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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