How to Punch Up Your Academic Writing with Storytelling

by | Jun 9, 2016

Somewhere along the line, scholars got the message that stories don’t have a place in academia. Academic writing often gets the bad rap of being tedious and dry. And storytelling often gets the bad rap of being fluffy and only for children (or, alternatively, only appropriate for ethnography). Let’s change the narrative on storytelling in academic writing, shall we?

Stories can promote learning, generate interest, and make academic research come alive. When we read stories, we often form personal connections, whether we can relate individually to a story or whether it sparks another connection in our heads. When we can associate a narrative with a concept, we are far likelier to internalize it rather than resorting to memorization.

Are you convinced that stories would enhance your next journal article, your dissertation, or your next book? If so, here are some techniques to incorporate storytelling into your academic writing.

Descriptive language

Yes, you still need to back up each of your points with textual evidence. However, descriptive language like vivid verbs and nouns enhances your academic writing by showing rather than telling (it also significantly cuts down on passive voice).

For example, if you are talking about a writing style, you can use words such as poignant, graceful, flowing, or jumbled. That language can begin to paint a picture in your reader’s mind, which is the foundation of a story.

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Case studies

If you are talking about a theory, show the reader what you mean by illustrating it with a story. For example, if you are talking about theories of education, demonstrate what you mean by talking about an individual student and how this theory enhanced this student’s learning and educational experience.


If you don’t have enough space to write a full case study or it isn’t appropriate for your discipline/field, you can write a story in one to three sentences. An anecdote condenses a story. For example, if you are talking about climate change, you can talk about how a family used to take the same hike each year and saw snow on the top of the mountain, but in recent years they haven’t seen that snow there at the same time of year.

Metaphors, similes, analogies

A metaphor compares two things not using “like” or “as,” a simile compares two things using “like” or “as,” and an analogy compares two things for clarification. For example, if you are writing an article about scant resources, you can use an analogy and compare the resources to a cake that has a limited amount of pieces for people to eat.

Similarly, if you’re critiquing a scarcity model, the cake analogy can illustrate your point through negation: for example, capitalism presumes a limited number of cake pieces, but other modes of sociality offer alternatives.

Here are some examples of scholarly books that use storytelling particularly well:

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Julie Lenard-Palmer is the director of business development at New Leaders.

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