Oral storytelling and my supposed superpower

Image: Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte (Grandfather tells a story). Albert Anker, 1884 (Berlin Museum of Art) via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes I’ll meet with a grad student who’s feeling stuck on a piece of writing, and I’ll do something they find surprising.  It’s this: I’ll think for a moment, roll my chair away from the desk a bit, look up at the ceiling, and dictate the paragraph that’s needed, more of less off the top of my head.  (A very rough version, mind you.  And I can do it for a paragraph or two – not for a whole paper!)  A while ago, one student stopped me midway through dictation and asked me how I could possibly do that.  It seemed, to her, like a superpower.

That brought me up short, because I hadn’t consciously realized that when I do it, I’m using a writing trick.  I’ve found I use the same trick with my own writing projects too.  And that’s useful, because I’m not at all a gifted, fluid, fast writer.  I struggle, and I get stuck, just like everybody else. (Well, almost everybody else.)  The look-at-the-ceiling-and-dictate trick works pretty well for me – with my students’ writing and with my own – so I put some thought into how that could be.

I think when I look-at-the-ceiling-and-dictate, I’m doing two things.  Each one helps me as a writer.  Here they are:

(1) I get myself into a new and different mental space.  When you’re stuck, it’s very easy to have that stuckness become a vicious circle.  Being stuck brings a feeling of pressure, which makes one supremely aware of being stuck, which just ratchets up the stuckness, and so on.  Being blocked, you see, isn’t an external force; it’s an internal, psychological one, and it feeds on itself.  To break the blocking cycle, it helps to change what you’re doing and thereby your mental space.  If you’re having trouble writing on the computer screen, try a pen and paper.  If you’re having trouble writing in your office, try the library or your child’s treehouse.  If you’re having trouble producing the written word, try speaking aloud.  This is, I’ve realized, why I roll my chair away from my desk: even a couple of feet between me and the computer-screen evidence of my stuckness makes a difference.  It seems like it shouldn’t be that easy to fool myself into forgetting that I’m blocked – but sometimes (not always!) it is.

(2) I compel myself to be a storyteller.  Writing is storytelling, in science just as in any other sphere.  When you write, you have a story to tell (a question, set up and then resolved through action with characters – which may be knights and dragons, or study organisms and data).  You also have an audience to tell it to.  Being aware of that audience, and what they need, is an important part of writing well.  When I look up at the ceiling, I’m seeing that audience (no, they don’t live in the ceiling; but the ceiling is boring, so I can unfocus my eyes and imagine who I’m talking to).  Having an audience, even an imaginary one, forces me to decide what they need to know, and how I can tell it to them.  It might seem that there’s nothing fundamentally different about telling a story out loud and telling it on paper; but when I’m stuck, it seems to help that telling a story out loud is more direct, more primal, closer to the first ways humans told each other stories.

So what might seem at first like a superpower is really just a trick.  But it’s a trick that works, and there’s a lot to be said for tricks that work.  Writing is hard; I’ll use all the tricks I can pull out of my bag.

What tricks are in your bag?

© Stephen Heard   October 2, 2017

This post is based in (small) part on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers (Princeton University Press, 2016). Chapter 6 covers writer’s block, and Chapter 7 is about writing as storytelling.



8 thoughts on “Oral storytelling and my supposed superpower

  1. Tony Diamond

    This reminds me of the best advice I ever had to deal with being stuck. A mentor was going over my draft (and pretty much deleting or changing everything) and I struggled to word one paragraph clearly. He said “Stop looking at the words on the paper – just look at me and tell me what you are trying to say”. The words tumbled out and he wrote them down. Now I can write them down myself but otherwise still replay telling someone I am looking at (in my imagination) and it still (often) works.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

      I like this !
      I’ve done this often with colleagues M.Sc. and Ph.D. students, often when they were having trouble with their project presentation, and mostly about the hypotheses. I ask them what is their project. Most of the time, they talk immediately about their methods and their fieldwork. I stop them and ask again: “What is the project? The story?”. Going back to the story always helped!


  2. sleather2012

    Great story – I guess I do a similar ‘changing space’ technique too, but mine is generally either when I’m driving into the office o rheading home or last thing at night before I head off into the Land of Nod. The trouble with the latter is that I’m now at that stage of life where I might not actually remember the fantastic opening paragraph that popped into my head before I drifted off 🙂


  3. Elizabeth Moon

    Brilliant solution to a common problem for writers. It’s all storytelling…and yes, understanding the audience you’re telling–or writing to–is part of the skill. What do *they* need to know (out of all that you know)?

    I’ve never seen this process described better, and I do it for a living. (Maybe you should write a book…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks! As you obviously know – but I, at one point, didn’t – writers face many of the same problems whether they’re writing science, science fiction, or anything else at all. Learning that helped me because it opened me up to the experiences (and tricks!) of a much wider set of writers who have gone before me!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Macrobe

    Distractions can be like little mischievous elfs: helpful or destructive. And personal. I know people who are more productive with the television or radio on in the background. Others require silence. Writers I know plan distractions to interrupt their writing; they say it ‘kick starts’ their flow of thought. Others are too easily distracted: if online, Facebook usually hooks them and they can’t escape (I had to block FB access on a post-doc’s computer). Knowing one’s personal weaknesses and strengths is half the battle.

    Faced with an looming deadline for an article and severe writer’s block, a helpful suggestion from a psychology colleague was to change my writing environment. Instead of writing at a desk in my apartment bedroom (apparently a common no-no) and in the dark silence of the night, my savior was a table in the corner of a local cafe with a low level of background sound. After 19 years, it still works the best. Even the university cafe.

    Perhaps “know thyself” is not a bad suggestion.



Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.