How to write a qualitative paper in seven easy steps

By this stage in your postgrad journey, you have probably read thousands of academic papers – or at least it feels that way. Indeed, you may have written one or two as well. But was the process quick and painless – or did it involve tears, tantrums and having to cut far too many of your carefully honed words? If you fall into the latter camp, you’ve come to the right place. Don’t panic; paper writing is challenging at first. But the more you practice, the slicker the process gets.

We already looked at how to get your qualitative study ready for publication in a previous blog. In this entry, we look at the more practical steps for writing a paper as efficiently as possible. 

We’ve all felt like this at some point during the writing, right?

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1. Start with the method

The method section is the simplest section of the paper. What did you do? Can you remember? If so, write it down. Check your target journal to see whether they have certain subheadings they want you to include (examples might be data collection, analysis, ethics and so on). If they don’t, have a look at other papers and copy their headings. Writing this short, factual series of paragraphs gets you into your stride and breaks that terrifying ‘blank page’ syndrome.

If you can, it’s often a good idea to start writing your method section while you’re still conducting the research. This ensures that you don’t forget any of those details about exactly where you found participant 14 or when you made those all-important changes to your interview schedule.

2. Use your table of themes to create your findings section

The findings are the most important section of a qualitative paper. This should be the longest and most detailed element and will guide the material you include in your introduction and discussion sections. This is why, once you’ve got started with the super-simple method, you should tackle the findings next.

You’ve got a table of themes that you lovingly created during your analysis, right? Well – I say lovingly created – what I mean is wrote, crossed out, re-created, kicked down the stairs a few times and cried over until you reached this final draft. Am I right?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that (nearly all) of the hard work is already done. Created correctly, your table of themes should be the blueprint for your findings section. This means that you already know what points you want to make, in what order, and supported by which quotes. Brilliant, right? Well done past you. In theory, all you need to do now is turn write about why you named the themes and subthemes as you did, how those ideas are supported by the quotes and any interplay between the themes. With the right table of themes, this is easier than it sounds – the section almost writes itself.

The bad news – which really isn’t all that bad – is that analysis continues during writing. This means that, as you write your findings up, you are likely to realise that some quotes don’t quite do the right job, or that some points need shuffling around. You might need to seek out some different quotes, or re-order things. That’s fine; it’s good, in fact, as it shows you’re really engaging with the material. In this instance, use your new findings section to re-order the table.

Take the time to reflect on your own ideas.

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3. Introduction

The next stage is the introduction. These can be tough to write when you start writing papers as opposed to a thesis. They are somewhat equivalent to the lit review chapter of the thesis – but much, much shorter. And shorter does not mean easier!

Start by making a bullet point list of all the points you need to make in your introduction. These should include:

  • Setting the scene for your research question
  • The main points which need addressing from that question. So, for example, if you’re asking what it is like to work in criminal law (a heteronormative culture) as an LGBTQ person, you might have a bullet point on heteronormativity, a bullet point on the culture in criminal law and a bullet point on the challenges faced by LGBTQ people working in heteronormative environments. (I kinda want to read that paper now…)
  • Why your approach is the best way to answer your question

Once you have the list, approach this in the same way you did the method section – just fill in the blanks and write a paragraph (two at most) for each bullet point. If you’re lucky, you’ll already have done all the relevant reading. If you’re not, you’ll need to conduct a lit review at this point. However, knowing exactly what areas you’re interested in will make this quicker and easier than if you were just exploring the topic as a whole. Search for relevant, recent papers, plug them into EndNote or whichever referencing system you’re using, whizz through the relevant sections and make notes on anything useful. As you go, slot useful points into your skeleton intro, following the bullet points. You can refine it later. Ensure you don’t just look for papers that back up your pre-existing point of view; remember to be critical at all times, even of your own ideas.

Think of your introduction as a funnel. You’re starting with the wider context of the question and then narrowing down to the point where the reader agrees with you that answering this is question is essential, and that your stance is the best way to do so.

4. Discussion

Once you’ve presented your findings and shown the reader why they are important via the introduction, the next stage is to discuss them (hence the name!) in the light of other people’s work. Discussion sections can be notoriously tricky, which is why we have an entire blog post dedicated to getting them just right.

Qualitative discussions will generally follow the same structure as your findings. Work through each theme in the same order you presented them, showing how your findings confirm, contradict or build on existing work.

If time is of the essence, you can start your discussion section simultaneously with the introduction – after all, the two map onto each other to a certain extent. As you read the papers and make notes in a skeleton discussion section too. Write out your theme names under the ‘discussion’ title and note down any useful findings from others. All you need is to polish up your notes (and potentially look for a few more papers), and voila! You’re nearly done.

5. References

Please tell me you’ve been doing these the whole time? And that you’re using a handy piece of referencing software like EndNote or Zotero? If so – easy peasy. Use your software to set the references to the right system for your chosen journal (APA 7, Chicago or Harvard, most likely), and away you go. If you haven’t been using software, step one is to amend this immediately for next time. I know it feels like an intimidating pain before you get started, but it is SUCH a lifesaver in the end. Step two, for now, is to get onto Google Scholar and copy and paste those bad boys in by hand.

Ever tried to cook without spices? A good abstract provides a taste of what’s to come in your paper!

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6. Abstract

And finally, the abstract. Journals often have tight rules for how long an abstract should be and what structure it should follow, so check those first. Your abstract needs to give a small flavour of all the other elements of the paper. They can be hard to get right and might be best left for a week or so (if you have time) so that you can get a bit of distance from the work. Or, if you’ve done the bulk of the writing, you might ask another member of your research team to have a crack at this bit.

7. Send to PGPR

Whether you’re a total paper-newbie or an old hand, we can all use an extra pair of eyes now and then. If you’re struggling with any element of your paper writing, just get in touch with us using the form below, and we’ll be happy to help.

How to make your writing sing

If you’re an academic, you are also, by proxy, a writer. Academics lives are full of words. Emails, feedback to students, grant applications, papers, theses – all of these require the careful placement of the one word next to another. As Prince once (almost) said, if you put the right letters together, you make a better day. And if it’s good enough for Prince, it’s good enough for the rest of us mere mortals.

However, while we university types are educated up to the eyeballs in our particular topics, we’re not often taught much about writing itself. Sure, we might have had an undergrad lecture about writing essays which follow the funnel structure, but other than that, we’re left to sink or swim. Which, given how much of our lives we spend trying to communicate complex ideas through the written word, is perhaps a bit of an oversight.

Humans have been communicating their ideas through writing since ancient times.

Photo by Kyle Smith on Unsplash.

With that in mind, here are some of PGPR’s top tips for creating words which stand out.

1. Read

Every writer also needs to be a reader. Fiction writers are experts in their genre, reading everything they can get their hands on by the writers they admire. The same counts for academic writing. Read as many papers and books in your field as possible. Spot what works and what doesn’t. Try to use the best techniques in your own writing.

Additionally, two great how-to books that can help every writer are Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and Stephen King’s On Writing. I’m sure there are other great books on writing which haven’t been written by someone called Steven, but those are a great starting point.

2. Plan

That funnel structure lecture you sat through in undergrad was actually pretty useful. Good academic writing should always follow a structure. This might feel boring, but it makes it easier for others to read, which should always be your aim. Think carefully about the points you want to make. How you order those points will influence how the reader digests your ideas, so plan carefully before you start.

A good plan is worth its weight in sticky labels!

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3. Write tight

As we’ve said in a previous PGPR blog, a key tenet of writing is to ‘omit needless words’ (Strunk, 2007). Effective writing is concise. We all write in longer sentences when we’re drafting something, so look back over your work and get rid of those filler words (‘that’ ‘very’ ‘really’) which aren’t needed.

Another tip for writing tighter prose is to avoid repetition. We all have favourite phrases which we use over and over again without even noticing. Try to spot yours and find new ways of phrasing. This will keep the reader’s attention.

4. The Curse of Knowledge (Pinker, 2014)

This concept, which Steven Pinker discusses in detail in The Sense of Style, is especially relevant to academics. When we’re an expert in any topic – be it phenomenology, attribution theory or fuzzy logic, it can be easy to forget that our readers don’t share our knowledge. This can mean we don’t provide essential explanations, leaving the reader lost. This is a tough nut to crack, but if you ask for feedback from a non-expert friend or colleague, they will be able to help you spot the holes that need filling.

A good friend will always help you out of a tight spot!

Image by Anja🤗#helpinghands #solidarity#stays healthy🙏 from Pixabay

5. Read your work aloud

You might feel like a bit of wally doing this, but it is super helpful. There’s something about reading aloud which helps you spot the awkward clauses or overly long sentences you might otherwise have missed. You could read to a friend or family member, or just to yourself in your locked office – whatever you choose, release your words into the ether and you’ll spot lots of areas to improve.

6. Impactful words should be at the start and end of sentences

This is a neat trick. If you are using words which pack a punch – and let’s hope you are – try to place those words at the start or end of the sentence, and your writing will immediately improve.

Let’s look at an example. Perhaps you’re writing up some qualitative findings from your fascinating study about eating tasty cakes. You’ve drafted the following sentence:

It was reported that the chocolate cake was the most delicious out of all of the options.

The three best words there, I think we can all agree, are ‘cake’, ‘chocolate’ and ‘delicious’. At the moment, while there’s nothing technically wrong here, those words are a little lost. Our hacky human brains might therefore jump over them, in our rush to skip to the end.

What might work better?

Most delicious, reported participants, was the chocolate cake.

The chocolate cake was reported to be the most delicious.

Chocolate was found to be the best flavour.

There is no one right answer. When you’re faced with a sentence like this, play around. Is ‘best flavour’ a more impactful way of saying ‘the most delicious’? Several needless words were omitted in the edited versions. Which sounds best to your ear?

Keep an ear (or two) out for those unnecessary filler words.

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7. Employ PGPR

If all this sounds like far too much hard work, just get in touch with PGPR via the form below. We’ll be happy to help your writing be the best it can be.