, ,

By Claire Aitchison

At a writing retreat this week I was reminded again of the importance of finding the right storyline.

Of course there is the generic Research Storyline that goes like this:

There is a research problem –> the extant literature shows –> the research gap is –> the research aimed to investigate -> the methodology/method used -> the findings/results showed.

This storyline foregrounds the research itself. Plus, the style and terminology create a sense of objectivity and the storyteller is invisible. It is the logic of empirical experimental research design as demonstrated in the IMRAD (introduction-methods-results-and-discussion) structure of most scientific papers.

But in fact, the long arm of the scientific method infuses so much of our academic writing that this structural storyline is applicable across multiple disciplines and kinds of studies. It’s the Mills and Boon of academic research writing.

A good storyteller will manipulate the template to suit their needs. For example, today one student doing practitioner research energised the basic research storyline by making herself the central character, and her story unfolded thus:

There was a problem/issue in my workplace that worried me (the research problem) –> some things were already known about it (the Literature) -> but there are some things we don’t know (the Gap) -> I set out to address the unknown (Research Aim) -> this is what I did (Methodology/ Methods) -> this is what I found (Results/ Findings) -> and this is what it means for my work (Implications).

It’s the same story, but told differently. Very often empirical research involves this kind of ‘grand narrative’ or overarching storyline within which smaller sub-stories can sit. Examples of these offspring stories may include the story of doing the fieldwork, the story of the literature, or one part of the literature. There are stories within stories and authors must make decisions about which to include, and how to tell them.

Mimi Zeiger (2000) says the natural storyline for an experimental hypothesis or research testing paper is chronological. In this kind of story, the account of the experiment flows like a recipe that first itemises the ingredients and then describes, step by step, the processes for mixing and baking.

But identifying the right story isn’t always so straightforward. For example, in the anecdote above, the student began by saying how her work felt disjointed, how she’d covered all the components she thought were necessary but that her supervisor wanted her to make links between the sections. Once we’d worked out that the content was right, but the storyline was absent, the discussion moved forward rapidly. Because of the kind of research being undertaken, we realised the story could (indeed, needed to) be personal, and thus we could think through where and how she, as practitioner-researcher, would sustain the storyline across the thesis. As narrator and protagonist she would use the first person and her own personal journey would be central to the telling of the research.

The next student scholar I talked to was also struggling to find the ‘right’ storyline. In this case, the dilemma was about how best to tell the story of the literature. For this study on hospital translations between English and let’s say, Bahasa Indonesian, she’d originally set out her literature review chronologically:

Early literature ->  aspect X -> aspect Y

Later literature -> aspect X -> aspect Y

As we talked more it became clear there were other stories that could be told. There was a fascinating history of how the field came to be dominated by empirical studies written in the English language, and there was another story about the tension between the two themes of pedagogy and practice. As with her original plan, both of these versions would require the author to review the literature—but either would be so much more interesting than a mere description of the chronology.

When I’m working with scholars who are ‘stuck’—perhaps they have lost track of where they are going, they’ve wandered off on a tangent or become bogged down—helping them to identify a single, robust storyline can be a breakthrough. Having a clear ‘grand narrative’ makes it easier to locate subsequent sections or papers in relation to the main story; something can be a particular challenge for those undertaking a thesis by series of publications.

Many texts on doctoral writing refer to the importance of telling a story—but, of course, this requires having the right storyline in the first place!


Zeiger, M. (2000). Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers (2nd edn.) McGraw-Hill, New York.