Case Study Writing Strategies

This is a tale of the two approaches I took to writing up case study research based on fieldwork and qualitative coding.

When I started writing up my dissertation case studies, I really had no idea how to do it. I’d read plenty of case studies but never tried to emulate them. I did, however, have a handy-dandy theoretical framework that needed to be worked into the findings.

I had three cases to report and more than enough data. Multiple case studies are typically used for comparative purposes, meaning that not only does this research design require writing up the individual cases, but also a cross-case comparison. I ended up writing four chapters to cover all of that material, with about 184 pages for the three cases and around 50 pages for the cross-case comparison.

I started off by writing up the case that had the most data – might as well get the big one out of the way, right? I wish I’d taken the reverse approach so that I would have saved some work when I found that my first try at writing up a case fell flat!

Method 1: Theoretical Framework Laundry List

I was told to be thorough in my dissertation writing. That may have been a mistake on my advisor’s part, as the final document was over 400 pages long, but I was determined to be as methodical and thorough as I could.

I started off by structuring my case description by the theoretical framework that I had developed. I went through every code in my framework and pulled out illustrative quotes that I organized under each heading, and then wrote up what I found for each concept in the framework. Even with rich and interesting empirical data to draw upon, however, it was deadly dull. It turned into a horrific laundry list in which readers became lost, much like one of those freaky hedge mazes you see in horror movies. It was ponderous and really soporific.

Repeating that two more times for the cases? No way. It was extremely slow and laborious writing, jerky and discordant, and there was no way I could meet my writing deadlines with that strategy. Fortunately, my writing group set me straight and offered suggestions of alternative structures. I listened, as one should when others are kind enough to read through drafts of heavy academic material and give thoughtful comment thereupon. Then I started over.

Method 2: Semi-Structured Thematic Template

I started over by cutting the chapter into strips and then physically coding and rearranging them into themes. Suddenly, there was a story and a flow to the material!

The first draft of the case study, cut into shreds and reassembled into a new structure.

It was done in a day. I remembered (just in time) to mark each strip of paper with the page number from which the material originated so that I could find it in the digital document to cut and paste. The process of cutting, pasting, and smoothing over transitions took another couple of days. I had every theoretical concept covered, and the material took on a much more palatable and interesting shape.

As I wrote the next two cases up, I started again with quotes, retrieving them systematically and writing up notes on the insights gleaned from them. Next, I organized them thematically rather than by conceptual framework constructs. It was easy to write the material that connected the quotes into a (mostly) coherent story, and much more interesting as the writing process generated more insights. I actually had fun with a lot of that writing!

I structured each case study chapter to start with sections providing the history and organizational setting of the case, an overview of the technologies and participation processes, and then continued from there with the thematic sections. At the end of each chapter, I included a summary with the main themes from each case and linked the highlights back to the research questions and constructs therein.

The overly-structured approach to writing a case study was painful and frustrating, but going with my intuition (while remaining steadfastly systematic) produced better results much faster. It also reduced repetition from linking concepts together and made those relationships much clearer. I expect every researcher will have to figure out an individual writing strategy, but it’s valuable to remember that the first approach may not be the best, and taking a different tack does not mean throwing out all the work you’ve already done.

The strategy for constructing the case comparison chapter, however, was a different matter entirely and a story for another day.