The transformative potential of narrative writing explained

Narrative writing is one way academics can meaningfully communicate their work to the public but it can be hard to master. Steven Beschloss shares a guide to improve narrative writing skills

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27 Jul 2022
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Arizona State University

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Colleges and universities are filled with brilliant people, but not enough with the skills to communicate with and meaningfully connect with the wider public. That means sharing insights in new, engaging ways, and giving the public an opportunity to better understand (and be inspired by) how and why they do what they do. This untapped potential is a loss for a wider world that is riddled with challenges, for higher education in its need to increase impact, and for individual scholars and thinkers who have so much to contribute.

Two years ago, we launched Transformations, an online magazine of personal narrative essays and an independent publishing channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books – and largely written by academics. In the preceding months, I had worked closely with nearly a dozen faculty members, convinced that through conversation and reflection, we could identify compelling personal stories that would meaningfully connect to their intellectual work, explore choices they’ve made professionally, and provide insights into the larger societal realities that have influenced their lives. In most cases, that work involved a learning process to understand the nature of narrative storytelling, not only in crafting prose but also in teasing out the personal experiences, memories, passions and struggles that would inform story selection and shape the resulting essay.

Some of these academically trained authors quickly “got it”. Others required multiple drafts and meetings to think through and articulate what they had to say. They were all challenged to concretely depict what they had experienced without leaning on technical language, broad summaries, abstraction or other conceptualisations – ingredients that were typically part of their toolkit for the writing that had built their careers.

As a writer and journalist who has made my living by the written (and scripted) word for nearly all my adult life, I’ve long taken it as a given that writing is meant to be read, that this creates a responsibility to connect with readers, and there is a fundamental value in producing work that engages the widest possible public.

Now, 75 essays later, here is some of what academics can do to develop their narrative writing skills.

Make a list of what stories you have to tell. Do they connect to choices you’ve made professionally or personally and significant changes in your life? The more important it is for you, the more passionate you are about it, the more likely it will resonate with readers. Consider if your story represents a turning point or includes twists and turns, which are key ingredients for a compelling narrative that holds the reader’s attention.

Tell what happened. Don’t just summarise a series of events or quickly say what it means. Try to depict your experience so readers can experience an event themselves. Scientific communication, for example, often focuses on outcomes. Narrative is the chance to share process, which allows people who don’t know your world to enter and understand it.

Be specific and share compelling details. This requires strong observation and memory. Don’t just say you were at the museum and saw a beautiful painting. Describe the painting’s content and colours and how it made you feel.

Include characters in your story. This is another opportunity to get beyond abstraction and ideas. Look for engaging people who can help you describe your experience and help readers connect.

Tell where it happened. Was it in Paris or Peru? A city or a village? Place can be a powerful character and context for your narrative.

Tell when it happened. Time provides a key tool to depict change. It also enables you to give the larger context and meaning to your events. If your story took place in East Berlin in 1985, for example, that’s very different than if it occurred in 1992 after the Berlin Wall had come down.

Look for angles that get beyond the obvious. Successful narrative is not just a litany of events or a primer. It provides perspective and insight. Many people get married, for example, but not everyone does it in a hot-air balloon, beside a volcano or at the age of 80.

Most of all, be honest. Readers can tell if you’re omitting important details. The best personal narratives require exposing yourself, good and bad. When you share the dramas in your life, you give your readers the chance to learn from you. Isn’t that the goal of every educator?

The power of these personal essays has motivated me to expand the project into Transformations Books. We now have the chance to demonstrate that there is an extraordinary reservoir of compelling stories on issues of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion – narrative books that are rooted in geography and draw on the authors’ expertise and personal experience. This partnership with Temple University Press is predicated on the belief that narrative storytelling can bridge the traditional divide between academic writing and “public” or popular writing that appeals to wider general audiences.

There are personal benefits for scholars as well. Narrative allows them to enrich their intellectual and creative lives, and to engage with readers in ways that their more technical writing never could.

Steven Beschloss is a writer, editor, journalist and filmmaker. He is director of the Narrative Storytelling Initiative and professor of practice with a joint appointment from the College of Global Futures, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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