It may sound strange, but even the driest, most technical piece of scholarly writing tells a story. It’s a story of discovery and the incremental advancement of knowledge. It follows a scholar’s journey through the scientific method, laying out their attempts to tackle a question step by step.
The plot of your typical academic journal article adheres to a familiar format outlined clearly in the section headers. The “hero” of our story, a scholar or group of scholars, encounters a problem or question (Introduction, Literature Review), develops some ideas about the problem (Hypothesis) and how to solve it (Research Methods), tests those ideas (Findings), and draws conclusions (Discussion, Conclusion), all the while giving shout-outs to the other scholars who helped them along the way (Works Cited).
This research story unfolds in a logical, linear manner that’s second nature to anyone who’s spent time reading peer-reviewed journals. Having every academic paper follow the same basic plotline is an incredibly effective communication tool and time saver. Open up almost any journal article and you immediately understand what you’re looking at and where to get the information you need.
But the plotline that works so well for academics turns out to be a slog for lay readers with limited time and expertise. It’s heavy on background and buildup and saves the juiciest parts – what the researchers found and why it matters – for the end. A typical news or magazine article does exactly the opposite. It starts with something eye-catching and quickly gets into what the article is about and why it matters, then fills in the necessary details. (There’s a great visual from Nancy Baron’s Escape from the Ivory Tower that sums up this contrast.)
If you’re trying to reach and influence practitioners, decisionmakers, and the general public, you have to take the format you normally use to tell a research story to your academic peers and flip it on its head. Start with the big picture insights and compelling conclusions and then flesh out the details as needed. Don’t feel beholden to the typical storyline and plot points found in an academic article.
Like academic papers, news articles follow their own familiar format, starting with two essential elements: the lede and the nut graph. The lede catches people’s attention with a human interest story, an unexpected fact or event, a question or mystery that sparks curiosity, or some other “hook.” The nut graph, short for “nutshell paragraph,” comes next and is designed to keep people reading by summarizing the essence and significance of the story.
The lede and the nut graph are essential for hooking readers by sparking an emotional connection (“This story is intriguing/alarming/exciting/etc.”) and an intellectual connection (“I understand what this article is about and why it matters.”) right off the bat. They aren’t elements you’ll find in a typical academic paper, so many scholars aren’t as familiar with how they work, but if you start to look closely at your favorite news source, you’ll see them.
If you want to see what a lede and nut graph look like in practice, read the first few paragraphs of this story on artificial intelligence in The Washington Post. I collaborated with researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society to share their research story in a compelling, accessible way. This meant finding a lede that would make the significance of their research immediately clear – a series of recent crashes involving self-driving cars. After the lede, the article moves quickly into the nut graph, discussing the difficulty involved in asking automated vehicles to explain the cause of a crash and getting to the question at the heart of their research: “Should AI be required to explain its decisions?”
The Washington Post article and the Harvard study it’s based on tell the same research story, but emphasize different plot points in a distinct order suited to their respective audiences. They represent two ways of telling the same story, each important for its own purposes. There are many other distinctions between writing for the public and writing for one’s academic peers, but thinking about your research story and how you want to tell it is an essential place to start. The same story can be told many ways and what makes for a good story depends on the audience.
Diana Brazzell is co-founder and executive editor of Footnote, an online media company that increases the impact of academic research and expertise by sharing it with a broader audience. She collaborates with scholars and academic institutions to translate their research into accessible, engaging content for outlets such as The Boston Globe, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, Inside Higher Ed, and The Washington Post.