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Academic writing style: Telling a story in your research paper

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Academic writing style: Telling a story in your research paper

Academic writing can often be somewhat drab. Make no mistake – it isn’t supposed to entertain, it’s supposed to inform. However, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be engaging. Building your research paper around a narrative format can help the reader (from the editor who views your initial submission to the final reader) follow the ‘story’ of what you’re bringing across more easily, thus enabling them to absorb the information more readily. Here, we discuss the benefits of telling a story in your research paper and share some pointers for doing it well. 

Telling a story in your paper: Explained and exemplified

When we say ‘narrative’, we don’t necessarily mean ‘write in the style of your favourite author’. A narrative, in the context of academic writing, is a central thread that runs through each of your result pieces. The idea is to have a beginning, a middle and an end to your paper, thereby providing the reader with structure and a satisfying progression through the paper

Why is this important?

Consider the following example:

Western blot results suggested the presence of the protein of interest. Structural analysis confirmed the protein’s folded structure to include disulphide bonds. 

The above example is a matter-of-fact statement of results.

Now, consider this example:

To determine whether our protein of interest was present, a western blot was performed, suggesting its presence in the sample. Further structural analysis revealed the presence of disulphide bonds.

This example improves on the first statement by reframing it as a progression of events, giving the impression of a development occurring with every new piece of data generated, rather than a simple collection of data. By restructuring the information this way, the second example also ties the rationale into the sentence, giving the reader context for what they are about to read.

How to write your paper as a story: Basics

A complete illustration of writing your research paper as a story or narrative is beyond the scope of this article. So, here, we provide some basic tips.

What you need to do

You’ll need a beginning, a middle and an end. Oftentimes this can be a helpful way of structuring your paper when you are about to commence writing, as it can help you obtain an idea about the overall form that you think would be ideal for it.

Also, try not to simply retell your entire process chronologically, but rather in terms of rationale. For example…

One piece of data led you to another question, which would in turn have directed you towards interrogating yet another aspect, and so on.

This leads the reader through your process and will help them to understand why you progressed the way you did.

What you need to avoid

It is not uncommon to have to reappraise your data when the time comes to write your paper. However, be aware that using a narrative structure and voice could lead you to omit certain experiments because they might not fit with the ‘story’. There are cases where this is fine, because perhaps a specific experiment or method isn’t particularly relevant. However, be aware that there can be a fine line between this and ‘cherry picking data’, which can be regarded as misconduct and/or an unethical practice.

Also try to avoid using too many personal pronouns. There are instances, disciplines and journals in which this may be acceptable. Just ensure that your writing does not start coming across as too informal or even unprofessional, and that you still adhere to the overall tone of your chosen journal.

End note

Integrating a narrative structure into your paper is a stylistic choice that can help your reader follow your thought processes and make sense of your overall progression, from forming the hypothesis through to testing that hypothesis. The more you are able to engage your audience using your writing and tools like this, the more they will engage with your work, which is the ultimate goal of publication.


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