Writing an Original Research Article as a Story

I approach the structure of an academic research article similarly to how I approach a piece of fiction. I shared this with a student the other day, and am elevating it from “Random Email I’ll Lose” to “Blog Post I Can Link Back To.”

I like to think of an original research report like a story: The first “chapter”—Background—sets up the characters, setting, and conflict—why was it urgent to do this research? What pressures are building, what gaps exist, what is troublesome about existing knowledge, who is yelling that problems are unaddressed and why? That chapter ends with, “therefore, because of these conflicts/tensions/gaps/needs, we decided to do a study to address them through these research aims.” Or, to go forth on a journey to resolve these conflicts through the objectives of the study.

The second “chapter”—Methods—is like equipping your heroes and sending them out to achieve those necessary objectives. We therefore took these bold actions to resolve the conflict! March forth and design, recruit, collect, analyze! Do the study thing! Here is how we did it.

The third “chapter”—Results—is the climax chapter. It says what actually happened in the study. What was the result of that journey?

The final “chapter”—Discussion—is the resolution chapter. It ties up all the loose ends. It summarizes what happened on the journey and then ties it back to why you had to go forth in the first place, which is introduced first in the Background. It’s where you conclude how the gaps were filled (or not), the troublesome ideas adjusted (or not), the problems addressed (or not). How did the result of the journey change the world? Or, at least, how did it change the current state of the science, literature, practice, policy, and community? 🙂 

Thinking of the research in this way may help provide some structure, and also make it more engaging to read. No, I am not recommending turning the paper into a literary work full of hyperbole and action sequences! But readers can more easily follow a narrative where the pieces relate to each other clearly. I have also found it easier to write when I consider the process of conducting original research as a narrative arc. HTH <3