Tuesday, 30 May 2017 11:33

Storytelling Your Science in Manuscripts

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Published in Careers

By Tucker Burch

For beginning research scientists, honing your writing skills is essential.  There’s a solid chance that you’ve heard the phrase “publish or perish,” and it goes without saying that to publish, you need  to write something first. Even if you’ve had training or mentoring in writing scientific papers, I recommend picking up a copy of Randy Olson’s book, Houston, We Have a Narrative.  It describes a tool called “and, but, therefore” (ABT) storytelling. I found this tool valuable in my own writing, and it could be equally valuable for many other beginning scientists.    

I first encountered ABT storytelling as a 2nd-year graduate student at the University of Minnesota.  I was nearly done with all my classes, my experiments were going well, and I had tons of data.  I was feeling confident.  Then, I sat down to write my first paper.  And sat there.  And sat there.  And…  Well, sat there wondering what on earth I should write.  Nothing came to me.  It wasn’t obvious how to even begin writing a scientific paper, so I went to my advisor, Tim, and asked for help.  Tim gave me a nice template for writing introductions to papers.  Here’s what it consists of:

  • Paragraph 1: Brief introduction to the topic
  • Paragraph 2: Literature review of the topic
  • Paragraph 3: State the knowledge gap
  • Paragraph 4: Summarize experiments

As it turns out, this template is what Randy Olson would identify as an ABT story, which is, “This topic exists AND we know this about it, BUT we don’t know this other thing, THEREFORE we did these experiments.”

At the time, Tim’s template was enough to solve my immediate problem and I began to write.  It wasn’t until years later that I ran across Olson’s book and learned the more fundamental ABT concept. Tim’s template reflected the same concept as Olson’s book, even though the book wasn’t published at the time I received Tim’s advice. More importantly, Tim’s template was not unique - the introductions of many scientific papers are structured this way.  Why is this structure so widespread?

Because ABT storytelling isn’t new.  In Olson’s book, he traces it back 4,000 years from famed screenwriter Frank Daniel through Hegel’s triad of thesis, antithesis, synthesis to the ancient legend of Gilgamesh.  He also relates it to Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey—the basis of the story for Star Wars, among many other works—and to Trey Parker’s “rule of replacing and’s”, which he and Matt Stone used on a weekly basis to create 20 seasons of South Park.  What is new is how Olson reformulates this concept as a tool to help analytical-minded scientist-types understand the shortcomings in their own writing.

Essentially, ABT is about creating a narrative “story” by transitioning between ideas effectively. There are three types of transitions: agreement (and), contradiction (but), and consequence (therefore).  ABT represents an optimum mix of transitions, producing a narrative structure that is both clear and interesting.  The extreme contrasts to ABT are “and, and, and” (AAA = potentially boring) and “despite, however, yet” (DHY = potentially confusing).  There’s nothing inherently wrong with either extreme.  Each has its own place, depending on your audience and the purpose of your writing.  But, as Olson argues, ABT is something that nearly all humans are hardwired to understand and engage with, so using it will make your message accessible to the widest possible audience.                    

Having practiced this method myself, I learned that not everything can be structured as an ABT in scientific papers.  As Olson points out, there are times when accurately presenting scientific facts outweighs the use of ABT.  For example, the introduction to a scientific paper can often be shaped as an ABT, as can portions of the results and/or discussion.  However, it’s usually difficult to turn a methods section into an ABT, because in most cases your methods are probably something along the lines of, we collected these samples AND processed them this way AND analyzed them using X technique AND had such-and-such controls, etc.  In these instances, use ABT where you can and write an AAA where you have to.

The point is ABT is a tool you can learn to use rather than a rigid formula that must be followed.  Using this tool where you can takes the burden of communication off of your audience and allows them to focus on and engage with your message.

Tucker Burch

Tucker Burch has been with USDA-ARS in Marshfield, Wisconsin since January of 2016. Specializing in environmental engineering, he completed his B.S. through the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Marquette University; his Ph.D. is from the University of Minnesota. Tucker’s research is related to the spread of pathogenic microorganisms from dairy farms through the environment.

Last modified on Tuesday, 30 May 2017 11:41
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