Writing a paper? Steal some ideas from storytellers

Recently, I have spent a lot of time sighing over papers I have been asked to review, usually scribbling furiously in various margins “WHAT IS THE STORY HERE?” In team meetings, we often plan out papers by sketching out “the story” – what it is we want people to understand and take away from this piece of work? And when a draft paper is not making sense to us, we go back to basics, brainstorming amongst ourselves what the key narrative is. So it was interesting recently to be confronted by one of my children, who had skipped off home from infants school delighted to tell me “how to write a story”. You just need three things, she beamed: an introduction, a problem, and a resolution. If you want to be more ambitious, you can even have MORE THAN ONE problem, I was told. Maybe even a trillion problems! However, after trying this out, she concluded that maybe two or three problems and their resolutions was enough. The princess could probably fight a dragon, scare off a pack of wolves and overcome an impossible-to-climb tower to rescue the prince [I am proud she wrote it this way round…], but with much more than this she, the princess and the readers got a little lost.

I think we academics could learn a lot from six-year-olds here. When you sit down to write a paper, do you think about the overall tale you want to tell, or are you fixed on getting over the minute details of the 27 different analyses you ran? Do you cram in every last snippet of interview you coded even if, frankly, that particular code seems a little tangential to your main point? These are all recent papers I have encountered, and I have ended up frustrated and confused about what the main message is. Maybe we all need to think “introduction-problem-resolution” a little more. Plan a little more. Imagine our narratives a little more. And know exactly where we are going, and how to get there. Take Polly Dunbar’s advice (recent high-impact publications: Penguin and Flyaway Katie) “When I’m writing a story I always like to have the end clearly in sight, it literally is an island to swim towards. If you know it’s there, you know which direction to swim in!”



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