How can you have a hero in a scientific paper??
You can. You should.
Much of this blog comes from a book called The Art of Scientific Storytelling by Dr Rafael Luna. If you are a student in the sciences and struggle with writing your papers, run, don’t walk, to buy this work. Luna—both a fiction AND science writer—said many of the things I had been intuiting, but just hadn’t nailed down.
Several years ago I was teaching academic writing to post-graduate (MA and Ph.D.) students, all second-language English speakers. I used a famous textbook that dutifully divided scientific papers into various sections (the usual: Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, etc.) and then examined the structure of each section. It was all right—bone dry, but all right.
Even when my students understood this information, their writing was often terrible. It wasn’t just their grammar (though they needed help in that regard), something was missing. Slowly, I discovered that what was missing was a sense of—story. A sense of telling their story to an audience of flesh-and-blood humans.
Granted, any scientific paper will be a complicated story for a specialized audience, with lots of complex vocabulary and information. However, as Luna (and others) have pointed out, most scientific stories share many commonalities with their “less-educated” cousins, the story. They still have action, a hero (yes, a hero), change, and a conclusion. Let’s break this down, comparing the scientific paper with a good presentation that tells a gripping story:
|Take your audience on a journey to a new idea.||
Take your audience on a journey to a new idea.
|Lead the audience on a hero’s quest: they will be faced with a problem. You will demonstrate how your idea can lead them to a brighter future.||
Make sure your main character (chemical reaction, a geographical feature, e.g.) demonstrates a clear problem to overcome (hypothesis), and how solving this problem will contribute to the scientific community.
|Influence the audience to accept your point of view and take action by using both factual evidence and moving stories.||
Take your protagonist on a series of experiments that will reveal something new that can benefit the scientific community.
|Tailor your story for the audience, using vivid language and imagery that will most move them.||
Tailor your story for your particular audience within the scientific community, using strong language that moves your paper forward.
Once I was able to communicate this idea to my students, they slowly began to incorporate the idea of the ACTIVE STORY into their papers. Slooowly, their papers began to improve. That was great to see!
Note: An excellent way for a scientist to really be able to communicate his or her research to the general public is to be able to write and speak an elevator pitch. This can be such fun to do—but it is NOT easy. That will be next.