Writing a good storyline for a thesis or an article

Introduction

It is a big undertaking to write a thesis or an article. When the writer finally sends it for examination or review, they can only wish that its reader – whoever that may be – can grasp what they have wanted to say, find it credible, and get a positive vibe about its findings. If that succeeds, it would result in the outcome that the writer is looking for: a favourable evaluation (in the case of a thesis) or a review (in the case of an academic article), leading to a good grade or a publication.

Ensuring that the reviewer or examiner is happy and satisfied is however difficult because of many reasons, at least the following:

  • The reader is often unknown, and yet this person’s opinion is critical for the favourable review. One has to make the text understandable for a rather wide audience, as it cannot be tailored for a particular individual.
  • The author may have little prior experience on writing a text like a thesis or an academic article. To do anything for the first time is difficult, yet in this case this person should manage to perform well even if having very little practice.
  • There are lots of things that one wants to say in the article. It is difficult to say all of that so that it makes sense.

Yet many people succeed in this task. Many factors play a role in whether the examination or review is favourable. However one of the crucial ones is the understandable storyline, or “narrative”. The prerequisite for “good vibes” is that the text is presented in a logical order so that the reader never wonders why they are reading a certain part of it. That is because a logical order removes the effort from the reader to make sense of the research, and makes even the difficult topics easy to digest.

In this article, I will study and answer what a successful storyline of an academic text should be like. I will present a formula that is consistently followed in almost all academic writing. It is well-tried and tested, and most readers have learned to expect that a text will follow it, small deviations notwithstanding. Being truthful to what this article seeks to suggest, also this text has been written following the same principles.

After reviewing some of the options that are available for narrative planning, the suggestion will be presented in the Results section.

Review of possible storylines

Requirements for the narratives of academic texts, such as theses and articles, can be found from several places. Taylor & Francis – one of the leading publishers of academic research – emphasizes in its instructions the following rules: i) stick to the point, ii) create a logical framework, iii) don’t be afraid to explain, iv) clarity is key, v) be aware of the other literature in your field (and reference it), vi) make your references current and relevant and vii) be original (Taylor & Francis, n.d.). Of these, points i–iv are particularly related to the narrative. The same requirements of parsimony (i.e., saying only what is essential), being logical and clear, and providing explanations when appropriate, are echoed also in Springer’s – another big publisher – recommendations for giving a logical flow to the content and making the manuscript consistent and easy to read (Springer, n.d.). Similar recommendations can be found throughout academic community, and they echo the norm that should be followed.

With these requirements in mind, it is possible to analyse some canonical plot structures in order to find out how they serve the above-stated requirements. They are presented in the following.

The classical example –Aristotle’s suggestion to divide every narrative into three sections – meets the requirements well, but is rather unspecific. In Poetics, he suggests that in a tragedy, “a whole is what has a beginning and middle and end” (Aristotle, 335 BCE/1932). Wikipedia (n.d.) describes that these three stages should describe one causal chain of actions, where a stream of events is put into motion in the beginning where the protagonist faces a challenge. The middle part describes the protagonist’s attempts for resolution that also becomes a story of learning and personal growth. The end, finally, reveals how the protagonist fares in their question. While Aristotle described the structure of a classical tragedy, the need to have a causal chain of actions and a clear arch that starts from a challenge and concludes with a resolution provides one example of a structure that is logical and easy to read.

Another literature example is the classic thriller plot structure. It involves three stages where things are set in motion from an event such as murder, and the plot ends with a resolution, such as the revelation of the murderer’s identity. By having a question to be answered already in the beginning, the thriller plot structure suits for academic texts that also usually seek to answer a research question or verify a hypothesis. However, this structure does not obey the principle of clarity. This is because it prolongs the revelation of the solution purposely.

A third example is a news article that usually follows a so-called pyramid structure. Here the most important news is announced already in the heading, and it is incrementally substantiated with more background information in a layered manner. This is an economic method that optimizes the amount of information provided to the level of interest that a reader has for the content. The structure is clear, parsimonious and logical, yet it lacks a means to present a research question. It also lacks a causal narrative: a structure that repeatedly presents the facts in a deepening order does not allow the authors explain their reasoning and how they arrive at their conclusions.

Finally, academic world has its own narrative recommendation, known as IMRaD, referring to Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. It is also mentioned as the recommended narrative in Springer’s and Taylor & Francis’s instruction pages that were cited above. IMRaD has the Aristotlean structure where the challenge is presented in the Introduction in a form of a hypothesis or research question. This is followed with an incremental development of an answer, consisting of presentation of a research method and a result that has been obtained. The Aristotlean end is offered in the results section. The discussion, interestingly, is an element that previous structures have not mentioned, and is therefore unique to academic tradition. It resembles an epilogue where the author distances themselves from the immediate plot and reflects the narrative and its resolution “from above”. This allows the author for suggesting improvements and further thoughts about the story.

The recommendations stated above can be summarized as follows. A good academic article is parsimonious by sticking to the point, presents its contents in a logical order and explains issues to ensure clarity. Except for the pyramid structure used in news journalism, all the structures that were presented above emphasise that a good storyline starts with a puzzle or a problem, which is then developed, until a resolution is offered in the end of the paper. The IMRaD structure additionally includes a discussion, where the story is lifted to a meta-level reflection to provide the reader an understanding about the wider perspective of the research work.

How the principles of a good storyline can be identified

Having concluded the main elements of a good storyline based on recommendations in the literature, the question remains how such instructions should be “operationalized”, i.e., changed into actionable guidelines. This question is complicated by the fact that different  research fields may have their own particular practices and preferences.

While for other fields of research, a Google search reveals readymade guidelines for authors (e.g., for health care research, see a nice guideline by Perneger and Hudelson, 2004), for research in the fields of design and human–computer interaction (HCI) – main topics of the Writing about Design blog – I have failed to find a similar guideline. In the absence of written guidelines, in my personal case, the method for learning how to write academic texts has developed through practice. The most useful part of this practice for me has been the constant attempt to publish research papers in journals and conferences, especially when writing together with more experienced co-authors.

Another method is to read other authors’ papers and to review them. Especially reviewing and acting as an associate editor/chair develops the critical but constructive eye for narrative structures that are important in good papers. It is easy to learn to notice, for example, when a paper does not answer to the problem that has been defined in the beginning, or when important matters are missing from the paper, leaving the logical order unexplicated.

In the following section that seeks to answer the original research question of this article – what a successful storyline of an academic text should be like – I try to save the reader’s time from learning through trial and error, and directly apply some of the general but actionable principles.

Results

Based on personal experience and reflection on the different narrative structures in literature, the table below presents a suggestion for a common and recommended storyline that can be identified in most texts in design and HCI research.

Narrative element Description
Introduction
1. Opening sentence A claim that any reader finds easy to agree with. This brings them “on board” with the topic of the text.
2. Problematization Presentation of a problem that exists in the matters that the opening sentence described and which would need to be solved.
3. Motivation Clarification why it is important to devote efforts to address the problem.
4. Research questions (RQs) Crystallization of the most important issue in the problem. Explanation why knowing this answer in particular will be an important element in starting to solving the problem. Research question is the crux of the entire text: it will become the focus of everything that will follow until the Discussion. It is a good practice to use italics so that it is easy to spot from the text. There can be several RQs in a text, the fewer the better. Having three RQs makes the paper very difficult to write well.
5. Preview of the answer A short paragraph that describes what kind of answer this text will deliver to the RQ.
6. Outline (optional) If the text has a more complicated structure than is typical, it may be useful to orient the reader to this. For example, an outline may be helpful if the text presents parallel storylines that will meet in the end of the Results section, that can be pointed out.
Related research
1. Mapping of solution dimensions Reflection on the RQ from different viewpoints. This reflection can be based on common sense. For example, a design problem may be approachable through benchmarking of existing solutions and through analysis of requirements and opportunities that the context of the problem poses on the solution. 2-4 different viewpoints is a good number.
2. Review of the dimensions A subsection for each viewpoint presented above. These subsections tell what is known about the RQ from that viewpoint. Each subsection ends with a summarising paragraph that summarises how RQ can now be better understood in light of this information, but also point out the remaining ”research gap”. This further legitimises the need for this research.
3. Summary of research A wrap-up of all the knowledge that has been collected in the subsections, and a crystallization of what remains to be found out. The summary may also reiterate the original RQ and present a more focused one for the rest of the text.
Method
1. Methodological reflection Analysis of the best possible research method to answer the more detailed RQ and what remains to be answered. This analysis presents possible methods, mentions prior studies that have used the same method for a similar RQ, and then chooses the most suitable one, given how it matches with the RQ and what is realistic.
2. Presentation of the data collection method A neutral description of how some data was gathered to answer the RQ. If the method was a case study, this part includes also a presentation of the case study context and why it suits well for the RQ that was asked. If the text describes a design project, this is a description of how prototyping, for example, was used through a series of solution attempts, to arrive at a solution. This section does not present the data itself; it only tells how it was collected.
3. Presentation of data analysis method A neutral description of how the data was analysed. This may be also part of the Results section where it is interleaved with findings, especially in two cases: 1) if the analyses were very straightforward, such as statistical tests, and do not require a lot of explanation about details, or 2) if the analysis cannot be described without also presenting the data – this may be the case in exploratory design projects where different stages required a lot of decision-making and reflection.
Results
1. Descriptive data (optional) If needed, the Results can be started by briefly reporting general data about the research process and about the research context (e.g., overall statistics about participants).
2. Answers to the RQs A subsection for each RQ that the study had. In the spirit of “sticking to the point” (Taylor & Francis, n.d.) each subsection answers only the RQ. If there are also interesting patterns in the data, they can be pointed out, but their details are analysed in a different sub-section (see next item).
3. Evaluation of the result (if the result is a proposal) If the research presents a proposal, such as a service solution, a product concept or a prototype, this section presents an evaluation (with or without users) about its quality and whether it meets the requirements and addresses sufficiently the RQs.
4. Additional analyses (optional) If the data analysis revealed surprises that are related to the RQ but do not exactly answer to it, they can be presented and analysed here.
Discussion
1. Return to the beginning Repetition of the text’s goal and its RQs, because during the long Findings section the reader may have forgotten the big picture.
2. Summary of main findings Answers to the RQs in a nutshell.
3. Expansion A ”switch of gears” in the paper; simply a statement that says that the findings of the study give grounds for several important implications.
4. Implications A subsection for each wider implication from the findings. These are thoughts that no-one would be able to think about without carrying out all the work that has been described.
5. Limitations Presentation of the work’s limitations and an analysis how severe they are regarding the validity of the findings.
6. Closure (can be also its own section, titled “Conclusion”) Summary of the main message of the paper, building on the findings and implications, in relation to the problematization in the Introduction. Closure can have an uplifiting spirit, to leave the reader with a spirit that they have read something important.
Acknowledgments
1. Funding List of sources of financial support that made the research possible.
2. Intellectual support People who provided supervision, guidance, or gave comments are listed here. It is a good practice to be generous in the thank-yous.
References

This long and detailed structure follows the IMRaD format but is tailored for the needs of design and HCI related writing, and to applied research in general. It emphasizes the following principles in particular:

  • “Holding the reader by the hand”: Throughout the text, the reader feels never being lost. This is because the text contains intermediate summaries and recognizes all the decision points in the path from the motivation to the summary of findings.
  • Funnel-like structure: the narrative structure narrows down the problem to its most important elements in several stages. Some of the most important refocusing points are the presentation of the RQs, the reiteration of the RQs in light of existing knowledge, and the choice of the methods. Through these stages that are well explained in the structure, the reader is able to understand in all the points why the text “dives” into particular topics more deeply than in other ones.

This article itself has been written following the principles stated in the table. It may be a useful learning exercise to compare the contents in the table to the contents in this article overall.

Discussion

This text has addressed an important problem that especially inexperienced writers face when they are writing their first academic text, such as a thesis, or their first academic article, if they are PhD students. Even if the research itself may have been solid and well conducted, and therefore having interesting findings, the unclear narrative may make it impossible for a reader to appreciate this work.

With the proposal for a storyline presented in this paper, writers can adopt some of the rarely explicated principles in design and HCI literature and use them in their own writing. This decreases unnecessary stress in the writing process, which in itself is always a highly contentious experience.

Another implication from knowing what order to use in explaining the research process, and in checking that no parts are omitted from the text is that it helps in carrying out better research. Awareness of components that are expected from an academic text helps taking them into account when the research process is still ongoing.

However, it has to be emphasized that the structure presented in the Results section is not suitable for all texts. It works best in cases where the work involves an empirical part, such as a case study, interviews, an experiment, or an exploratory process. It is less suitable for essays, manifestos and commentaries, all of which are also academic genres. A critical reader may notice that this text has a weak Methods section. This is because I have used IMRaD to structure an essay-like paper where no clear method has been applied. A result of this has been that there have been difficulties to write anything about research methods. The text has also become longer than one would assume, which violates the call for avoiding anything that is not absolutely necessary. On the other hand, at the same time, important matters have been explained whenever needed – therefore meeting another goal of recommended academic writing (Taylor & Francis, n.d.).

With a clear guidance that is properly explained, even a challenging project such as thesis or article writing can become an insightful experience. Academic writing is a creative activity that gives an opportunity for the author to synthesise and make sense of their work, and crystallize it in a format that they can also later apply in future occasions. By putting down such reflections in a written format, they can also convince others about the rigour of their work, leading them to achieve life goals, be recruited to jobs, and pursue explorations that offer high levels of intellectual satisfaction.

Acknowledgments

I want to thank the participants of HelsinCHI clinic on CHI paper writing in 4 September 2020, where I presented the storyline the first time, and I received useful feedback. Heidi Paavilainen and Severi Uusitalo provided several crucial observations – both detailed and general ones – to the first draft of this blog post, which have now been taken into account.

References

Aristotle (335 BCE/1932). Poetics. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Perneger T.V. and Hudelson, P.M. (2004). Writing a research article: advice to beginners. International Journal for Quality in Health Care 16(3), 191–192. https://doi.org/10.1093/intqhc/mzh053

Springer (n.d.). https://www.springernature.com/gp/authors/campaigns/writing-a-manuscript/structuring-your-manuscript (retrieved 26 October 2020).

Taylor & Francis (n.d.). Writing a journal article. https://authorservices.taylorandfrancis.com/writing-a-journal-article/# (retrieved 26 October 2020).

Wikipedia (n.d.). Three-act structure. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-act_structure (retrieved 26 October 2020).

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