Tell me a story | Nature Reviews Psychology

A unique feature of the Nature Reviews journals is the extensive feedback that editors provide to authors, in particular on an article’s narrative.

Great Reviews go beyond mere description of published work to offer a synthesis: they pull together individual research findings to extract broader insights, draw out key points of convergence or highlight key gaps for future research. Reviews also have the greatest impact when they are easy to read and accessible. Ideally, readers with a general psychology background – including at the undergraduate level – should be able to read any Review in our journal and walk away with a clear understanding of a field, even if they would not be able to explain specific technical details. To that end, each point in the paper must logically follow from the one before, so that the scaffolding to understand complex ideas gradually builds as the paper unfolds. In other words, a great Review tells a story, and walks readers through that story from start to finish.

“A great Review tells a story, and walks readers through that story from start to finish”

We provide authors with feedback throughout the writing process to aid in crafting the story of their Review. A clear and logical structure is key to good storytelling, which is why the first step for our authors is to submit a synopsis. The synopsis is basically an extended outline of the paper: the major headings and subheadings, with a few sentences for each section that outline the key points to be covered and an estimated word count.

As part of the synopsis, we also ask authors to provide a short paragraph that sets out the rationale for the Review. Most of our articles are invited, so the aim here is not to convince us to publish a paper on this topic. Rather, this paragraph helps us to understand the authors’ motivation for studying the topic, the angle they think is important and the key message they want to emphasize.

Using this paragraph as a guide, we ask ourselves whether the proposed outline captures that message. For instance, if the aim is to compare two concepts in a literature, the organization should emphasize that comparison and make it easy for the reader to extract key similarities and differences. If the main message is that the field needs to do ‘X’ to make progress in understanding ‘Y’, the reader needs to be able to clearly follow the logic of the argument: what is known from the existing literature on Y, and how does X extend that knowledge?

With our feedback in hand, authors proceed to write the full manuscript. However, our focus on narrative continues throughout all stages of the editorial process. For example, our edits to a full draft (both before and after peer review) ensure that the introduction motivates the piece, explains why it is important and timely, and sets up the narrative of the rest of the paper so the reader knows what to expect. Even though we carefully considered the paper’s structure and logical flow at the synopsis stage, sometimes it becomes obvious with the full draft that changes would help to convey the message more clearly. For example, if section 2 refers extensively to section 5, perhaps the sections should be adjacent to reduce redundancy and prevent the reader from needing to flip back and forth across the paper.

We also check the narrative in the full draft at the level of individual paragraphs (and, in our last round of edits, at the sentence level). Each paragraph should be explicitly tied back to the main message of the section. Readers should never wonder why they are reading a given paragraph – it should be obvious based on what came before. The story should unfold section by section, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence.

A good narrative is also focused, so that the important themes come through and readers are not distracted or overwhelmed. If interesting but ultimately tangential information disrupts the flow of the narrative, we might suggest removing it (or moving it to a Box). On the flip side, we often ask authors to add material to bridge between main ideas.

Importantly, a great narrative should never come at the expense of scientific accuracy. A Review should draw out a story based on the realities of a given literature – warts and all. Reviews identify what is known, but equally important, also what is unknown and needs to be addressed in future research because the existing literature is inconsistent, methodologically flawed or simply too sparse to draw meaningful, definitive conclusions.

A skeptic might question the depth of our involvement. After all, the authors are the experts on the topic. Our feedback does not undermine that expertise; we do not make suggestions about whether the description of the literature is accurate or how the results of a particular study should be interpreted. We leave those aspects to the expertise of the peer reviewers. Instead, our feedback focuses on the article’s narrative: our aim is to ensure that authors present scientific material to expert and general readers alike in the most convincing and compelling way.

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Tell me a story.
Nat Rev Psychol 1, 185 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44159-022-00051-1

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