What the Dung Beetle Can Teach Us about Transforming Research into Captivating Writing

Reading a research paper can be dull. Ask any STEM major in college about peer reviewed research articles and a great majority would groan about the endless hours spend reading dense papers that could easily bore you to sleep. And that is not to say that these papers and the research behind them are not interesting or important, they just aren’t very engaging to read. This brings us to a dilemma: how do we make scientific research – work that is actually interesting once you understand it – sound interesting without all the extra work for our readers. This is where a New York Times article by Douglas Emlen comes into play. In Emlen’s article about the weaponry of dung beetles, he takes a fascinating topic of research and makes it engaging, first by explaining it, how it came to be and then what it can tell us about ourselves, demonstrating along the way practices that can be used to strengthen any research based piece.

Emlen is a biologist, he clearly knows his stuff and the content of this article is similarly well researched. This is evident from the detail he adds throughout, from species names, to mating styles – there is a lot of information presented. Yet none of it feels dull. Even without pictures the article paints a beautiful image of these beetles, from large balls of dung rolling around to massive arching horns protruding out of the beetles, we can see what he is talking about. This is all due to the key aspect of Emlen’s writing; he is telling us a story! We are placed in a setting, we are given descriptions, different characters and even a moral of the story (all be it one very clearly laid out at the end). This is the key to his successful translation, making the research into a digestible and flowing story that keeps the reader engaged by having them forget that what they are reading was actually researched in the first place.

This article is likely for a general audience who may have never heard of dung beetle weaponry before but instead of bogging down the introduction with explaining this outright, he puts us right in the action with his research team being swarmed by beetles. He knows that we likely know the dung beetle, so he implies their important trait of collecting dung and instead shifts our focus to the subject of this work: their weaponry. He does this blatantly too, but it works – we know from the second paragraph and even from the title what this article is going to be about. Next comes the challenging part of portraying the research of several scientists who likely have sat and observe behaviors of these different beetle species for years. Emlen takes this extensive research and boils it down to a few examples and then what they mean – he waste no time on non-essential parts and keeps things short to keep readers engaged.

We can take from this article a few important considerations for writing researched based articles for the purpose of entertainment and learning. First, we should attempt to tell a story or in the case of this particular article, tell a few stories in the form of vignettes. This keeps the reader interested and keeps the writing engaging. Second, we should nit-pick the research down to the essentials. There is no need to waste time on boring materials and methods work but instead skip to the results and conclusions and make them sound as important as they actually are. Third, make what you are talking about matter to the reader. The dung beetle is likely something most people will never interact with, but the threat of nuclear war is. Bringing the topic directly to the reader and encompassing their life into the piece will help your points hit home. Finally, keep it short: readers can only take in so much information and even though the research is going to be diluted, it is still a lot. Keep the article short as Emlen does and you are sure to keep the reader active through the whole thing. Utilizing some of these tools, writers (especially those in the science fields) can take research that they find interesting and translating that into digestible articles that the public can better engage with.

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thank you friend

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