Losing words: writing qualitative research for publication.

Section of stained glass from Manchester Cathedral

Section of stained glass from Manchester Cathedral

There has been a theme running through the last few days of needing to loose words. I am working with a colleague to prepare a paper derived from a project we have just completed evaluating a dental outreach service for people from ‘hard to reach’ communities. Many of the service users are homeless and have complex needs and this service has evolved to try to address some of the challenges they face with dental care. So much to say.

There was a bit of a heart sink moment when we thought we had around 5,000 words to play with and then, looking at the author guidelines, we realised that, for this particular publication, the limit is actually 3,000. Two thousand words to cut, and we thought we were doing well to get it down to 5,000!

Writing within word limits is one of those things which for many of us challenges not only our language skills but our ability to ‘bottom line’ our research. Whether it is a 250 word abstract we are preparing to submit in response to a conference call or a 3,000 word limit for a paper word limits force us to make pretty fundamental decisions about how to piece together the key points, stay true to our findings and present a structured narrative which makes sense to the reader.

This is an even greater challenge, I think, when your world of research revolves around words. As a qualitative research my research is grounded in words: the stories people tell; how and where they tell them; the things they write about; the words I use to build the context, describe people, settings, emotions. If you then add to this the need to convey to the reader the credibility, trustworthiness and generalisability of your work – yet more words……..

We are walking a tightrope between providing enough information to assure reviewers and readers that our work is robust and trying hard to convey the depth of data we have gathered. Why is it that the quotes which eloquently convey a specific point are often the longest?

A while ago I wrote about bottom lining your research and the challenges of conveying a PhD in a tweet, well I guess we’re back in that territory again. Writing within any word constraint forces us to journey into the essence of our data. When push comes to shove what are THE most important things emerging from our data that we want to convey. It is a reductionist process and one that leaves me feeling frustrated about what has been left out. The colour is reduced to primary colours and the subtleties of shade and detail are missing.

The possibilities for communicating research are growing rapidly and a ground swell of researchers are exploring the potential of using multiple channels to talk about their research not only at the end of a project but across the whole trajectory.

A world of possibilities not only in terms of what we communicate but also how we communicate. Freedom to choose different styles of writing, to reach different audiences. If you are interested in exploring this world more then the LSE impact blog is a really great place to start; providing thought provoking posts and links to resources to take you on a journey of exploration.

Of course whatever form of communication we use we will always have to function within word limits, whether it is 140 characters or 3,000 words. So I’m off to loose some more words today.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s