Making Research More Exciting Through Fiction Writing
Narrative writing that incorporates research can be a more engaging alternative to a classic research paper.
For many students, writing a research paper can be a dull task. A more exciting option is for students to write fictional narratives about their topics and to embed facts from their research. With this approach, students learn both the elements of fiction and the research process simultaneously.
When planning the course, find or create a place in the curriculum where students could research specific topics. Either make a list of topics that you know will have enough age-appropriate information or require students to create a list of self-generated topics that are then approved by the teacher. Either way, student choice is crucial.
Set clear expectations about the dual purposes of this project: Students need to find lots of facts about their topic and then incorporate those facts into a short work of fiction. Students are often inspired by story-writing because so many ideas will come to them during the research process.
Set a low word limit for the short story, and require students to include a set number of facts within it. For example, for my middle school students, I set a maximum word count of 750 words, and I require a minimum of 20 interesting facts from their research.
Essentially, students have ongoing, built-in writing prompts. For example, if a student is researching orcas and comes across the fact that orcas can jump out of the water to snatch penguins or seals, they might be inspired to write an exciting—and true-to-life—penguin-snatching scene in their story.
The Research and Writing Process
Once students know the specific expectations, begin the research process. A few mini-lessons about research can help students set the parameters of their work. Talk with students about how to find good sources, why it’s important to use a variety of sources, and how to use keywords. Even if these lessons are just reminders, students will have a clearer sense of how to be efficient.
If your class doesn’t already have a note-taking system in place, set one up. For younger students, a mini-lesson on paraphrasing is probably in order. Ask students to paraphrase the relevant information they find during the research process in bulleted form, with each bit of information they find functioning as a “fact” they can use in their story. After each fact, have them include their source in parentheses—hyperlinked, if possible.
About halfway through the research process, students should begin drafting their stories. Make the transition from mini-lessons on researching to mini-lessons on writing short fiction. Students can alternate days of research and writing, or they can split the period and do research for half and writing for half.
The first fiction mini-lesson could be sharing and discussing an age-appropriate example of flash fiction in which the author manages to tell a compelling story with a satisfying ending in very few words. I tend to prioritize mini-lessons on creating and sustaining conflict, applying various methods of characterization, and using their authentic voice.
I discourage students from writing non-endings like “To be continued” or “It was all a dream!” because these are easy-outs from the difficult work of crafting a complete story. Ask them to imagine they are the reader and not the writer of their story: Would they find the ending satisfying or not?
Most important, throughout the drafting process, students should find creative ways to embed facts into their story. As they write, they underline or highlight the facts they’ve included. Help them find ways to sneak the facts into the story. For example, if a student is researching the geography of a state, he or she could use specific geographic features to describe the setting in the narrative.
To assess the projects, ask students to submit both their research notes and their stories. Create a simple rubric that includes all the skills from the mini-lessons, such as paraphrasing, source citing, and characterization. When the projects are complete, organize a listening party. Encourage students to listen on two levels: to enjoy the stories as stories and to identify the facts within them.
Whenever we successfully tap into students’ creativity, they naturally become more curious and see that they really do have interesting stories to tell.