All science writing courses emphasize that a manuscript should tell a story. But why is that? After all, a scientific finding remains true regardless of the final write-up. Discoveries are made in the laboratory, but the scientific method is much more than handling equipment with dexterity and carrying out a well-designed experiment. A pillar of the scientific method, as formulated in the seventeenth century, is to report findings so others can repeat them. Only then do they become part of human knowledge — a literature.

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All important pieces of knowledge in the history of humankind have been transmitted down through stories (orally or written). As the 2017 Nobel laureate in Literature Kazuo Ishiguro put it1: “For me, the essential thing is that stories communicate feelings. That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides.” We would argue that a scientific paper too should communicate feelings. And what better subject to cut across borders and divides than science! A paper is pleasing to read when the reader can feel a sense of amazement with the science presented, when the beauty of nature, the simplicity of an idea or the elegance of an experiment become self-evident.

Communicating feelings does not mean recounting a full day of work, or the emotions one went through while purifying a challenging sample or during that particularly productive day in the lab, although a rich description of such circumstances were the norm in the past — consider for example how Gilbert Stokes reports the discovery of the homonymous shift in the fluorescence of quinine solutions in 18522. At some point in his 100-page paper, he voices frustration that: “Want of sunlight [not an abundant commodity in Cambridge, England] proved to be such an impediment to the pursuit of these researches that I was induced to try some bright flames, with the view of obtaining some convenient substitute.”

Nowadays, a paper must be concise and to the point. Communicating feelings means letting the reader experience the same moment of epiphany the authors did when everything suddenly made sense, taking the reader by the hand to the newly discovered land. In science, this is usually done by interlinking data, photographs, and models in a logical manner. Atoms, photons, vibrational states and quasi-particles are the characters. In other types of literature, writers use different tools to generate images in their readers’ brains (metaphors in poetry, for instance). But like for other literature, the idea is to create a compelling and engaging picture in the mind of the reader, who will then be able to follow your reasoning and description (the ‘show, don’t tell’ predicate).

Hyperbolic statements, such as “this work represents a breakthrough/paradigm shift/groundbreaking/unprecedented result, opens up new avenues of investigation, is the Holy Grail, and so on”, kill the pleasure of reading, because they undermine the whole construct3. They contribute nothing to the building of that mental image and instead impose the authors’ opinions upon the reader with brute force. Those expressions already create apprehension in the reader. Sadly, studies have shown that hyped expressions per paper published have doubled in the past 50 years, especially in the hard sciences, probably because academic findings in these disciplines tend to lack immediate real-world implications4,5. If authors feel the urge to add these statements, they should ask themselves whether there is a better, quantitative argument that can be made instead. Doing so will result in more compelling prose.

As editors, we strive to offer to our readers the best scientific studies we receive. If a manuscript tries too hard to convince us, we feel a sense of nausea. On the contrary, a good paper brings us joy. Believe it or not, we can sense the excitement for the science when we read manuscripts; and so will the reader. When we come across this kind of manuscript, we get a rush of excitement; we cannot wait to let our readers know all about it. That is when we know a manuscript has a story to tell, a story that is likely to hit the imagination of the reader, and that can be inspirational. Paraphrasing the Editor-in-Chief of Nature, Magdalena Skipper, we would like our papers to read like a page-turner of a book6. It’s literature after all.