Finding the Story
Science is a game of exploration, but it’s also a game of communication. If you make a groundbreaking discovery but you lack the skills to communicate it, your discovery won’t amount to much. I suspect most scientists will agree with this sentiment. Communication is important if we want our results to diffuse into the broader community. We also need to communicate when applying for grants and scholarships, or otherwise selling the value of our work. Each time we answer the question “Why does this matter?”, we’re communicating our values.
And yet, we don’t teach the art of scientific communication. Instead, we rely on students figuring things out as they go. We expect graduate students to just “level up” from writing laboratory reports and essays as undergraduates to writing papers for the scientific community. Not only is this a tall expectation, I think we miss out on communicating we should value when writing.
I’m thinking about this within the context of my own PhD. I’m done my first project, and I’m in the stages of writing. Despite my love for writing, there’s no doubt this process has been the most tedious and exhausting part of the project. Through multiple drafts, rewrites, and so much editing, I want to discuss the topic of finding your story.
Imagine you’ve spent many months in the thick of a problem. You ran simulations, studied the equations of your model, and made discoveries while analyzing your data. You’ve written tons of code, have a folder filled with a zillion figures and data, and even have a few derivations written down. You have all this stuff, under the label of your Project.
The instinct might be to dump everything onto the page. To explain all you know, perhaps in the order you discovered it, and every tiny detail. You want to give everything it’s place, and make sure that whoever sees your project will appreciate just how much work you’ve put into this project.
This approach might work, but I want to point out that it will involve a lot of chipping away. Think of a sculpture out of stone, with the artist chipping away at the material to reveal the masterpiece. In this scenario, creation is a process of subtraction, of removing elements from your giant collection of data points, equations, and figures that you have.
Going this way is fine, but you will often put in a lot of work, only to strip it away later. Why? Not everything belongs in the finished scientific artifact. If you want to make something that isn’t just a record but an artifact, you need to take care in what you include.
In my mind, there are three “levels” at which a person approaches a scientific paper:
Story -> Methods -> Technical Details
As we go from left to right, we read more deeply. Each is worth its own essay, so I will only focus on the story for now.
Think about the big folder you have with your data and research objects. If I asked you to summarize what’s in that folder, what would you say? What did you learn from doing all this work? What was missing in the community before you came along and built up these objects?
The story level is where you settle on the format for your project. Everything else flows from it. The story dictates how you introduce the project, the way you juxtapose it with the rest of the community, and how you hook the reader into wanting to know what you discovered.
Every good scientific project has a story. If you want to craft the best possible project, I don’t think you can forget about the story. And this should come first, because it’s the roadmap for everything else.
The key question at this level is: What makes a good story?
A tempting option is the “autobiographical” story. This involves sharing the details of the science as you came across them. This sometimes comes in how you introduce the project, the presentation of a model, and the sequence of figures and results. But almost nobody cares about how you came across your discoveries. Unless it’s a truly spectacular autobiographical story, we tend to care about the results. What did you discover? Why is this important? How does it change our knowledge of the world? Building your story around those questions will likely bring you more success than sticking to the autobiographical narrative.
I don’t have the answers for how to craft the perfect story, but here is what I think about.
First, where is the tension? This comes from the lack of information in your research community. Where’s the gap? What’s the challenge that you will address? Tension is how you introduce the problem of the story. In an abstract, you might spot this as, “X occurs across many fields, but there is no model which captures X.” In the second half of this sentence, there’s a challenge. Nobody created a model that works, and perhaps your paper is addressing this issue.
Second, each supporting explanation and result helps reinforce the tension. It’s one thing to introduce tension in the abstract and introduction, but can you maintain it throughout the story? Think of fiction: we keep reading because there’s an expected payoff. The characters of the story will experience the tension until they have the tools to deal with it. In a scientific artifact, this is where you present your work and how it eases the tension.
Third, a good story is easy to keep in mind. I think of this as having a small amount of RAM in my brain. To understand a complex problem, I need to spend a bunch of time creating elaborate structures in my head that help me understand what I’m looking at in a way that’s effortless. But the reader doesn’t have this in their head. Unless your paper builds this up step by step, it might be worth simplifying your story so that the reader connects with it. The other benefit here is that it’s easy for them to share it with another person.
After spending weeks and months looking at a text editor, manipulating the raw data and equations in your project, and learning the shape of your work, you have a micro view of the project. Maybe you’ve grown fond of a particular part of the code you’ve written, or you think this neat mathematical trick is worth sharing. And it is, but not as the story. By spending so much time in the trenches of your project, you can’t see the whole thing. You forget why you were doing this in the first place. In other words, you’ve forgotten the story that will captivate the newcomer.
The newcomer doesn’t ask about the nitty gritty details. Rather, they ask story-level questions. What is missing in the scientific community? What does this project highlight? What do we learn? Why do we care?
It’s only once you convey those to the newcomer that they will even ask for the details. But if they have no connection to the story, why in the world would they even care about the technical details?
Remember, the newcomer doesn’t have your months of experience. Just by working on a problem you become attached to it. The newcomer has none of that, and plenty of other things they could do with their time. Why is your work worth pondering? Why is your story any good?
As I said at the outset, I’m learning these lessons as I go. Whether I’m writing a paper, writing an essay for the blog, or crafting a presentation, I think of the story.
Science is about discovery, yes. But people don’t know about discoveries unless they are excited by them. And excitement comes from finding a great story to tell.
You’re a scientist. But you’re also a communicator, and it’s worth spending the time doing the work of a writer when crafting your scientific artifact.