Writing up research and evaluation. What is involved in writing a research report or study? Here we explore ‘writing up’ as an integral and ongoing element of the research process – and explore what some of the implications for practitioners may be.
Contents: introduction · writing and theorizing · who, what why? · readers’ experiences of our texts · framing and opening · shape · tone and readability · voice and person · the problem of conclusions · conclusion · further reading and references · : introduction · writing and theorizing · who, what why? · readers’ experiences of our texts · framing and opening · shape · tone and readability · voice and person · the problem of conclusions · conclusion · further reading and references · See, also: research for practice.
To make sense of ‘writing up’ we need to think about how readers may use texts – and the questions they may ask. The authenticity of material and the extent to which it is capable of generating further thought are central considerations here. How material is organized and presented has a direct bearing on these matters. We, thus, need to examine:
• the shape of reports;
• their tone and readability;
• issues around the use of quotations and citations; and
• the difficult task of concluding.
Writing and theorizing
For me writing is inextricably linked with theorising. The act of placing words on paper or screen – of somehow getting them out of my mind and into some concrete form – allows me to hold onto various ideas and themes and to shape and work with them. A large part of my work as a researcher has involved writing down what has gone on in some encounter or experience. Sometimes I can make notes while talking with someone or observing some behaviour. However, such writing usually takes place after the event – either from memory or as part of the transcription of taped recordings. Later, I write up my research in order to deepen my understanding and to inform others. In doing this what has been ‘written down’ is used as data (Atkinson 1990: 61).
The terms ‘writing up’ and ‘writing down’ imply something about the status of the material. What is written up is often thought of as more analytical and interpretative than that which is written down or ‘recorded’. However, as many of us know from our experiences of recording practice, what we write down involves making choices and putting constructions on things. Once we recognize this we may take some care with what are presented as descriptions. For example, we may ask questions about the authenticity of statements. I say this now because the processes I want to explore today – around the making of research reports – do not happen at the end of the research process. Rather, in my experience, writing up goes hand-in-hand with writing down. In this respect Sara Delamont (1992: 182) provides us with two useful maxims:
• Write early and write often
Who, what, why
As with any other report, when writing a research report or study we should be clear about aims and audience:
• what is it that we want to say?
• to whom do we wish to say it (the ‘target group’); and
The purpose of writing a research report is simple according to Francis Dane (1990: 212): to inform others about the research we have conducted. This, in turn, involves the assumption that others want to know about the research (op. cit.). We need to write reports in such a way that they will want to read it.
Dane’s presentation of the purpose of writing reports leaves much unsaid. Delamont (1992: 163) argues that there are two main reasons for writing: glory or gain – with a third being to get rid of the project so as to start something new. However, she arrives at the same point as Dane: whatever the reason, the writer has to arouse the interest of the reader and, ‘convince them of the realism, truth or authenticity of the account’ (op cit.).
Audience. For reports and studies associated with the exploration of practice the main audience comprises:
• other, informed, practitioners: and
• academics involved with the area.
As we have already discussed, the process of writing involves getting clear on ideas and interpretations. It is an act of learning. Thus, the first audience is ourselves. Beyond that lay our colleagues. Here, the main reason why people may pick up our work is to gain new insights into practice or into particular aspects of the environment or target group with which they work. Or it may be that our research efforts may be part of a collaborative exercise in which material is exchanged, explored and elaborated. Our report in this case may be more of a discussion paper (Winter 1989: 75). Similar interests arise with ‘academic’ readers.
Where the report is written in the context of a professional education programme then part of the audience are the markers. I have emphasized ‘part’ here for a couple of reasons. First, and obvious, we can overlook the needs of other readers through focusing too tightly on getting good marks or grades i.e. on what we see as the requirements of accreditation. Second, markers are usually part of the same community of practice. As well as marking and commenting on pieces, they may also want to learn.
Readers’ experiences of our texts
When reading a good novel or text we may be carried into another world or may experience our world in a different way. With novels we ‘know’ the characters and their lives have sprung from the writer’s imagination. They are not real. Yet by joining in the game ourselves we can be there. Such concerns also lie at the heart of our encounters with professional, academic and non-fiction texts. Let’s look at the beginning of Whyte’s Street Corner Society.
In the heart of ‘Eastern City’ there is a slum district known as Cornerville, which is inhabited almost exclusively by Italian immigrants and their children. To the rest of the city it is a mysterious, dangerous and depressing area. Cornerville is only a few minutes walk from fashionable High Street, but the High Street inhabitant who takes that walk passes from the familiar to the unknown…. (ibid.: xv)
Chapter 1 of the book begins thus:
The Nortons were Doc’s gang. The group was brought together primarily by Doc, and it was built around Doc. When Doc was growing up, there was a gang that averaged about three years older than Doc; there was Doc’s gang, which included Nutsy, Danny, and a number of others; there was a group about three years younger, which included Joe Dodge and Frank Bonelli; and there was a still younger group, to which Carl and Tommy belonged. (ibid.: 3)
Regarding Street Corner Society, Paul Atkinson writes:
That book, with all its vivid and realistic descriptive writing, is not a literal representation of the social situation of Italian-American street-corner gang members. Whyte’s craft resides not just in the conscientious and careful collection of data, and their arrangement into a factual report. The monograph itself is, in the best sense, an artful product. The narratives and descriptions, the examples, the characters and the interpretative commentary are woven together in a highly contrived product. The world we enter into, as readers, is not a direct experience of ‘street corner society'; we are engaged in the interpretation of society-as-reconstructed… Moreover, the book does not – cannot – totally determine how we as readers will interpret it. We read, and read into, the text, based on our own background knowledge and assumptions. (Atkinson 1990: 2)
Atkinson is making a number of important points here. First, research reports and monographs do not set out to simply report, they seek to persuade us of the existence of some phenomenon or the interest or value of a particular line of argument. At one level such writing can be presented as a form of rhetoric. Writers develop ‘tricks of the trade’ and various strategies for putting their arguments across. Sometimes these take the form of, or are disguised by, the use of apparently ‘neutral’ language or of ‘scientific’ conventions. ‘Good writing is persuasive partly because of its use of these rhetorical devices, but also because it dares to go beyond them to invent new ways of putting arguments together’ (Gilbert 1993: 329). In many respects Whyte’s work is an expression of this last point.
At another level, the ‘persuasion’ may simply be an invitation to look at an idea because it is interesting. Nigel Gilbert makes the point that articles, books and reports are mainly read by people in a particular community of interest or practice. The shape of the material or the ways in which arguments are presented, ‘are designed by writers for this community and in turn modify the community and its beliefs’ (op cit.).
Second, and crucially, a text ‘comes alive’ at the point of reading rather than that of production. As writers we may use various means in an attempt to encourage other readers to make use of the text in certain ways. However, other readers come with different biographies, at a later time, and may inhabit very different worlds. The sense they make of our efforts, thus, may lead to very different interpretations than those we intended. Indeed, when we as the writers return to the text, we may well reflect that our current experiences of it are different to our earlier ones.
Third, as readers (and hopefully as writers) we subject what we read to certain tests as to its truthfulness and authenticity. In particular, readers will tend to look very carefully at the authenticity and credibility of material. For example, when practitioners pick up texts about practice, they may well look to see if writers provide the required number of signals that they ‘know’ about the work. They may do this through examples; inclusive language: ‘we’, ‘our’ and so on; and by speaking the language or argot of practice.
Framing and opening
This takes us to the question of openings. Central to our encounter with texts is the process of framing. To make sense of them, we have to place or name them. Is what we are reading a scientific report, a romantic novel, a discussion of some historical event? By placing or framing the material we can then develop a set of expectations about it – an initial attitude or orientation.
The title of a piece, the style and form of the opening paragraphs, our initial sense of the shape of the piece (does it have references, how long is it…), these things encourage us into taking a particular position. Having placed it we can draw upon the repertoire of routines, metaphors, images and ideas that we associate with the form. If we recognize something as a comic strip then we may prepare ourselves to laugh or to be amused; if we label it as philosophical treatise then we may look to be edified – to find more interesting ways of viewing the world.
Bem (1981 – quoted by Dane 1990: 217) provides us with four rules or maxims concerning the start of an introduction. These are designed to make easier the job of convincing readers that we have something worthwhile to say. These are:
Write in prose instead of jargon. While some jargon will be necessary it should be carefully rationed. All it does is make writing more difficult to understand.
Avoid putting the reader into the middle of the problem or theory. Introduce the research problem bit by bit.
Begin the introduction with a statement about human behaviour rather than one about research. It generally helps if the first sentence is something that people can relate to experience.
Use examples to introduce, illustrate or expand the technical or abstract points that we wish to make. (Bem 1981 in Dane 1990: 217)
Having got through the opening we then have to be sustained in our framework. Does the piece live up to our expectations? Is it what it seems? The above ‘rules’ are useful for the rest of the text.
Once we recognize the active part readers’ play in relation to texts – and that we need to give certain signals in our writing and its arrangement so that they may place and judge our efforts, then significance of the opening sections of our material becomes clear. Readers have to be invited into a framework; they need to be given room to breathe. A crucial element of this is the shape of the piece. And here we have to think again of audience.
When looking in research methods textbooks there is usually plenty of advice concerning the shape or organization of reports. Dane (1990) provides us with a pretty standard model. This approach begins by setting the scene and moves to more specific statements concerning hypotheses or aims. The methods section has two purposes:
First, you need to provide enough information for the reader to understand how you collected your data. In one sense, the method section is a secondary introduction, for it serves to guide the reader to your results. The second purpose involves providing enough information to enable someone to replicate your research. Thus, the method section is also an archive. (Dane 1990: 219)
The nature of the results/findings section is fairly self-explanatory. In Dane’s portrayal it provides the centre or pivotal point of the hourglass. Only when the results are known is it possible to develop conclusions.
Figure 1: The hour glass view of the research report
Introduction – including general context, theoretical context, empirical context and specific hypothesis.
Method – including participants and procedures.
Results – including analysis and results.
Discussion – including how results fit hypotheses, empirical context of results, theoretical context of results and general context of results.
Dane (1990: 213) comments, that in the hourglass analogy of the research report, ‘The introduction begins leading the reader from very general issues to successively more specific issues until the results, the centre part of the article, are presented. Then, the reader is led back from the very specific results to the most general implications of the results’.
Many other standard approaches add in a conclusion which:
- briefly summarizes what has gone before.
- discusses the implications for practice (your own, the agency etc); policy (the agency, government etc). and for further research and theorizing (<href=”#conclusions”>see below).
While this format may be appropriate for fairly standard ‘academic’ research reports, in other cases it may not fit. Action research is one such area. Some writers, such as Elliot (1991), have argued that we should adopt a case study approach. Reports should, ideally, be based upon analytic memos and adopt a historical format: ‘telling the story as it has unfolded over time’ (ibid.: 88). In other words, the report takes a narrative form. The shape of the piece may well look more like the following:
• Introduction – outlining the research, the focus, and providing details of the context.
• Orienting discussion of method.
• Account of the process including discussion of the ideas and themes arising.
Tone and readability
Mills short piece on intellectual craftsmanship is rightly seen as something of a classic. It isn’t just that the piece is full of good sense – derived from a number of years of experience – it is also that it is written in a way that makes it accessible. It is a benchmark against which we can measure our own efforts. In it we can identify a number of elements that make for readability and here I have compared them with another, quite readable, text: Dewey’s (1916) Democracy and Education.
The sentences tend to be fairly short – between 16 words (Dewey) and 21 words (Mills) per sentence. This is the average length – it is important to vary length so as to keep the interest of the reader.
Paragraph length has been carefully monitored. Here Mills uses an average of seven sentences per paragraph against twelve for Dewey.
Complex language has been watched i.e. Mills does not put too many long words in one sentence. When put through a standard readability test e.g. the Flesch Reading Ease Scale, both Mills and Dewey’s writing comes out on the borderline of ‘difficult’ and ‘fairly difficult’. However, here we must consider the question of audience. The majority of those with an education upto the high school/college crossover point should be able to cope reasonably well with a ‘fairly difficult’ piece.
It is important not to go overboard on this. Approaching some writers and subject areas necessarily involves the sustained use of complex language. Short words do not necessarily make for clarity. Furthermore, if there is not movement and variety in the material then it can easily be experienced as bland.
Voice and person
Many research reports and texts are written in the third person with passive voice. In contrast, study items make significant use of the first person – I – as does much writing about practice. When writing about our practice it would be rather false to continually refer to ourselves as ‘the worker’. It can convey the wrong impression in that much of our concern is to reflect upon, and engage with, our feelings and ideas in action. To talk about he or she when meaning I could raise questions with regard to our ownership of emotions, ideas and experiences. The question of the person is an issue that has arisen in some feminist discussions of research writing. The adoption of the third person can be seen as a device to give a scientific or objective gloss to material that it does not warrant.
Voice is also important. Active voice is more interesting than passive voice:
Participants were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the proposed changes in policy. (Passive)
We asked participants where they stood on the proposed policy changes. (Active)
As Dane (1990: 214) put it, ‘research is an activity, and an active voice conveys that notion’.
Exclusionary and stereotypic writing. There is always a danger of using words or phrases that unintentionally or inappropriately exclude people. The obvious concerns here lie around ‘race’ and gender – and there is plenty of guidance available concerning language use with respect to these (see, for example, the BSA guidelines on these areas).
Tense. Lastly, a brief word about tense. When quoting from, or dealing with the arguments of, others it is probably best to use the past sense: ‘as Delamont (1992) put it…. ‘ This is because Delamont published before the sentence was written. It is perhaps most obvious where you are dealing with someone who is dead (like C. Wright Mills). Similarly, when you are describing your research – this happened in the past. However, for discussion and conclusion – and for instructions to readers – it is usually more appropriate to use the present tense.
The discussion section of the report (if there is a separate one) is the place for detailed analysis and for drawing out specific conclusions that can be sustained by research findings. One standard move is to restate the research problem/question, summarize (briefly!) the relevant results and then to head for the main discussion. A central criteria for inclusion of material here is that it adds something new to the reader’s knowledge and understanding of the study (Dane 1990: 225). This section should not be a reworking of what has gone before.
In the discussion it is important to consider any relevant counter arguments to the line that you are progressing. This is also the place to identify unanswered questions, particular limitations in the study design, and areas for further exploration. A classic formula here for practitioner reports involves attending to implications for:
- The development of work with the particular group or individual. What areas need to be attended to, questions asked etc.?
- The functioning of the agency. Have, for example, particular procedural issues been revealed, questions raised about working practices, or the need demonstrated for a wider change in policy?
- Policy and practice in the wider field.
- Further research – either general in the field, or for you or the agency. Your study may have highlighted gaps in the literature, or in the knowledge base of the agency.
- Your development as a practitioner. Here particular areas of expertise or skill may need to be enhanced, or some attitude or orientation explored.
Some models of the research report recommend a specific, separate, summary and conclusions section. Certainly, reports require some form of rounding off – but another restatement of what has gone before can be simply boring. One possible strategy is to bring readers back to the starting point. Another, is to revisit your overall conclusion but in relation to a specific concrete example. Yet another is to take matters back to a broad statement of principle.
Last, but not least
In this item we have been looking at some of the mechanics of writing a research report or study. There is always the danger in this area of viewing the process as a technical exercise. We take a standard structure and apply it to our material. Reflective practice entails experimentation, and trying to build theories and routines around the particular situations that we encounter. Here we can leave the last word with C. Wright Mills:
Be a good craftsman: avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist; let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of a craft. (Mills 1959: 224)
Further reading and references
Atkinson, P. (1990) The Ethnographic Imagination. Textual constructions of reality, London: Routledge. 195 + viii pages. Explores how sociologists use literary and rhetorical conventions to convey their findings and arguments, and to ‘persuade’ their colleagues and students of the authenticity of their accounts. That is what the blurb claims – and Atkinson certainly raises a number of fascinating points concerning poetics and representation.
Becker, H. S. (1986) Writing for Social Scientists. How to start and finish your thesis, book or article, Chicago: University of Chicago. 180 + xii pages. Affectionate and committed review that draws heavily on Becker’s own experiences. Plenty of sound advice on subjects such as ‘writer’s block'; rewriting and revising; dealing with the literature; writing clearly and so on.
Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G. and Williams, J. M. (1995) The Craft of Research, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 294 + xii. Less about research methodology, as the process of asking questions, finding answers; making claims and supporting them; and preparing to draft, drafting and revising. Easy to read; full of practical tips; and very good on the building of arguments. Excellent!
Clifford, J. and Marcus, G. E. (1986) Writing Culture. The poetics and politics of ethnography, Berkeley: University of California Press. Rich collection that explores ethnography as literature.
Dane, F. C. (1990) Research Methods, Pacific Grove, Ca.: Brooks Cole. 348 + xviii pages. Well written text that looks to be the result of many years teaching. Has put the needs of the reader at the centre of the enterprise – so there is a nice lead into substantive issues. Some good chapters on quantitative design, analysis and writing-up.
Delamont, S. (1992) Fieldwork in Educational Settings. Methods, pitfalls and perspectives, London: Falmer. 218 + viii pages. Written by a practising researcher, this book provides a lively exploration of qualitative research. Includes chapters on recognizing good fieldwork and reading wisely; impediments to good fieldwork; writing diaries, data and texts ; choosing topics; gaining access; recording early days in the field; collecting data; maintaining relationships in the field; terminating fieldwork; analysing and theorizing; producing the thesis. Lots of sound advice.
Golden-Biddle, K. and Locke, K. D. (1997) Writing Matters. Crafting theoretical points from qualitative research, Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage. 112 pages. Uses the metaphor of ‘story’ top explore how data may be transformed. Chapters on the styles and practice of professional writing; crafting the storyline; characterizing the storyteller; rewriting the story.
Orna, L. and Stevens, G. (1995) Managing Information for Research, Buckingham: Open University Press. 192 pages. Covers various issues such as transforming knowledge into written forms; managing time; organizing information; transforming information from written sources into usable knowledge; presenting material.
Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press. 234 pages. The appendix is a classic statement of ‘intellectual craftsmanship’ – and has to be one of the best short pieces ever written about the process of research.
Elliot, J. (1991) Action Research for Educational Change, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Gilbert, N. (ed.) (1993) Researching Social Life, London: Sage.
Whyte, W. F. (1955) Street Corner Society. The social structure of an Italian slum (2nd ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Acknowledgement: Picture: Writing in the park by Roey Ahram. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/roeyahram/6659760491/
How to cite this piece: Smith, K. K. (1999). ‘Writing up research and evaluation’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/writing-up-research-and-evaluation/. Retrieved: enter date]
© Mark K. Smith. First published July 1999.