Why is storytelling important in science writing?

Sophie_Gengembre_Anderson_-_The_children's_book_storyLast month, I participated in a “Writing Science for the Masses” roundtable discussion with the Center for American Literary Studies at Penn State. My co-panelists, Amy Teitel and A’ndrea Messer, and I were asked to reflect on the importance of “cross-pollination between science and literature.”

Of course storytelling is important in science writing, I thought. But why?

Here’s a bit of what I shared at the event:

Before I became a science writer, I taught high school science. One day in my classroom, attempting to teach my students about photosynthesis, I said something about all plants needing light to survive.

At that moment, a student in the back, slumped in his chair, threw his pencil across the room and scowled. “No they don’t,” he said.

I panicked. Consider that I was 22 years old, just four years older many of these students. Teaching was my first job after graduating with a biology degree from Cornell, and I spent much of that first year terrified of losing control of the classroom – so terrified that I intentionally wore shoes that clicked with authority when I walked down the hall. This was an “underperforming” school, and this particular class had a high proportion of truancies and suspensions.

When the pencil flew, I wondered: should I ignore this kid? Give him detention? Send him to the principal? Thankfully, my curiosity won out. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Never mind,” he mumbled.

“No really, tell me,” I said.

Finally, he explained. When you plant a seed, it’s underground, in the dark. But it still grows. That seed does not need light.

Ah ha! What a smart kid! He was right – at that moment in the plant’s life, it doesn’t need sunlight. I had made a generalization, and he called me on it. And we had a much richer discussion because of his contribution.

Here’s why I tell this story. As a teacher, I had the luxury of directly interacting with my students every day. If I was paying attention, I could learn where students were coming from, and I could adapt my content and delivery on the spot to meet them where they were. (Of course, I wasn’t always successful, but the opportunity was there.)

Now, as a writer, I don’t have that luxury. When I attempt to reach a broad audience, I’m not entirely sure who they are, what they know, or what they want to know. I don’t get any immediate feedback, and I can’t change course midstream.

I believe this is where storytelling becomes crucial. Storytelling can help bridge the gap between the writer and the nebulous, mostly unknown, general audience.

Think about some basic elements of a story. Characters. Scenes. Plot twists. Different aspects of each story component can draw in readers in a way that straight-shooting expository writing can’t. Some of us might relate to a main character’s quest. Others might find a villain’s ego fascinating. Still others might find comfort in a familiar scene. And, told right, the science is so embedded in the story that diverse readers with varied backgrounds can still gobble it up and learn from it. (A word of caution though: in science writing, the story arises from the facts).

Storytelling is a basic human endeavor, a need even, that helps us assimilate information and make sense of our world. As science writers, we would be remiss if we didn’t take advantage of it.

Image credit: Sophie Gengembre Anderson, The Children’s Story Book (unknown), oil on canvas, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Alison Fromme has tracked rattlesnakes, witnessed dynamite blasts, and eaten goat stew while on assignment for national magazines and regional publications, including Backpacker, Discover, Pregnancy, and Mountain Home Magazine. She has also created educational materials for the New York Times Learning Network, PBS, McDougal Littell and many others. Alison lives in upstate New York, where she founded Ithaca’s Food Web, a hyperlocal website publishing local food news and commentary on topics ranging from crop disease outbreaks to school lunch reform. Alison is currently the Project Manager for The Science Writers’ Handbook.

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