Demystifying qualitative writing

Lyn Lavery Our previous post looked at commonly asked questions when analysing qualitative data, and this week we turn to the writing-up stage. When I teach qualitative writing, it’s usually predictable as to what questions I’ll get asked as people tend to have the same concerns. It’s always nice to know you’re not the only person worrying about a particular issue – this post covers some of my most commonly asked questions.

How long should my results section be?

The first question is one that doesn’t have a clear answer, but my usual response to this is that it will be much longer than you anticipate! It will depend on the context you’re writing within – whether it’s a journal article or a thesis will obviously make quite a big difference for example, but regardless, you can anticipate that the results section will likely be the longest section of your writing.

Regardless of what you’re writing though, there will likely be a word limit, so I have a couple of suggestions in relation to that. Firstly, keep in mind that it will be impossible to write-up everything – it’s much better to focus on just a few key themes and discuss them well, rather than trying to write-up absolutely everything you’ve coded. Secondly, try and get the length of your quotes down – it’s perfectly acceptable to remove some words from quotes, as long as you clearly indicate this.

I don’t feel ready to write my results, what might the problem be?

This does have a clear answer – if you don’t feel ready to write, you need to go back and revisit your analysis! I’ve had this happen myself on a few research projects. I think I’ve finished my analysis and sit down to write, but I just don’t have a clear idea as to what I want to say or what my key findings are. When that happens I always go back into my analysis and work on that for a little longer until my ideas become clearer.

A couple of other suggestions for this issue – you might like to try mind mapping a possible structure as some people work better visually. My other suggestion is that if you’re new to qualitative writing, it could be that you don’t feel ready because you’re not sure what you’re meant to be creating. In other words, you don’t know what a qualitative write-up looks like. If that’s the case, try and get some examples of qualitative writing in your area of interest. Seeing a finished piece of writing might make it clearer about what it is you need to do.

Is it acceptable to use numbers/percentages in my writing?

This is slightly controversial as people have very different views. Personally, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to quantify qualitative information. But having said that, it depends hugely on your wider methodology and data analysis approach. For example, if you’re analysing qualitative data from a mixed methods study it may be entirely appropriate. While I wouldn’t personally include numbers and percentages in my writing, I do like to say things like “the majority of participants indicated” or “very few people discussed”. It just helps give the reader a feel for how common each of the ideas or themes were. You’ll need to decide about the appropriateness of this within the wider methodology or data analysis approach you’re taking.

What’s the difference between the results and discussion sections?

Generally speaking, a results section reports on the results (remembering of course that there needs to be some of your own interpretation – you’re not just listing a series of quotes). In contrast, a discussion takes your findings and links them back to the wider context. In this section you’re discussing the results in the context of the bigger picture, and as part of that you’ll likely link it to some of the research or theory discussed in the literature review. Because you need a certain amount of interpretation when writing qualitative results, the distinction between these two sections can often be blurred (and in fact, results and discussion sections are often combined in qualitative writing). If you’re unclear about the difference between the two, it would pay to read some published qualitative studies in your field to see how others have done it.

If you enjoyed the above tips, you might find our upcoming Research Accelerator event useful. This is a time-efficient and cost-effective way for you to access research training – if you can't attend the event live, you'll receive on-demand access so that you can watch the sessions at your convenience. I hope to see some of you there!