Storytelling in scientific writing

Storytelling has lately become a buzzword in research accounts. However, what does it actually mean and how does it apply to scientific papers? This blog post explains what scientific storytelling refers to and how you can use it to write better manuscripts.

You may have come across advice like ‘A good paper tells a good story’ or the expression ‘scientific storytelling’. When I heard these phrases for the first time, I didn’t have a clear idea of what they meant. After all, scientific writing is nothing like anything written for entertainment. The hallmarks of scientific language are typically being concise, emotionless, and – with all the love in my heart – comparatively dry. However, that is precisely why storytelling is essential for any type of research communication.

Storytelling in science does not refer to the language; it is about the structure. Story structure helps us to understand and follow the author’s thought process and logic. In well-told stories, each sentence and idea comes out of the previous one. It is a constant flow of “Because of that”, “Because of that”. For example:

“It was raining all day. Because of that, I took an umbrella with me. Because of that, I had to find a place in the office to put the wet umbrella. Because of that, I was a few seconds late for my meeting. Because of that, my boss gave me a hard time that day. Because of that, my colleagues pitied me. Because of that, I didn’t have to pay for my pint in the pub.”

You see how one event results in the next? That is what you want to aim for in your manuscript. Let’s look at a different version of the story:

“It was raining all day. Because of that, I took the elevator. Because of that, I had lunch with Monica.”

I will stop here because I think you see my point: The ideas aren’t connected. Human brains are wired toward stories because they link images together by logic—one event results in the next. If this logical connection between ideas is missing, our brains dismiss the information as illogical and may tune out. You don’t want editors, reviewers, or your reader to tune out at any point while reading your manuscript, and you can avoid that by using storytelling techniques.

So, when you hear people talk about how papers should tell stories, what they actually mean is that your article should have the structure and the logic of a story. 

In a well-written manuscript, ideas and results gradually unfold from beginning to end. For instance, if you work in genetics and you want to publish the new gene you characterized, the first result you report would be how you found the gene. Then, you may move on to the knock-out mutant you created. Then, you analyzed the phenotype, etc. That might not always reflect the chronological order of your experiments. However, I hope you can see how this is the logical sequence of events. 

There are several other storytelling techniques that are useful for other scientific presentations such as talks. However, the principle of cause and effect (the ‘logic’) is the most crucial aspect of storytelling when writing papers. 

I hope this post is useful to you. Let me know how you’re getting on, and: Happy writing!

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