The second rule of research stories

In my last post, I covered the first rule of writing research stories for lay audiences: use plain language. And if you’re a fan of the movie Fight Club, you probably noticed that I also covered the second rule of writing research stories: use plain language.

For clarity, however, here is the “real” second rule of writing research stories: tell me the problem.

OK, maybe not your specific problem (cat threw up, kid threw a tantrum, you’re through with your job.) Here’s what I mean: research stories inform readers about potential solutions to an existing problem. Examples of those problems include, “Why do houses collapse in earthquakes?” or “How can we advance our understanding of William Blake’s work?”

Ultimately, before you can describe a research study, you must describe the problem that it aims to solve. Otherwise, readers will be left wondering, “What’s so important about this research? And why should I care about it?”

Here’s a story to illustrate what I mean: soon after I was hired as a staff writer for a university-research magazine, I was asked to profile two researchers who were studying innovation. Needless to say, it was a huge topic. Plus, the study’s methodology was a little esoteric.

I didn’t know how to tell the story. Where would I even begin? Eventually, my boss/editor approached my desk, and seeing my puzzlement, offered the following advice: “Lead with the impact.”

In other words, when it’s tough to explain how the research is being conducted, start with the why instead. Basically, what’s the “so what factor?” Using that thinking, I was able to piece together the spine of my story: how and where does innovation grow? And the rest of the article flowed from there.

There is a caveat about the “so what factor,” though. Occasionally, it can be used as an excuse to focus exclusively on stories in which the research objective appears obvious. For example, when the work leads to a commercialized product or licensing agreement. The implicit message: the only thing that matters is the financial value of research.

We must not lose sight, however, of the intrinsic value of research. Curiosity is an important driver of exploration, and the outcomes of (and process behind) that inquisitiveness are worthy of attention.  In fact, research that expands our knowledge makes an impact in many ways that may, at first, be overlooked. For instance, curiosity-driven research highlights gaps in the health-care system, helps us understand our history, shows how we can enhance the quality of our lives and provides insight about societal trends.

Those are significant contributions – as are the problems and issues that those research studies seek to address.

“So what factor,” indeed.


Image: Salvatore Vuono,

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