high.

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Click either banner for more iBooks picks and info on those featured!

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