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Why Narrative Writing is Crucial For Students: A Warning for Common Core Implementation

Narrative within professional development nonfiction: Readers kept going past midnight, telling me, "I had to find out what happened to Josh!"
Narrative within professional development nonfiction: Readers kept going past midnight, telling me, “I had to find out what happened to Josh!”

As 46 states implement using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), one big change is from the traditional amount of narrative writing students do to far more analytical and argumentative writing. As someone who knows and uses the power of narrative techniques in a considerable amount of business writing, this has me worried.

Susan Pimental, one of the primary authors of the standards, explained that the reason for the switch is

to reduce writing “opinion untethered to evidence” and “decontextualized” writing—writing not based on the reading of a text—in favor of writing that requires students to read, comprehend, and respond to text, grounding their interpretations in evidence found there. That shift reflects what young people can expect in college and work, she said. “In faculty and employer surveys, the kinds of skills that score high are the argument and evidence-related skills, developing ideas with relevant details and reasons,” Ms. Pimentel said. “Telling stories scores very low” (Gewertz, S11).

Really? Really? I can only guess that these employers and professors equate narrative writing with “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays. REAL narrative writing is every bit as complex and every bit as crucial to businesses as “argument and evidence-related skills.” I’m not saying instead of. I’m saying both narrative AND evidence-related writing. And both require instruction. Narrative writing doesn’t come naturally. You have to

  • Choose one key message and only add details that support it
  • Clearly sequence only the events that relate to the message
  • Use words that paint the picture you want readers or listeners to see in their minds
  • Tap audience emotions as intended, not accidently in ways that harm your message.

And that’s just the beginning. I’ve spent HOURS around a table with editors and other writers as we critique and polish narratives for publication.

Why would a business care? Let me give a few examples.

  • For training. Narratives convey key ideas in attention-getting ways. In the 1980’s I was part of a task force that instructed Federal Reserve Bank examiners the basics of regulating off-balance-sheet instruments, such as futures, options and swaps, that had just appeared on the financial scene. After we presented to the First Vice Presidents of all the banks, we were invited to give the same presentation at nearly every Federal Reserve around the country. Our technique? NARRATIVES that conveyed techniques, warning signs, and tools through the stories of four banks that had nearly failed. Yes, we used “evidence-related skills” but the real secret behind the success of the project was the narrative techniques.
  • For corporate culture. Great stories help leaders, managers and employees understand mission, vision and values. Johnson and Johnson can point to its quick decision to take all Tylenol off store shelves when tampering caused a couple deaths. Polartec remembers its decision to retain all employees on full pay when a devastating fire shut down production.
  • For marketing and public image. Narratives make information “sticky.” Take a look at the great advice in Made to Stick (Heath and Heath). If you want people to remember your message, a story is one of the best ways to make it happen.
  • For impact. Have you watched any of the TED talks at TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. Presenters have 18 minutes to get their ideas across and nearly all of them use narrative techniques.
  • For readability. Take a look at the bestsellers in business—all of them are narrative-driven. Great by Choice (Collins) starts with the tragic story of Scott and Amundson in the Antarctic. Malcolm Gladwell’s books are filled with stories—The Tipping Point explains how ideas take off through several narrative illustrations, each a chapter long.

I’m going to stop here. Next week, I’ll add two more reasons why narrative writing skills are every bit as important—and perhaps more key to overall student achievement—than other forms of writing.

But I’m curious. Where else have you seen the power of story used in business?

Related Reading

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Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Narrative writing is memorable. The human mind absorbs narrative because it has VOICE. I think part of the issue over all this is that the powers that be do not understand the concept of narrative nonfiction—they consider all narrative to be fiction, and therefore less important. The writing that helps us grow, that molds us and moves us, is always narrative. Yes, let’s teach kids the basics in persuasive and expository writing, and then let’s teach them how to connect with an audience—by using narrative constructs that convey facts.

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