Writing up qualitative research

Rachael Butler

While preparing for one of our qualitative writing workshops recently, I began to reminisce about my early research career and the process of writing reports back in the early 90s (yep, that long ago!). These were the days when I had to share a computer with the other junior researcher in the organisation – we mainly hand wrote our reports and passed them over to production staff who would type them up for us. Our manager would then make significant edits via red pen slashes across the page, the material would be sent back to the production team, and so the process would go. Thankfully, technology and work practices have moved on, but it did remind me of the sweat and tears I used to go through to draft a report. I also remember that, while I struggled with writing for a number of years, all of a sudden something just seemed to ‘click’ and it has actually now become one of my favourite stages of the research process.

So, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learnt along the way to streamline the writing process: both in terms of saving time, and in relation to reducing stress levels!

  1. Start with the easy stuff. If I’m having an off day and struggling to write, instead of torturing myself trying to finish the section I had earmarked for completion, I switch my focus to the ‘easy stuff’. Material that falls into this category generally includes descriptive sections such as methods or sample composition. More often than not, this gets me into a writing flow and I can then switch back to the earlier material, which somehow no longer seems as difficult.
  2. Don’t labour too long over a sentence or phrase (or even a word). Again, this can result in increased stress and delays to your writing. If I’m struggling to find the right word or phrase I either insert something temporary and highlight it, or just put in a series of ???? to hold the place. Usually when I come back to it later, it is much easier to identify the right words or phrases.
  3. Make use of existing material. There’s nothing more satisfying than copying and pasting material from earlier documents (e.g. a research proposal) into your report or thesis. Boom - instant word count! You will probably need to tweak it a bit, but I generally find it easier to edit earlier writing rather than starting from scratch. Existing material can also include field notes or memos you’ve kept during your research journey that can be transformed into findings within your document.
  4. Make sure your analysis is complete before you start writing. If I try and start writing a chapter or section before I have fully analysed the data, I generally find it difficult to get my ideas down on the page. Or, at the very least, they come out jumbled and unclear. Although it may feel a bit like you are going backwards in the process, if this happens to you, I would suggest that you go back to your data, revisit your analysis, and start writing again once it’s clearer in your mind. This almost always resolves the problem for me.
  5. Pick your time of day to write. I don’t know about you, but come 3 o’clock in the afternoon my brain tends not to be at its peak performance (my colleagues will attest to this!). I am most definitely a morning person, and boy is this evident when it comes to writing. The paragraph I struggle over at 6pm, I can whip up in five minutes at 6am the next morning. My preferred writing time is between about 6am and 11am. This may be different for you – I have friends who get on a roll with writing at 2am. Whenever your productive time is, make sure you schedule your writing around this.
  6. Edit from paper-based copies. I can touch type and am pretty fast on the keyboard – but when it comes to serious editing, I find that I do it more effectively from print-outs of my writing. There’s something about moving away from my computer and reading through a paper copy that allows me to get a better sense of the text, how it flows, and whether or not the structure is working. I usually do this well into my writing, when I’ve got a reasonable chunk of text to review. I know it’s not great for the environment to be printing out reams of paper every day, but you can minimise the impact by being selective about when you do it, making sure you print double-sided, two pages per sheet, etc.

I hope the above tips are helpful for those of you who find the writing process difficult. Let us know if you have any other tips from your own experiences – we’d love to hear them! And, if you are interested in learning more, consider signing up for this year's virtual event Research Accelerator 2021.