The write up: Planning the perfect case study – 3

The write up: Planning the perfect case study – 3 Image

Over the last couple of posts we’ve talked about at how to approach case study writing and how best to interview and set questions. If you’ve gone through both stages, you’re now ready to write it up. But before you do, first find out how to present your case study in a way that really works for you – and your reader.

First of all, let’s get the really practical stuff out of the way. Nobody wants to read reams of copy so try to keep your case study in the region of 500 to 800 words in length. There’s no need to overwhelm the reader with lots of information so don’t go into great depth and don’t worry about explaining every step of the solution.

In our last post we set out a typical story ‘arc’ and with this in mind:

  • the opening should be around 50 words,
  • the problem/journey section about a 100 to 200,
  • the solution another 100 to 200,
  • the results and benefits around 200 to 300 words,
  • and round off the learning points in about 50 words.

Don’t write a Q&A, write a story

People are often tempted to write up case studies in a ‘Q&A’ style with a question followed by a verbatim answer. They’re often easier to write so you avoid having to think about things like flow and all those tricky ideas linking things together. Don’t be tempted. Why not? Q&As are dull, boring and they won’t get read.

Q&A style case studies are about conveying information, not building a story that draws the reader in. The nature of your questions should mean that when you come to write it up, your case study reads like a story rather than a set of facts.

Be active – not passive

Also, be aware of the ‘voice’ you are using for your write-up. Using an active voice immediately lifts your writing, makes it easier to read and gives it more energy. In an active sentence the subject is the one doing the action. So, in the line “I heard it through the grapevine”, the ‘I’ is the subject doing the action.

In a passive voice, the target of the action gets relegated to the object. Written in a passive voice the same lyric would be, “it was heard through the grapevine by me”. Not so surprising that Marvin Gaye stuck to an active voice for his song writing!

Use “quotes” – but not too many!

Additionally, quotes add variety to the copy and they make your story sound more human and real. All of this helps make the finished product look more approachable, accessible and professional. However, make sure that your quotes sound like the kind of thing that someone would say. Quotes must sound like quotes!

A good tactic here is to use lots of abbreviations – we’ve had, they’ve been, etc – because that’s generally how people speak. A word of warning: don’t write verbatim what someone says. You’re going to need to use a bit of creative license and smooth out some of the rough edges of speech. Write down what your interviewee would have liked to have said – make them sound good and they will thank you for it!

Also, when you’re writing up your quotes, always think about whether your interviewee would really want to read those particular words down on paper – use your common sense. A lot of people say unguarded things when they’re being interviewed and get a surprise when they see their words in black and white. Whilst you’re always going to have their permission anyway, you don’t really want to shock them so just be a little diplomatic about what you write.

Be kind to your reader

One common mistake that writers make is to use lots of industry jargon and acronyms – but this risks being a real turn off for people who are not in the know – so keep it to a minimum.

Whilst using jargon may be might be second nature to you, try and avoid it, and if you must use acronyms, always explain in full what it means. Generally, there’s always a plain English word you can use instead of a piece of jargon.

A great way to make a piece of text easy to read is to break things up using punchy section headings. These are also useful for casual readers to get the gist of the case study without having to plough through everything.

Start with a question

Also, make sure you have a great opening paragraph or ‘standfirst’ at the start of your piece which really draws the reader in. For example, try asking a question of your reader to intrigue them and keep them reading. Look in magazines and newspapers for examples and ideas.

Lastly, when it comes to writing up the ‘benefits gained’ section, try to use as many hard facts as you can – eg. increases in sales, cost savings etc. You can also expand on some of the softer benefits in the conclusion such as enhanced reputation or development of systems that can be used for future projects.

So, 5 key points in summary:

  1. Make sure your case study is around 500-800 words with the right amount of space given to the most important sections of the story ‘arc’.
  2. Always think of your case study as a story – don’t be tempted to write a Q&A style piece.
  3. Write up your case study using an active voice as this will make it come alive and stop it reading like a report or a research document.
  4. Add quotes but make sure your quotes sound like someone actually said them!
  5. Make your case study accessible and easy to read by using section headings and a punchy standfirst.

***

Find out why we decided to write this series of expert guides to case study writing. If you missed the first two posts read how to have a case study strategy and plan content that packs a punch, and our second post on the all important interview with tips on getting the most from your interviewee, setting questions and planning your story arc.

Chris Smith About the author: Co-founder of digital writing productivity coach @beprolifiko | writer in residence at swarm | ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.