Revitalizing Academic Writing Through Storytelling
- Articles in practitioner outlets often lean heavily on illustrative narratives to sustain readers’ attention. Unfortunately, the unnatural norms of academic writing are designed to make compelling storytelling impossible.
- If we want to engage wider audiences with our research, we can adopt more inclusive, narrative-based forms of writing without sacrificing academic rigor.
- One way that journal editors can encourage more engaging and impactful academic writing is to reject far more submissions and adopt more open resubmission policies.
As scholars we spend years researching, designing, writing, and revising academic papers that we know will reach a small contingent of our peers that may number in the dozens (if we’re lucky). Even those scholars would probably rather read the likes of The Atlantic or The New Yorker than our academic articles, according to an informal survey I conducted with Erik Dane, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis. (We shared our survey’s results in a March 2022 AACSB Insights article.)
Ironically, many of these mainstream publications curate or report on research, which often serves as the basis for their articles. The relative popularity of these translational pieces proves the potential for our scientific advances to resonate more widely, especially with business leaders and managers. When it comes to reaching nonacademic audiences, the content of our publications is much less of a hindrance than their form.
As Erik and I argued in our AACSB Insights article, the problem resides mainly in the conventions of the academic genre. Readers can be deterred not just by the excessive use of jargon when plain language would suffice, but also by the counterintuitive structure, front-loaded with lengthy sections (such as “Methodology” and “Literature Review”). This organization can exhaust the patience of a nonacademic (or even an academic!) before the main findings are even revealed.
If you want to sustain and direct a reader’s attention, telling an engaging story is your best bet. That is why so many articles in practitioner journals such as Harvard Business Review lean heavily on illustrative narratives and anecdotes. But the unnatural and awkward norms of academic writing seem designed to make effective, smooth storytelling impossible.
Traditionalists would say that academic norms uphold standards while creating a familiar template by which we can discuss and debate the canon. However, I would argue such notions are out of date and ignore the true purpose of our field.
A Compelling Experiment
Inspired by a desire to challenge this status quo, my colleagues and I have launched an experimental section of Academy of Management Discoveries (AMD), where I am editor. Devoted to structurally innovative, narrative-driven academic papers, Discoveries-through-Prose is our attempt to show that rigorous research and gripping storytelling can happily coexist. So far, we have accepted four papers for publication under the Discoveries-through-Prose format, and several more are currently under review.
The experiment thus far has been highly successful. For example, in their paper “Think Funny, Think Female: The Benefits of Humor for Women’s Influence in the Digital Age,” co-authors Ella Miron-Spektor of INSEAD, Julia B. Bear of Stony Brook University, and Emuna Eliav of Cognit-User Interface Experts Ltd. address an important research question. Given double standards that penalize women for the same behavior that typically benefits men, the authors ask, should women flout stereotypes by using humor in public presentations? The authors discuss their statistical analysis of audience responses to more than 2,000 TED talks—they found that women speakers who spiked their talks with humor gained more influence and popularity than men who did the same.
I’ve seen cases where peer review has turned a flawed but extremely promising initial submission into something far more mediocre—and yet, by academic standards, still publishable.
This paper is a stark departure from familiar academic writing, with a more reader-friendly length (16 double-spaced pages) and an accessible, even faintly personal style of prose. The first sentence reads, “Like many viewers around the world, we are often inspired, amused, and—perhaps more importantly—influenced by TED talks.” Without the usual narrative ingredients such as plot, character, and dialogue, the paper nonetheless builds its argument via a linear flow of ideas and examples, which together proceed like a well-told story.
Structurally and linguistically, it is not too dissimilar from a feature article in a magazine. That said, the authors maintain the rigor of an Academy of Management publication by reporting many of the details on the methodology and findings in appendices.
Better Stories, Better Research
My experience with Discoveries-through-Prose highlights how academic writing can indeed adopt more inclusive, narrative-based approaches without diluting its commitment to the advancement of knowledge. Over time, though, I’ve come to an even larger conclusion: Storytelling can be a tool for improving the quality of research as well.
Let me explain. While the peer-review system is essential to ensuring the reliability and integrity of our science, I’ve seen cases where peer review has turned a flawed but extremely promising initial submission into something far more mediocre—and yet, by academic standards, still publishable. Goaded by reviewer feedback over several rounds of strenuous revise-and-resubmit back-and-forthing, spanning multiple years, researchers sometimes end up with what amounts to a totally different paper. Little of the original inspiration remains, as the end product has been painfully and shakily built to satisfy reviewers’ specific demands.
Within the fragmented architecture of the typical academic paper, these somewhat muddled productions pass muster, but to what end? Most often, the process is a numbers-crunching exercise, associated with the scholarly rite of passage that is gaining tenure.
When you think about the authors of the research you admire the most, what comes to mind? That they had four “A journal” or “premier” articles when they went up for tenure? Or six? Or 10? No. You think of what is memorable: the stories they have told in their research. These influential scholars are known for their ideas, their views on the world, their engagement with some puzzles or problems that changed the way you think. Invoking the classic article by Steven Kerr, I believe that in our evaluations of faculty, we often commit the folly of rewarding quantity of articles, while hoping for quality of ideas.
If researchers, reviewers, and journal editors thought of initial submissions as stories or ideas (in the journalistic sense) rather than papers, they would be in a better position to call out fundamental research flaws. In the first go-round, researchers often attempt to merge good ideas with bad or inappropriate data. Alternatively, they may have gotten hold of fascinating datasets, but then they do all the wrong things with the information.
These early-stage papers cry out for basic questions that are mainstays of journalism or mass media: For whom is this most relevant? Have you consulted the right sources? How can you interest your reader more quickly and more deeply? Why have you situated this in Context X when it would make so much more sense in Context Y?
These questions probe the coherence, timeliness, and elasticity of the authors’ underlying narrative. Notice the discrepancy between such questions and those that might be centered solely around “theoretical contributions.”
Academics often lose sight of fundamental, story-oriented questions like these because of the incentives baked into the publishing system. Researchers need publications, publications require editorial sign-off, and sign-off requires satisfying the dreaded “Reviewer 2.” The driving motivation during the revision process becomes “How do I satisfy the reviewers?” rather than “How can I improve the core story here, and what is getting in the way of my doing so?” As authors, we lose the forest as we run headlong into tree after tree.
More Rejections Lead to Better Revisions
How could journal editors address this? As an editor, I believe following a two-step process might help:
First, reject more papers. Empower your action editors to focus on writing and story, working directly with authors to help them hone their arguments and refine their prose.
We can take a cue from the popular press, where such close collaboration between editors and writers is the norm. The benefit of rejecting in favor of revising is that it provides a reset for the authors. It keeps them focused first on the quality of the overall idea and second on the minutiae of the reviewer comments. This can lead to better papers going through the review process, saving time for both reviewers and editors.
The driving motivation during the revision process becomes “How do I satisfy the reviewers?” rather than “How can I improve the core story?” As authors, we lose the forest as we run headlong into tree after tree.
In many cases, opting to reject papers outright—rather than invite authors to complete “high-risk” revisions—is in authors’ best interests. Rejections give authors the opportunity to rework their ideas completely, before “sunk-cost bias” determines their papers’ direction.
Second, allow authors to resubmit rejected papers. Not some of the time, or only if there is new data, or if they got a special invitation. All of the time. If authors are crafting for a specific journal, why would we want them to go journal shopping? It wastes everyone’s time. Give clear feedback on what the story is missing, why it’s not a good fit for the journal, and what the authors need to do to revise. If they act on that feedback, they should be welcome to try again. If they don’t, it’s an easy rejection.
At AMD, for instance, we desk-reject or desk-edit about 65 percent of papers, and we reject about 50 percent after the first round of review. However, if a paper receives an invitation for resubmission, it is ultimately accepted about 70 percent of the time!
We’re able to accomplish this by being honest with authors about why we have rejected the paper. We explain why a rejection might be beneficial to them, and we do not close doors to authors with compelling data. This saves everyone time, and we believe improves the quality of published papers.
Overhauling the ‘Academic Assembly Line’
By now, some readers have doubtless tuned me out, rejecting this thought experiment as idealistic and unworkable. And I, too, know better than to expect our journals to steal audience share from Nature or Harvard Business Review.
But if we want to publish more impactful papers, and be more efficient in the process, we can start by changing the incentives. Reward quality, not quantity. Reward the academics who have few publications but who are changing how the world thinks. Reward the academics who put creativity into their writing so that they can reach broader audiences with more engaging stories. More important, don’t reward the academics who churn out formulaic and inconsequential niche work that pleases journal reviewers but sparks little interest outside academic circles.
The academic assembly line, as we well know, can be a difficult place to ply one’s trade. As business scholars, we should ask ourselves whether our research’s reach is commensurate with the effort we expend on our papers. Enlarging the reach of our scholarship without diluting its rigor will require adding real-world impact as a key research criterion, alongside factors such as originality, integrity, and replicability. There’s no better vehicle for refocusing our thinking in this direction than a well-told story.