The Edit911 Blog

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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The Best Newsletters and How To Write One

The Goodnewsletter.

A newsletter is often distributed to share information among people with common interests. Schools, clubs/organizations, social service groups, and others share information that is of interest and relevance to the target audience. Some newsletters arrive in the mail while others com electronically. No doubt, you likely receive one or more newsletters and at some point, you may have the opportunity to be involved in writing and distributing news for your favorite group.

6 Tips For Writing a Great Newsletter

Know your audience and get their interest.

Take a few moments to decide what topics will interest your audience. Make sure that the content you are putting in the newsletter will connect with the readers on a personal level. Use the six questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how to give your newsletter versatility. Each article needs to give relevant information that will keep your audience interested. You may have to do a little bit of research on the topic(s) in the newsletter but that will make it more valuable for your audience. It is important that you cite sources from your research in the newsletter articles.

The Kevin Rose Newsletter

Have a simple and easy to read format.

Use a font (size and type) that is easy to read. Make sure the format is easy to follow. When possible keep the complete article on one page so that people do not have to search for the remaining paragraphs on the topic. Black text is always best unless you are trying to highlight a few words. Make sure your vocabulary is concise and comprehensible so that everyone of all reading levels can easily understand the content.

Use interesting headlines and pictures.

Use action verbs and write dynamic headlines that grabs the attention of your audience. A picture next to a headline might be the best combination because the picture will grab the attention of your reader and the headline will sell them on the idea that this is must read information. Without an interesting headline, readers may skim over articles. It is also important that articles with more than a few paragraphs have sub-headings to help break up the text.

Information should be accurate, timely, and engaging.

Include a variety of topics and sections that will make your newsletter more interesting to a larger audience. It is best to split your topics equally among activities and news that has occurred since the last newsletter and new items that will be coming up before your next publication date. A calendar of events is always welcome in a newsletter. Above all else, make sure the information you provide in your newsletter is accurate.

A table of contents is helpful.

This can be placed on a side bar or in a small section. Having a table of contents or summary paragraph turns the newsletter into a resource that people know they can easily grab and find the information relevant to them now. Some newsletters are only a table of contents that directs to an external site or blog. This is also great to keep engagement high, since readers are more likely to read shorter newsletters and scan only for information/stories that interest them. It also drives traffic to your website/blog.

Grammar and spelling are important.

After writing your articles, proofread for typos and edit all articles for consistency of writing style. If multiple people have contributed, make sure that the entire newsletter has the same tone and writing style. Always have multiple people proofread for spelling and grammar. Once you believe you have edited enough, go over it one more time.

 

The Four Best Email Newsletters

We get hundreds of emails a day, so the few newsletters that we allow in our inbox are some of the best out there. Do you have a favorite newsletter? If so, leave it in the comments!

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How to Write a Dissertation That Doesn’t Suck

When I was living in that dread land of ABD (all but dissertation), I could always spot what poor fools around me weren’t going to make it. If I had wanted to be punched in the face, I would have given them these five tips to help.

1. Have an Actual Opinion

You can gather all the data you want. You can survey 15,978 institutions with a 90% response rate. You can figure out how to interview your dead grandmother. If you don’t use it all to arrive at an actual opinion: It. Doesn’t. Matter. Even better, your opinion should be interesting. It should shed light on something unknown, promote a new idea, disprove a myth—something!
But you should at least have one.

 

2. Don’t Write Crap Just to Show You Did the Research

It’s been years since you’ve seen the sun. Your children don’t recognize you. In fact, you don’t remember having children. You just know you’ve been staring at your computer so long your eyelashes have cobwebs. Now you’re writing up the Literature Review section, and you’re going to make damn sure each and every book, article, blog post, and bubblegum wrapper you ever so much as looked at is going in there. No one will be able to deny your thoroughness, your pain, or your lost youth. And no one will care, either.

Showing your research should be part of your argument, such as showing there’s a real gap in the literature or demonstrating that your opinion is different from what’s come before. Anything irrelevant must go, even if the article in question were only acquired through an inter-library loan and buying your own microfiche machine.

 

3. Stop Repeating Yourself! (AKA, The “Argh!” Rule)

It doesn’t matter how many fancy words you’ve learned, how often you change your syntax and tone, or what lovely tables and charts you have. The reader can tell when they’re being told the same thing over and over.

Don’t believe me? Well, the audience for your paper is able to identify the recurrent appearance of the same content multiple times. Moreover, people notice when you repeat yourself!
Say it once, say it correctly, and move the hell on.

4. Write a Dissertation That Makes You a Good Hire

Oh, you found it fascinating that fruit fly genitalia can be counted more readily using the Accu-Scope 3088 Rechargeable LED Monocular Microscope than with the Labomed Sigma Monocular Microscope? Wow. And you wrote 2,432 pages on it? That’s major winner right there.

And now tell me just who you think wants to hire someone who spent a year of their life figuring that out? All that dissertation will get you is a job as a lab minion.

Pick something you can talk about at your interview that makes you sound smart and topical, cutting-edge and valuable. Or lets you fake it.

 

5. Don’t Plagiarize (AKA, The Dumbass Rule)

Most grad students have figured out by the time they’re doing the dissertation that they must cite even when they paraphrase, must put everything in quotes that’s not their own work, must slavishly follow the writing style down to the last comma in their references, and must refer at least twice to something their professor wrote if it’s even remotely on point.

But remember that the all-holy dissertation is supposed to show you can perform original thinking, or at the least create an original thought, however small.

Be absolutely certain that your whole idea doesn’t revolve around what someone else said. It can be inspired by it, or you can have the idea to disprove it, or you can expand on it in an original way. But if it’s really just a restatement of another’s work, someone on that panel of professors is going to all but kill themselves proving how superior they are to their peers by haughtily revealing that they already read your so-called opinion right here.

Seriously, in academia, it’s better to be new and pointless than incredible but repetitive.

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Revisiting Blade Runner (1982) Pre-Sequel

Hollywood is doing it again… taking a classic many wouldn’t dare touch, and releasing a sequel 35 years later. I thought I would watch the original classic before seeing the sequel, to have the story fresh in my mind before seeing it.

Full disclosure: I had never seen Blade Runner before (I know, I know) and I’m a huge sci-fi nerd. Not sure how this massive gap in my sci-fi knowledge happened but the situation is now rectified.

What I discovered in the original Blade Runner is that a) It’s still a masterpiece and b) there was definitely a good setup for a sequel. I love that Hollywood didn’t “get it” back then, so now we get 2017 special effects and technological progress used in the sequel; along with the legendary Harrison Ford returning to reboot yet another film franchise he starred in early on in his career. This will be the third time he’s done that – first with Indiana Jones, then Star Wars. This guy sure knows how to pick enduring films!

For what they had to work with in 1982 – primitive computers and 3D special effects – the filmmakers created something nearly timeless that holds up wonderfully almost all the way up to its 2019 time setting (which would have been a much cooler year to release the sequel IMHO.)

What interested me most about watching Blade Runner for the first time was realizing (based on its release date) how many sci-fi movies since have “borrowed” directly from it. So many ideas, concepts, visual aesthetics, characters and even the semi-dystopian overpopulated megacity (in this case, Los Angeles) that I thought were unique and original in so many films I’ve now come to realize were heavily influenced by Blade Runner. I never realized before that it was essentially the first film to create this particular dystopian future earth that is so beautiful, yet so dark and mechanized.

Blade Runner didn’t only inspire other filmmakers – online searches reveal thousands of artists who have created visual art homages to the film: posters, paintings, sculptures, etc. The film’s downtown L.A. locations such as The Bradbury Building and the 2nd street tunnel are called “The Blade Runner building” and “the Blade Runner tunnel” by locals. The film is a visual spectacle. The color palate and incredible set design, accompanied by the swanky space jazz soundtrack and Harrison Ford’s wonderful performance, make this film nothing short of perfect.

Of course, Ridley Scott had an incredible book as a foundation: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Philip K. Dick.

Incredible books are often the foundation of incredible movies. Without a sequel written by Philip K. Dick, it’s hard to imagine the movie sequel could be as good as the original film, but we’ll see. Blade Runner 2049 hits theaters Oct 6, 2017.

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