Does story writing work as a model for scientific articles?

Scientists don’t get into science to become writers. But the job demands it. We write, or we try to, because we need to communicate results. To survive. To move up in our career. To advance science.

But that’s the problem. Scientists have to do it. And when you have to do something, it can become a means to an end rather than an enthusiastic report, a story to tell, of the last few years of your work life.

A story to tell? In science? Yes.

I’ve been doing my best to shape my results into stories since graduate school. I thought it was a natural process, once I realized why some talks were good and others were not so great.

Let me emphasize that the impact of the science isn’t what distinguishes a good talk (or paper) from a bad one. I first understood the art of telling a scientific story when another graduate student made a presentation about a failed protocol hilarious. We all learned something from her story. I’ve also seen exceptional data poorly presented.

How did she do this? How did she transform her failed experiments from her lab notebook into a memorable story?

She did what all storytellers do; she gave us a beginning, a middle and an end. Or in science speak, the why, the what happened, and an interpretation. Twenty minutes on a failed protocol, and she was brilliant.

Ever since then, I’ve looked at my results and tried to organize them in a sequence that follows the beginning-the middle-and-the end story-like arc.

But this is not a new topic. And there are those who disagree. One author has suggested that an emphasis on storytelling might drive investigators to seek a specific end in their investigation rather than the true facts. This is already a problem, but encouraged by the review process-at institutions, at publications, at granting agencies.

In a more recent opinion piece, the same author rejects the idea of scientific storytelling as no more than a state-of-the-internet marketing tactic.

So I looked up the definition of story. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of the word “story” is an account of incidents or events. Or a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question. Or “an anecdote” especially an amusing one.

A story is also defined as a fictional narrative shorter than a novel. The intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work. A widely circulated rumor. Lie. Falsehood. Legend. Romance. A news article or broadcast. Finally, a matter, or situation.

An article communicating scientific results is “an account of incidents or events,” and it is also “a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question.”

But it is the other definitions that we most strongly identify with-a story entertains us.

Here’s the thing though. Why shouldn’t revealing a series of scientific facts also be entertaining? By its very nature, science captivates us.

The gender bending life of the anemone fish-they’re all born male-is fascinating even to the youngest audience. The entertainment level of the specific details of a novel protocol to edit the human genome is perhaps more audience dependent.

So how do you generate a story arc for your data? It sounds simple, but remind yourself what basic question you want to answer, why it’s interesting, and how you plan to answer it.

In my own work, why do I even want to study human brain tumors? They’re all terminal illnesses in adults, but one tumor type captured my interest as a scientist because of two biological characteristics: the age of the patients and where it develops in the brain. These ideas are ways of incorporating personality into a paper and give a unique introduction or perspective on a topic which starts with the same first sentence in thousands of papers. They give context.

It helps to ask those questions for each of your paragraphs. Why did I perform this experiment and how does this experiment contribute to answering my question? Follow through with that exercise for each paragraph, and you’ll be working towards a more organized article.

But part of the writing job begins before you start any experiments. The trick is to ask the type of question that is going to give you an interesting answer no matter what it is. That’s hard to do. Yet, some of the best scientists have used one simple question to drive their research for years. Like how do bacteria chop up viral DNA? Or what are the genetic mutations in cancer?

Reaching into the literary tool kit isn’t a bad thing for science. But the lines between science and art are not so well-defined for me. We kinda do the same things with our brains, even though the outcomes are different. While scientists use facts, and artists might use colors, they both use some out-of-the-box thinking to combine them to create something new. CRISPR and PCR were born out of some weird facts about nature, and a painting, the same colors everyone else has in the crayon box.

Using the story arc as a model to write science papers has also been criticized because a story has a sense of being complete. THE END. Oh, except for sequels. They leave us wondering what will happen next.

How do you feel about writing science in a narrative manner?

©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer ResearchPLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.

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