Story Time


Copyright MousePlanet Inc.

I’ve been working recently with a Romanian-German engineering student with business-school aspirations who is trying to improve his English writing skills. My student’s spoken English is excellent, and he can write fluently when talking about himself (in particular, about his rather impressive tennis career; the kid’s multitalented to say the least). But whenever he shows me a report, a formal letter, or a research paper, the work is a mess: The grammar falls apart under the weight of haphazardly constructed ideas.

My engineering student is hardly unique here, but because he’s writing in a foreign language, the cause and effect are clearer. The less comfortable we are with a certain format, the more difficult it is to get the structure right, and the less sound the structure, the harder it is to get the details right.

I saw this a lot when I was editing magazine pieces by journalists who spent most of their time writing for a daily newspaper. They would dive into 3,000-word pieces with a structural plan similar to what they used for 500-word news articles—an attention-grabbing lead followed by a “nut paragraph” followed by evidence. Only the really dazzling line-for-line writers managed to pull this off. The others’ first drafts were boring at best, confusing at worst.

So I’ve been doing with my student what I did with those journalists: Demanding a narrative structure—stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end; stories with five Shakespearean acts; stories whose main points are made two-thirds of the way through—not in the first three paragraphs. Stories, in other words, with a structure we learn in childhood and that remains familiar throughout our lives.

In journalism, this sort of writing has both blossomed on the Internet and become the target of criticism, with writers in The Atlantic and The New York Times swinging at its cheerleaders for focusing on length rather than form, and for fetishizing form over function, respectively. In this guise, it’s also referred to as “long form,” but that suggests that in order for a piece of writing to employ a narrative structure, it’s got to be 5,000 words long. I disagree. After all, the stories we tell friends at the bar—that old chestnut for how to write well—don’t usually consist of half-hour monologues. (If yours do, give your pals a break and audition for The Moth.) And when my student approaches a writing assignment by thinking about each paragraph as a small story, these paragraphs read remarkably well—even if the piece is a two-page marketing report.

I think academic writers would do well to keep narrative storytelling in mind, at the paragraph level and regarding overarching structure. The latter, at least, is easy: Research papers tell great stories—movements from what we used to know to what we know now and, in the middle, how we learned it. They’re plays in three acts where the subject is discovery. And if that doesn’t hark back to some of the world’s oldest and best yarns, I don’t know what does.

Of course, I’ll inevitably run into problems if (or maybe when) I adopt “write narratively” as a piece of advice for academics. The question is, where will these limitations crop up? Anyone want to warn me in advance?

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