An American Editor

April 17, 2013

On Language: Is It a Study or a Story?

I was reading a history book, Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech by Victoria Saker Woeste (ISBN 9780804772341), a few months ago (I highly recommend the book as an insight into Henry Ford, America in the 1920s, and how much our legal landscape has changed) when I wondered whether the book was a study, or a story, or perhaps both.

Readers rarely consciously distinguish between a study and a story, and those of us who edit science-oriented material often read of studies and, I suspect, do not give much thought as to what calling something a study really means. I suppose the place to begin is with definitions.

A study answers a carefully framed and defined, specific question; for example, How did Lincoln’s delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation at Gettysburg affect the Union soldier’s prosecution of the Civil War? Everything about the study is focused on answering the question. Consequently, events preceding the delivery of the Proclamation, such as the firing on Fort Sumter that was the starting action of the Civil War, are interesting facts, but of little consequence to answering the question.

In contrast, a story is like a river — it provides a narrative flow that takes us from point A to point B, or even to points B, C, and D. It may include information that is relevant to a study, but it is not intended to answer a single, specific question. Instead, the story gives us an overview and perhaps answers cursorily a multitude of questions. For example, a book titled The History of the American Civil War, 1861-1865 should be a story, a survey, but not a study. It has no single focus question it intends to answer; instead, it intends to give us a panoramic view of an era. Thus, a story is a river of knowledge that is constantly on the move.

I’m sure some of you are scratching your heads and wondering why this distinction is important. The answer really lies in how we validate an author’s work. If we expect or are given a study to read, knowing what a study is supposed to do enables us to determine whether the author has accomplished the task. As an editor, if a manuscript begins, “This book answers the question of how life began,” then I expect a study focused on answering that question, and not a story that takes me through history and repeats to me what philosophers from Socrates to Bertrand Russell have said about the origins of life.

The “conflict” between study and story forms a frame for the content. As an author, it acts to focus my thinking — do I paint with narrow, well-defined strokes or broadly — and as an editor it helps me determine whether the author has fulfilled her quest or needs assistance focusing or repurposing the text.

More importantly, the conflict acts as a guide for the reader’s expectations. As a reader, if I pick up a biography that by its title or by the goals divulged in the front matter tells me that its focus is to answer the question of whether Ronald Reagan knew about the Iran-Contra Affair, then I can reasonably expect to find a study of Regan’s knowledge and not a broad survey (story) of the Reagan presidency. If the author fails to deliver the study and, instead, delivers the survey (story), it makes suspect the value of the book and the quality of the research. I would expect an author to understand her goals and strive to achieve them.

Consciously distinguishing between study and story also helps me as editor when I read, “The results of the XYZ Study demonstrated that….” Based on the surrounding content, knowing that a study is intended to answer a specific, narrow, and carefully defined question, I may query the author as to what was the study question. This distinction is not often made in the political arena, and too often voters are simply told that some government study drew certain conclusions, but are never told what the question was and thus cannot know if what are being put forward as the study’s conclusions drawn are, in fact, the study’s conclusions.

A story is painted in broad strokes. A story surveys acres of ground; it does not focus on any two square inches. The story also has a function, as we all know, but we do not expect it to answer well-defined questions. We expect the panoramic view: “Tell me what was happening in American culture in the 1960s.”

The professional editor approaches every manuscript, consciously or unconsciously, thinking about whether the author achieves the author’s stated objective in a clear, concise manner. By asking whether the author is providing a study or a story, the editor is able to focus with greater precision on the resolution of that thought. This is important to authors because it is a defining feature of developmental editing. Copyediting doesn’t worry very much about whether the author is providing a study or a story because the overall structure and focus are not of prime importance to the copyediting process. But the converse is true for the developmental editor who is worried about overall structure and whether the author has stated her objective and attains it.

Although I have been directing the conversation toward nonfiction writing, the truth is that the difference between a study and a story is also important in fiction. For example, those who have read George Simenon’s books will recognize that many of his books are studies of the psychology of a principal character. True, they are also stories in that as fiction they tell us more than is needed were they only studies, but the point is that they are studies, and if I were to edit them today, knowing that they were studies would greatly influence how I would edit.

Similarly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are often studies. Holmes invariably frames and addresses the how, what, why, and who questions with precision.

Having said that fiction, too, benefits from the distinction between story and study, it is important to note that the terms do have less rigid meanings and parameters when applied to fiction than to nonfiction. But the process remains the same and is equally valuable from an editor’s, an author’s, and a reader’s perspective, but especially from the author’s perspective. Knowing that you intend to write a study helps focus the fictional events you create and the characters’ reactions to those events. (It is probably accurate to say that, for example, mysteries tend to be more study and less story and romance novels tend to be more story and less study.)

Next time you pick up a book to read, try to ascertain before you start the main text whether the book, if nonfiction, is a study or a story, and if fiction, whether it tends more toward story than study, and see if that determination affects how you read and understand the book.

Finally, the idea that a book can be a blend of both story and study is particularly apt for fiction. Much fiction is a blend but an unequal blend. Even so, the fiction book can be successful in achieving the author’s goals. In the case of nonfiction, however, I think the distinction is significantly more important and that a book that blends is unlikely to be successful (in terms of meeting the author’s goals and the reader’s expectations); I think such a book will leave the reader unsatisfied.

What do you think?


1 Comment »

  1. I really enjoy the essays from An American editor; always thoughtful and worth storing. Very useful when assessing my own work later. Thank you.


    Comment by sandemara — April 17, 2013 @ 9:14 am | Reply

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