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By Susan Carter

Recently three experiences collided for me: getting a rejection on an article that I had co-authored; examining a thesis; and giving feedback on a literature review. They brought home how essential it is in the world of doctoral writing to turn facts, even sophisticated original facts, into a story.

I’ve known this for some time, but it was starkly demonstrated by a blitz of seeing for myself how necessary the linkages are. Readers must have narrative guides so that they feel secure they are in familiar territory as they journey through academic writing. As I circled  round each chore on my list at present, I saw that it was problematic when the story-line was lost within thickets of academic writing.

I’ve known this for some time because, back when we were both doctoral colleagues, my friend Margaret Reeves complained about academics being suckers for plain old-fashioned stories—she lamented that academics do not perform the sophistication you might hope for in a post-modern era. Instead they favour a homely and familiar storyline. Most will not give recognition to a valuable contribution without one.

Margaret’s lament was in conjunction with Ian Watt being credited as the historian who first tracked the rise of the novel: Margaret knew that several scholars had rolled the same facts together, but it was Ian who turned it into a story, with the novel as the main character. Margaret has written on this, asking in the middle of her article (Reeves, 2000): ‘Why is it, then, that Rise of the Novel has had a much greater impact on our understanding of the conditions enabling the novel’s growth than any of these earlier literary histories?’ Her answer is that Watt’s version drew out a story that readers could follow.

So how can doctoral writers be encouraged to step back into what Reeves calls ‘an Enlightenment narrative of uninterrupted progress’ and what I usually describe as something that follows the structure of most stories for small children?

This post describes an exercise with a doctoral writer that we agreed was helpful. I gave a her a sheet of paper with some random words around the theme of ‘flowers’. The words are at the end of this post.

Then I asked for the words to be ordered as a story, using all of them. Working together, talking rather than writing, we realised that different stories, with different focuses, could be built from these words. I suspect this might be good as a writing workshop exercise. Each story-maker could be given two sheets with the same words and asked to make two different stories.

The stories we made could be seen as arguments in a human geography approach to flowers. There were different possible arguments. Maybe that is the point in why you must have a connecting story: it is the story’s progress that builds an argument in doctoral writing.

A thesis needs a logically developed argument. The story unfolds that argument In fact, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary gives as the definition of thesis: ‘a proposition laid down or stated, esp. one maintained or put forward as a premise in an argument’. Importantly, that meaning comes before: ‘A dissertation to maintain and prove a thesis or proposition, esp. one written as the sole or principle requirement of a University degree’. I’m speculating that maintaining a thesis in the written thesis in the simplest of terms means turning it into a story, with the same kind of structure as the ones we read to children: characters, which in a thesis are usually things not animals or people, what happens to them, and then a conclusion.

I’ve pondered upon the different plots of doctoral stories (Carter, Kelly and Brailsford, 2012, pp. 58-63) while thinking about thesis structuring work. Possible structures are: buildungsromans, that is, stories of maturation; quests; journey narratives; loss and recuperation stories; tragedies or romances in which ‘characters’ are put together with happy results. And we’ve written about the importance of narrative elsewhere on DoctoralWriting.

Do others who support or produce doctoral writing have other strategies for nudging doctoral writers into where they can see the need for story structure?

Here are the words I presented printed like this on a page, in several copies, and then we circled and numbered them, and talked the stories through to each other.

lily                   wedding                     flower             plant                petal


rose                              colour                          daisy    paintings



funeral             scent                chrysanthemum           symbolism



miniature rose               wild flowers                           bride



edible flowers             climbing rose                           beauty


deep red                                  patterns of petals         golden



poisonous flowers                   art                    cauliflower


religious interpretations                       soft white



Carter, S., Kelly, F. and Brailsford, I. (2012). Structuring Your Research Thesis. Houndsmills UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

Reeves, Margaret. “Telling the Tale of The Rise of the Novel.” Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 30.1 (Fall 2000): 25-49.