autumn leaves

The stories in your research

You might have heard about storytelling as a way of communicating research. You might wonder what the narrative form has to do with academic writing. Here are some practical suggestions for when you are stuck trying to explain to your audience (and yourself) what is important about your research efforts. I hope this is as helpful for time poor academics as it could be for higher degree research (and undergraduate) students.

What is a narrative?

A linear story, in other words…

a series of events which together develop an overall message.

How does the idea of a narrative help you to describe your research?

When you focus on your main story, it keeps your ideas tightly connected. For instance the prior research you have cited in your draft may not be entirely relevant to the theme of your own research. It works better to refer only to studies which specifically relate to your aim. Mentioning studies that have led to your research develops your story. Brief recounts of others’ work in a similar field may not.

The same applies to your method. When you want to tell a story, this gives a deeper meaning to your research. For instance, instead of just describing your method, write about why you chose this method. Why did you prefer it to another method?

As for the story of your results, it is often said that the method you choose will determine the results you find. You know that is not true because findings can be surprising. Monash University offers research students some step by step guidance on this in the form of short writing activities once you have your data.

The discussion is really the most important part of the paper to highlight its significance. Anna Clemens considers this section is often shorter than it should be. She suggests some questions to help you make the most of your research efforts:

What do your findings mean in the context of the literature? How do you explain the trends you have identified? How can your results be useful for a particular application? What is the big picture? What should be further investigated? The full article is far more detailed.

So in academic writing we leave the key elements in research articles to the end. In contrast, if you plan to convey your research to a wider audience, some important attention attracters need to come at the beginning, Diana Brazell suggests. So what are the practical implications of your research?  How can you apply your research to real world examples? These questions might help to flesh out your discussion and suggestions for future studies.

I am certainly not suggesting you should orient your journal article or thesis for a lay audience.  But thinking about your research story and how you want to tell it can help to open the door if you are stuck in the details and struggling to emphasise the overall significance of what you have put so much time and effort into.