Most readers, even academic ones, like a bit of a story. And a vignette is just a bit of a story, a condensed version. A vignette is brief, evocative and descriptive. It provides information about key points of an event or interaction. It illustrates a particular point.
A vignette is intended to provoke a response. It might be written in a way intended to elicit feelings. It might be designed to start a line of thought or an argument. It might be meant to challenge values or belief.
Vignettes are often used as a qualitative research method. And they are used in academic writing too.
Helen Sword suggests that one of the characteristics of ‘good’ academic writing is that writers offer stories and examples. Readers can see what the writer is getting at – they combine an abstracted discussion with an example from everyday life. The example animates and grounds the idea/theory. And a vignette is ONE way to do this.
So where and how are vignettes used?
Vignettes are used in the introductions to published academic papers to get readers interested in what is to come. They are sometimes used as a means of presenting data so that context and/or themes/qualities/factors/variables/events/discourses can be drawn out. (What the actual ‘bits’ coming together are called depends on your research paradigm and methodology). A vignette can be used as a way to establish a norm with which other experiences or views can be compared. And vignettes are often used as ‘cases’ in philosophical, medical and legal writings to explore dilemmas and issues. Vignettes also appear as possible ‘scenarios’ in ‘think pieces’.
So, a vignette is a form of research-based writing which can be put to multiple writing uses. A vignette can multi- task with the best academic writing tools. And the fact the vignette has multiple uses – all of them designed to stimulate the reader – suggests that this unassuming little narrative can be a very helpful addition to a #wakeupreader writing tool kit.
So, it could be helpful to consider whether something you are writing would benefit from a vignette – either in the introduction, or where you report your research data. Or if you don’t have an immediate use for a vignette, you might humour me and just think for a moment about vignettes, and how you could use them in some future writing venture.
A vignette is often called a ‘slice of life’ or a ‘snapshot’. That is because of its diminutive stature. A research vignette is often only a couple of hundred words. Yes, that small. A vignette doesn’t try to do too much. The etymological origin of vignette is a decorative design of vine leaves – so keep that image in mind. You can’t get too much onto a single page with illuminated vine borders!Writing a vignette is a creative practice. It is not a mechanical process. It is not reporting. It offers a place in a more conventional academic writing genre, such as a journal article, where you can show a bit of flair and style.
A vignette requires careful crafting and you may well have to have to write several versions before you are happy. And it’s often helpful to do some preparation before you start writing.
Some questions to consider when writing a vignette are:
- What do you want the reader to do? …. (feel/think/be interrupted or challenged)
- What information do they need to have? What must be in your vignette? Consider the who, what, when, where, why, how of the vignette. What are the bare minimum elements you need to include – context, people, sayings, description?
- What words are going to be useful to you in making those elements spring to life for the reader? You might like to create some kind of cluster word map to bring the key terms together around the who, what, when, where, why and how.
- How long is the vignette going to be? One paragraph? Two, or three?
Writing a vignette is an activity well suited to short periods of intense writing. You can produce a few variations on your vignette theme with a few thirty minute pomodoros. Then it is simply a matter of revising and tinkering with it over time, until it consolidates into something you can test out on others. (But of course that’s not mandatory! You can write a vignette in whatever way suits your personal writing routine. ) Blogging is also a good way to practice writing vignettes – you will see a lot of bloggers use vignettes as a way to begin a post and to ‘suck readers in’.
You might just want to look at papers in your discipline, or related areas, search out texts that feature vignettes. Look at how they are written, their length, their style, their author ‘voice’. What can you learn from them? Will you write your vignette like this, or differently?
Play around with the vignette. See what works for you – and most importantly, what works for your reader and their level of engagement and interest.