Most stories are never told. It seems that the ragged little threads of narrative that form most people’s lives are lost on the breeze before they can be shared. Unwoven, unfixed they can never become part of the greater tapestry of the human story. But, perhaps it is more complicated than that. Maybe those flashes and moments of experience only become a story at all once they are told. It is perhaps in the very telling that a story has its origins. The importance of storytelling can, therefore, never be over estimated.

The sequencing and sometimes re-ordering of events, the necessary clarifications and the selection of what and what not to include are all part of the storyteller’s craft. And this is a craft that has become increasingly important to me as I try to find ways of helping people with their scientific and technical writing. Many who come to my classes struggle with finding any rhythm to their writing, while others are simply trying to overcome their fear of the blank page. But all need to be reminded that, no matter what they are writing about, they are always telling a story.

The telling of stories is, I think, what it’s is all about — and I do mean all. I think people are basically animals who tell stories and who need to hear them. All our lives are filled with stories — short and long, simple and profound — that permeate every fibre of our existence. We weave the narrative of our own lives from the many threads of experience we gather along the way, we are fascinated by the life stories of others and we look for stories everywhere.  In this respect, science is no different, because it is carried out by people — by storytelling, story-reading people.

Now, there can be misunderstanding when we use the term ‘story’ for it is often equated with fiction or even falsehood, and science should rightly be concerned with the business of facts and reality. But stories need not be fictions. We relate what has happened to us in a story, we tell the tales of our lives in a story, we listen to the stories on the nightly news and, I contend, we read the stories of science in the articles of our journals. The problem, however, is that most people who write those articles don’t know they are telling a story. Indeed, they may even be actively trying not to tell a story for fear that it might reveal them to be less of a scientist.

Storytelling does not seem to equate with rigour in many people’s minds. But, think about it for a moment. What are we trying to do when we write a scientific paper? We are trying to share with our peers what we have done and what we have found out when we did it. In other words, we are trying to tell them the story of our discovery. And, like everything else, storytelling has some rules, if you want to do it well.

Some people are undoubtedly better than others at it, but I think deep down we are all natural storytellers because that’s part of being human. It is just that somewhere along the way, between the degrees and the doctorates, we have decided, or we have been told, that it’s not about the story, it’s about the facts. As a result, our research findings are stripped bare of anything that might engage our readers and what we produce is simply dull.

Scientific discovery is among the most fascinating of all human endeavours, but you would be forgiven for not recognising that if you glanced through any modern scientific journal.   Almost all of what is written under the banner of scientific writing is, I regret to say, boring, because the people that wrote it forgot they were telling a story.

Stories have beginnings, middles and ends, although not necessarily in that order. They have an arc and a destination. And, most importantly, stories are told to capture an audience’s attention, to hold it and to deliver on a promise.

Unfortunately, there is no thrall in most scientific writing, no suspense, and certainly no humour. Readers have to plough through heavy clay and tackle stubborn stones without the aid of mechanical force—nothing is made easy for them. There is no effort to enchant or even to engage, never mind the consideration of using as simple language as possible to explain the most difficult and abstract of concepts.

Most scientific authors simply forget that at the end of the line there is a reader who should be considered. If even a little more effort was put into scientific writing, we would all benefit and we might recover some of the wonder and awe that have been lost along the way.

© Allan Gaw 2016

New book now available for pre-order on Amazon Kindle

Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research  


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My other books available on kindle:

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