Despite a few original and cool looking moments, the Man of Steel was a lesson in poor storytelling. Given that Professor Jim Bettman often lectures about how writing an academic paper is like writing a story, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the failures of the Man of Steel.
Here are four ways in which Man of Steel failed, and four pieces of advice from esteemed professors that can help your next paper so you don’t make the same mistakes.
#4 Stick With One Theme
Jim Bettman advises students that academic writers should tell a consistent straightforward story. Importantly, academic papers should be focused on a clear theme and make the theoretical contribution explicit and clear.
Man of Steel chose a different direction. Instead of choosing one theme, it tried to cram in truth, faith, the (un)willingness to take a life, fate, genetics, sacrifice, and family and ultimately failed to say anything valuable about any of them.
Similarly, Mike Norton tells students that when giving a presentation, audience members will tend to remember one image or idea. Accordingly, he proposes that presenters should try to repeatedly make their central picture the focus of the presentation. He often says, “leave them with one image.”
Bettman further advised that, when writing a paper, you should tell readers what you are going to tell them, then tell them it, and then tell them what you’ve told them.
#3 Keep It Linear
Bettman also argues that academic papers need to be kept in a linear format. He explains that an academic paper is not a mystery story and not a story with many subplots.
Man of Steel explored a nonlinear story line. It’s a format that has benefitted a few movies (and maybe a research paper or two), but in general it only works for special cases (e.g. Momento).
Most of the time nonlinear storytelling can distract from the main thrust of the papers, put cognitive load on viewers, and lose the emotional impact of each moment. Bettman’s advice won’t make your paper into the best drama ever, but it give your paper clear communication, and that’s the goal of science writing.
#2 Keep the Immediate Introduction Short
Peter McGraw recently challenged Daryl Bem’s “hour glass style” in a blog post about how papers should start with a straightforward explanation of the research puzzle and findings.
Unlike Peter McGraw’s papers, Man of Steel started with a lengthy introduction that was completely detached from the main plot. The movie spent 20 minutes on Krypton before getting to the main story on earth. Though enjoyable, the introduction did not serve the core story of Clark Kent.
Many academic introductions often linger on points and citations that are completely irrelevant to the main point of the paper. This wastes readers’ time, distracts from the paper, and may make the findings look weak compared to the promise of the introduction.
Robert Cialdini suggests that young researchers should write papers that test against a competing conceptual hypothesis. Peter McGraw suggests something very similar in that the intro should first explain what has not been shown or a puzzle that needs be answered.
Peter McGraw argues that this brief overview of the puzzle is the best way to begin. Anyone following this strategy will be in good company—for instance these researchers and this paper you might have heard of used Peter McGraw’s “explain the puzzle” intro strategy.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.
Expected utility theory has dominated the analysis of decision making under risk. It has been generally accepted as a normative model of rational choice , and widely applied as a descriptive model of economic behavior, e.g. [15, 4]. Thus, it is assumed that all reasonable people would wish to obey the axioms of the theory [47, 36], and that most people actually do, most of the time. The present paper describes several classes of choice problems in which preferences systematically violate the axioms of expected utility theory. In the light of these observations we argue that utility theory, as it is commonly interpreted and applied, is not an adequate descriptive model and we propose an alternative account of choice under risk.
For more on Peter McGraw’s puzzle method visit his blog post here.
#1 End With Substance
Dan Ariely advises students to make the conclusion offer something substantial.
Many people use the general discussion section to hand wave counter explanations, awkwardly propose real world implications, or mention limitations that are obvious but provide no insight on how to deal with those limitations. The sentence, “We only ran these experiments on college students, so our findings remain limited” wastes a reader’s time. If included, the sentence should be followed by hypotheses about how and why other populations might differ.
Man of Steel offered a completely unsubstantial conclusion. It comprised 30 minutes of senseless punches without any real progression in the plot or in the main characters. Compare that to the The Avengers in which the ending features the characters finally working together, the revelation of Hulk’s angry secret, Tony Stark finally behaving selflessly, and a great look at the future directions of Marvel’s “phase two” with the revelation of the supervillain Thanos and the hypothesis that the Avengers will reunite.
Papers can adopt The Avengers’ strategy and talk about a few (not more than three) future directions in depth, comment on how the findings illuminates or synthesizes theory, or try to build toward future theoretical advances rather than simply saying “if it were applied in this different setting it would probably also work.”
Man of Steel had some great lines and some flashy “effects” (pun intended) but that is not enough to tell a great story. Academic writers can learn from this. And if someone passes these professors’ advice on to the crew of Man of Steel 2, maybe they can learn from it too.