Two Principles of Fiction That Can Be Applied to Scholarly Writing
Traditionally, there was a rather wide gulf between scholarly writing and creative writing, and this remained true even in an academic study of a literary text. That gulf still exists, of course, but it has narrowed considerably in recent years. Many scholarly publishers now ask that authors report their research and develop their arguments using language and logic that are accessible to an audience far wider than the specialists who were once virtually the sole readers of academic and scientific texts. This means choosing vocabulary and phrasing that are common rather than specialised and it also means providing careful explanations and definitions of potentially confusing concepts and abbreviations, but that is not all there is to rendering scholarly writing palatable and digestible for today’s broad audiences.
Authors of scholarly writing can learn a great deal, for instance, from authors of successful fiction. When a creative writer designs a story there are many elements to consider, but two tend to stand out as particularly important: plot and perspective. The plot of a story can also be referred to as its storyline because it is the main plan or outline of what will happen in the story. A good plot is considered essential in fiction for catching and holding the attention of readers, and that principle can be effectively applied to academic and scientific writing. There is a story to be found in every research project. Some may be a good deal more exciting than others, but even research that seems poor material with which to weave a scintillating plot has a storyline worth exploiting. The topic or problem obviously interested you or you would not be investigating it, and you must have devised an effective means of exploring and perhaps resolving the problem or you would not be conducting advanced research. Give your readers the background needed to understand why your research is necessary; tell them what is innovative about your methodology and how that affected your work; share the excitement and implications of your results. In short, take them along on your research journey as much as words can manage.
Perspective is certainly as important as plot to crafting a story, and some authors would even claim that it is more important. After all, the key question as one sets fingertips to keyboard is one of voice: Who is speaking? The writer needs to know before a single word is typed. In most cases, that voice will not be the author’s own in fiction, but the voice of a narrator who tells the story or a fictional character who plays a part in it. When it comes to scholarly writing, the voice of the researcher will be telling the story, and there is no need to fictionalise that narrative voice. There is also no need to hide that voice or the presence of the investigator, though some fields, particularly in the sciences, still lean towards the use of the passive voice. Unfortunately, the passive voice distances readers from the researcher without actually achieving the objectivity it is sometimes thought to promote, so unless you are required to use the passive voice, choose the active voice instead and highlight your unique perspective as you tell the story of your research. A fresh perspective tends to make text compelling for readers, and the original research conducted by scholars as well as the thoughtful analysis of research findings means that academics and scientists enjoy fresh perspectives on a regular basis. Celebrate yours by sharing it openly with your audience.
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