Hi there writers! How are you doing this week?
I know that things are getting really crazy as we head towards the end of the year.
We’ve hit that part of the semester where you don’t have enough time to do any of your own work.
A lot of my clients are rescheduling their sessions because they haven’t been able to write anything new in a month.
And, of course, people are still experiencing existential worry about the state of the world like I talked about in the last episode.
So this week, I wanted to talk about something that’s not going to take a lot of your emotional energy.
But, it’s something that I believe is a really important part of good scholarly writing.
And that is the power of storytelling.
I first started thinking about this when I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia.
My neighbor introduced me to his friend Joel Bakan, who is a law professor at UBC.
A few years earlier he had published a well-received book called The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power that was later turned into an award-winning documentary.
It was published with a trade press, but he still had a lot to tell me about scholarly book writing.
I had just graduated after writing fully half of my dissertation in a three-month period.
I was completely overwhelmed.
I was teaching huge classes for the first time, living in a new country, trying to get a job, all in the midst of trying to figure out how to write my book.
I had no idea what the first step should be.
This was the beginning of a long odyssey that eventually turned into my coaching work with Your Words Unleashed.
I built this business to help people figure out their next steps so they don’t have to spend years soul searching and feeling so much fear, dread, and confusion about their books.
But at the time, that’s what I was feeling. I was lost.
So I asked Joel for advice on transforming my dissertation into something that people would want to read.
And what he told me was, “you have to tell good stories.”
You start with the story. And then you almost trick your audience into learning about theory, about history, about things that are much bigger.
That conversation happened in 2010 and I’ve never forgotten it.
And now I always tell my authors to keep in mind that what readers really want, even academic readers, is a good story.
So today I’m going to talk about how you can harness the power of storytelling in your own writing, regardless of the subject matter.
I’m also going to read a few pages from my first book to illustrate some of these points.
And I’ll give you some tips for how you can start incorporating storytelling into your writing in the most effective and enjoyable ways possible.
The Science of Storytelling
So let’s get started.
I’ve been reading a book called The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better by journalist Will Store.
It discusses the scientific reasons why our brains rely on stories to make sense of the world.
Our brains are wired to be fascinated by other people, and by what they’re thinking and feeling.
At the same time, we’re not very good at actually predicting what other people are thinking and feeling.
And this becomes the source of both drama and comedy. It’s the source of stories.
The book talks about how our brains are always using stories to construct reality.
He writes, “the world we experience as out there is actually a reconstruction of reality that is built inside our heads. It’s an act of creation by the storytelling brain.” (p. 21)
Essentially, he’s saying that our brains are constantly telling us stories and that’s how we make sense of the world.
And if you’ve ever taken a sociology class, you understand that what we think of as reality is very much constructed.
We give meaning to certain things and then act upon those meanings to the point where they become reified as reality.
So Storr has a few ideas about what makes a good story.
The first one is that it starts with a specific moment of change.
Something is happening, but we don’t know yet what’s going to unfold.
People’s curiosity is piqued, and they wonder why things are happening in that way and what’s going to happen next.
Another aspect of good storytelling is showing and not telling.
We hear that a lot, right? But it’s often hard to know what that actually means when it comes to scholarly writing.
So it means being exceedingly detailed to allow readers to create the right picture in their minds.
The goal is to create vivid scenes by including precise and specific descriptions and by evoking the senses.
But these details also have to be meaningful.
And I would take it one step further, because he’s talking about fiction writing for the most part.
With nonfiction, and with scholarly writing in particular, it’s even more important that those details are meaningful to the overall claims of your chapter or your book.
They’re meaningful because they lead towards the take home point and the primary contribution of the research.
You have to be very intentional about the stories you include because you really only have the first couple of pages of each chapter to do so.
Longer than that and your audience will not be able to figure out what they’re supposed to get from the story.
So ultimately, you really need stories that raise themes and signal to the reader what is most important about your research.
Why Scholarly Writers Don’t Tell Enough Stories
Next, I want to talk a little bit about what I think keeps a lot of scholarly authors from telling stories in their writing.
The first one is that grad students are socialized to think that using jargon, dry prose, and massive numbers of in-text citations are part of doing good research.
Basically, writing in a way that totally puts off non-experts becomes part of proving your worth to a scholarly audience.
So I think that through this socialization process, we lose touch with what we found most fascinating about this material in the first place.
And then it becomes even harder to convey to an audience why they should think it’s important and fascinating as well.
The second reason is that some academic authors might believe that it’s not scholarly to tell stories, that it’s not “objective” enough or scientific enough.
Basically, that it’s just not within the realm of what other experts would deem to be to be rigorous research.
But the truth is that when you write a book, even one based on research with an evidence-based argument, you’re the narrator, right?
You are the interpreter of everything that’s going on.
There are so many books are out there where people try to remove themselves completely, as if they’re like hovering above what’s happening.
It just doesn’t work. It’s also way more boring to read.
And so we need to recognize that everything is subjective and see that as a good thing.
I think the third reason scholarly authors shy away from telling stories is that they don’t feel comfortable making themselves an actual character in the narrative.
So I’ll read book chapters where the author is trying to tell stories but they are nowhere to be found.
They’re trying to have as minimal impact on the story as possible.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially if it was ethnographic work or participant observation.
If you were interacting with other people and with the environment, then why wouldn’t you put yourself into the story?
If you do, though, you have to choose how you want to present yourself.
So that means potentially revealing your own thoughts and opinions, and with that also comes the fear of visibility.
Especially for first time authors, it’s already hard enough to put yourself out there and have your work be seen and judged on a much larger scale.
And, when you put yourself into your story, you are taking readers into your mind, your life and your experiences.
You have to let people in to knowing more about you as a person.
And so if you’re in a place where you feel fear or shame or dread about your book, it can be very difficult to think about making yourself even more visible.
Some authors worry about how reviewers will react to a story telling style.
To assuage your concerns, one of my clients just received reviews from her dream press about her manuscript, which leans heavily on stories.
Here’s what one reviewer said:
“The prose is beautiful, clear, and accessible… I really like how the author inserts herself into her book and writes about her own struggles… Her personal experiences are a powerful point of entry into the subject.”
Of course, this client also received a contract!
An Example from My Own Work
So now I’m going to do something that I have never done on a podcast, which is actually read from one of my books.
I’m going to spend about the next six or seven minutes reading the opening pages of my first book, which was called Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China.
This was based on my dissertation research.
I spent a number of years doing fieldwork in China where I served as a volunteer with different Western nongovernmental organizations that assisting the Chinese state in taking care of abandoned children.
And I’ll just preface this by saying I started my research thinking that when I went into these orphanages, I was going to find all healthy girls, because those were the kids who were being adopted out to the United States and other Western countries at the time.
What I found instead was orphanages that were filled with special needs children, most of them boys.
The healthy girls were being adopted out while the special needs children were staying behind, but all kinds of Western resources were flowing in to help take care of them.
And it just raised all of these new questions for me that I tried to answer in this book.
So when I was thinking about an opening story, I decided to make myself a central character as a proxy for the reader.
I created other characters as well, so the two children you’re going to hear about appear in different parts of my book.
And I had to choose specific incidents that would lead directly into the major themes and the questions of the book.
So I wrote many, many different vignettes, some of which went into different chapters and some that didn’t get used at all.
But I settled on this opening story because it really got to the heart of what I was trying to say.
Okay, so here we go.
[I read the first three pages of the book. Click here to access a free copy of the Introduction chapter.]
So there you have it.
You can see that I tried to be specific, to include my own perspective as an outsider, and also to lead into the major questions and claims of the book.
Tips for Writing Good Analytical Stories
So finally, I want to end by giving a couple of tips for writing good analytical stories or vignettes.
And I think you can do this, regardless of the type of research you do.
In fact, my second book was not ethnographic at all. It was based on interviews, so I started with a story from my own life.
I’ve even worked with scientists who study insects. And they tell captivating stories from their fieldwork.
#1: So my first tip is to think of three moments from your research that stand out the most to you.
And then quickly write one page about each of them.
When you’re writing, keep a few things in mind.
Get as specific as you can. Remember to show, and not tell.
Never forget that you are the eyes, the ears, the nose, etc., of your reader, so you need to vividly reconstruct the scene.
I think many good stories come from the very first time you stepped into a location and writing from the perspective of a newcomer.
So again, it’s documenting a moment of change.
Let yourself be creative. Embrace the freedom that comes from creating a different world for others to experience.
#2: Step 2 is to take a few days away and then come back to these initial vignettes.
Reread them and think about which one might get at the primary themes of your research.
Does one of them seem like it’s pointing an arrow towards your findings or the argument?
Some vignettes are more able to do that, whereas others are just really good stories that you can perhaps incorporate elsewhere.
But the best story to start off a book is one that alludes to what you want the reader to ultimately take away from your research.
Summing Things Up
So let’s sum everything up.
For me, creative nonfiction has always been the most enjoyable and easiest kind of writing.
And I think that’s probably also the case for many of you.
Because academic writing truly does not come naturally to anyone.
I know very few people who prefer to do academic writing, or you know, think of it as a source of great joy.
Not only is telling stories a way to tap into creativity and imagination, you can also use it to help you think through tough concepts, to figure out your argument, and connect the dots in your research.
But the power of storytelling lies in making your ideas accessible to a wider audience and helping keep them engaged all the way through.
Stories keep them turning pages while also helping to illustrate key concepts, theories, and findings.
The implications of your research are clearer, more understandable, and memorable.
Finally, they foster a deeper emotional connection with readers as they relate to your topic—and to you—on a more personal level.
So don’t forget, what everyone really wants is a good story!
I’ll talk to you next time.