by Fadhila Mazanderani and Malte Ziewitz
What is it to tell a story in social science research? What techniques, strategies and narrative devices are available and how can we make the most of them? What audiences do we write for and how are they configured in the text? While there is a plethora of writing on story-telling and narratives, we thought that it is about time to have a look at how we story in our research, how we turn experiences and observations into stories and weave them in our writing. Equipped with coffee, teacakes and croissants, ten junior scholars from STS, management studies, anthropology and geography got together bright and early for a workshop last Saturday to discuss and experiment with different modes of storying.
The goal of the workshop was to tackle some of these issues in a hands (and pens)-on fashion, using exercises and techniques from creative writing and seeing whether and how they could be made useful in the context of our various academic projects. As background reading and preparation we had picked two books that addressed different aspects of storying: Arthur Frank’s recent Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology and Laurel Richardson’s evergreen Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences.
We split the workshop into two parts to highlight different aspects of storying. After a brief round of introductions, we started with the first exercise: Reading for Writing. We had selected five short excerpts from fiction and non-fiction writing as exemplars of different literary strategies. These included pieces by Amy Hempel, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Antjie Krog, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and Aravind Adiga. Every participant had been assigned one of these texts to look at it in greater detail and pay attention to how the story achieved what it achieved. On the day, we discussed our observations and related them to our own writing. Although all examples were from literary writing, the parallels were striking. Discussions revolved around the role of capitalizations (cf. ‘the Internet’), techniques of narrative linking, the question of how to story things that are hard to describe such as emotions and other absences in fieldwork and the benefits and pitfalls of addressing readers in certain ways.
An attention device for timing writing exercises.
In the second part, we took out pen and paper ourselves to engage in Styles of Writing. We started writing up a paragraph from our fieldwork. We then swapped these around and read out loud each other’s pieces. While this might sound scary, it is an incredibly useful technique for getting a different perspective on one’s text. Next, we had another 10 minutes to re-write another person’s piece as a very personal account. Again, some of these were read out loud. The final task was to re-write the piece again, but this time as a political manifesto. If you like the idea, you might also enjoy Exercises in Styles, a great little book by Raymond Queneau.
To judge from people’s feedback, the workshop was not only very useful, but also great fun for aspiring (academic) writers. Some observations from the day:
- While everyone had slightly different views on writing and what counts as a proper academic text, issues of storying were high up on everyone’s agendas. Whether you are about to craft an experimental self-exemplifying text or try to submit an article for a more conservative sociology or management journal, writing strategies and literary devices are equally useful.
- Creative writing exercises can be intimidating. But once you get over the first draft, it is a lot of fun — up to a point where it was hard to stop.
- Although people tend to distinguish sharply between ‘fiction’ and ‘academic’ writing, the boundary blurs in practice. For example, quite a few of the techniques employed in the literary texts led to insights and ideas for participants’ own projects.
- We were surprised by the strong interest from anthropologists in the workshop and had wrongly assumed that these kinds of issues would be a standard part of their training.
If you are interested in this kind of workshop or have ideas for future events, please get in touch.