Literary exercises for writing scientific manuscripts

by Janice Nigro

I was shocked once when my PhD advisor ran into the lab to read out loud the first sentence of my first draft of a manuscript. A nightmare moment-hearing your own words read in front of a group of extraordinarily talented and accomplished people. He read it and then said why he read it. “It is a very literary sentence.”

That sentence stayed in the article as I wrote it.

I had put some serious thought into it. I don’t know if it was some weird form of procrastination because I didn’t write the rest of the paper until I got it right. I wouldn’t recommend that approach if someone asked, but there is something to getting the first sentence right. The first sentence somehow sets me up for what to write in the rest of the article. I know how to organize a manuscript (or even a presentation), if I get the first sentence right.

Why? That first sentence, if it’s right, conveys what the paper is about and why I wanted to do the work. That’s what story writers do, and science writing is story writing. I don’t get it right every time, but in my own manuscripts and those of my clients, I am always looking for the story.

For some of us, storytelling comes unbelievably naturally. A colleague of mine in graduate school could make a great story out of a series of even failed experiments. She wasn’t taught how to do that in graduate school. Neither was I. I had to learn it.

But is there a protocol for writing scientific manuscripts? How can it be taught? I was stuck on this question until I read a book on writing by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield is a successful author, who writes novels, screenplays, and even self-help books. Regardless of genre or venue, his basic premise is that any kind of good writing is about making a story. And making a story is fundamentally all about concept and theme.

What is your concept?

Concept Pressfield defines as “a spin or a twist, a unique way of framing the material.” It’s a bit of jargon, but we get the idea of concept instinctively from movies or books. Star Wars is more or less an adventure or a war story, but it takes place in the future and in space!

In science, concept is your fundamental question and in what context you will gather the scientific facts. It’s the “huh, I never thought about that” question. A different perspective. Many groups are studying cancer. I chose to study cancer too but specifically, in vivo models of a type of human brain tumor, oligodendroglioma. The irony for me was that the tumors would ultimately kill patients, but at the time, no one had been able to culture them in model systems.

Pressfield goes on to explain that a great concept in a movie, a book, or TV is one that has obvious spin-off or sequel potential. Sequels for the original Star Wars movie have been being produced for 40 years! The same is true in science. Oligodendrogliomas were a niche in cancer and even among brain tumors. The in vivo model would lead to many predictable experiments, and many others that would have to be discovered.

Do you have a theme?

Identifying the theme of a book or story has always been more illusive for me. That required effort when all I wanted to do was read stories. Most authors, although not necessarily consciously, are trying to communicate some issue that the reader most likely can relate to. In Star Wars, the theme might be that no matter who we are or what we look like, we all have the same desires in life-to find love/friendship and to do something interesting/important with our lives.

In science, the theme is your overall purpose for conducting a specific set of experiments. We have many concepts today, but theme is more often missing. What’s the ultimate goal? Why are you really doing this work? How does this one article fit in with the rest of your work?

There were many themes to my oligodendroglioma project. Some even happened to be personal. I saw the development of oligodendroglioma as an opportunity to explore the dependence of early cancer growth on microenvironment. But it also turned out to be a personal story about patience and focus. The project worked because of my personality type, and there were subtle ways of expressing this point in my manuscript.

What belongs in the beginning, the middle, and the end?

Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end (so do paragraphs!). Scientific manuscripts have an introduction, the results, and a discussion. Neither set of words is very descriptive. If you call them the hook, the build, and the payoff, as Pressfield does, the nature of the information therein becomes clearer.

The hook is where it all begins. In literature, something happens immediately, often an inciting incident (a murder for example), that makes you want to read the rest of the book.

Why should it be different in a scientific manuscript? Rather than use the Introduction as a dumping ground for information, be discriminating. Which facts led you to the development of your question? Was it some clinical data? Some interesting biological feature of an animal? My hook was the irony in oligodendrogliomas-they grow aggressively in the human brain, but nowhere else, unlike other brain tumors. The “Why is that?” question which I hope I have provoked in readers.

The build gives you the sense of some sort of story momentum originating from a key event. Something happens which leads to an ensuing series of comedic or tragic events. Romeo and Juliet have to meet first.

Build is a perfect word for the results section in a scientific manuscript. Generally, there is a critical experiment that leads us down a path to all the others. The work becomes only more compelling. It was exciting to discover the xenografts in my model system after waiting for months. But the model became even more interesting as we examined the pathology and genetic status of the tumors.

Finally the story reaches the payoff. Payoff implies that there is something to be gained by reading all of the previous events. Hans Solo gets the girl in Star Wars after all of the battles.

What’s the payoff in a scientific manuscript? You have new data, new insight that might lead to a novel treatment for cancer. Or perhaps a novel technology that will be fundamental to understanding most everything else (genomic sequencing). What does your work tell us about where to go next-that’s what you want in your discussion. That’s the gift the reader gets for reading your story.

How badly do you want to tell the story?

The writing really begins long before you ever get to the manuscript. Are you consumed with the question? Will you still want to tell the story after you have collected the data? I had some fairly significant obstacles before I ever got started on my project on oligodendrogliomas. I was dying to get an answer so I stuck with it.

Passion makes the writing easier.

None of these literary exercises are new to my educational experience. These principles have been lurking there in my subconscious as a result of the literature classes I took throughout my education. We just forget that we can apply them to writing scientific manuscripts as well. The only difference is scientists write stories based solely on facts.

So look for the story in your work and then go write it.

Do these ideas help you think about how to write your manuscript? Let me know!

©Janice Marie Nigro/


2 thoughts on “Literary exercises for writing scientific manuscripts

    • Thanks Raj…It’s hard to think of ways to explain how to write a paper. I think the literary parallel works. It really begins long before you actually write it though!

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