Wolcott Writing Up Qualitative Research: Getting Going
Wolcott, H.F. (1990). Writing up qualitative research. London: Sage.
Chapter 2: Getting Going
How to Begin
- Find a workspace that suits you.
- Establish a routine. Set a writing time. Honor writing rituals but don't let them distract you.
- First, WRITE a statement of purpose. "...it is sentence number one of paragraph number one of chapter number one (p. 16)."
- Second, WRITE a detailed written outline at best or a sequence at least. A detailed table of contents (TOC) can also serve as the detailed written outline.
- Third, "Determine the basic story you are going to tell, who is to do the telling, and what representational style you will follow for joining observer and observed (p. 18)."
- For doctoral students:
- Include a detailed TOC with a dissertation proposal. The TOC should include an estimated number of pages for each chapter.
- "Their (doctoral students) first attempts (of writing a detailed table of contents) often reveal more rigidity in their perception of the structure of a dissertation than actually exists (p. 17)."
- Students should know the relevant literature of their field, but they should not dump it all into one chapter. The literature included should be connected to the study. "I want them to draw upon the literature selectively and appropriately as needed in the telling of their story (p. 17)."
- Sometimes the relevant literature is more appropriate in the data analysis section. However, the problem also needs to be "nested" or located in the research, which should come in the introduction.
- "The major problem we face in qualitative inquiry is not to get data, but to get rid of it (p. 18)!"
- "I write descriptive accounts in the first person (p. 19)."
- "Perhaps a more compelling case can be made on behalf of matching the formality of the writing with the formality of the approach. The more critical the observer's role and subjective assessment, the more important to have that role and presence acknowledge in the reporting (p. 19)."
When to Begin
- "Not surprisingly, I regard my most effective reading as reading done in tandem with writing - that is, purposeful reading (and casual reading as well) done while I am engaged in fieldwork and/or preparing a manuscript (p. 21)."
- Wolcott is more inclined to believe that writing is a form of thinking rather than merely reflecting thinking.
- "Writers who indulge themselves by waiting until their thoughts are 'clear' run the risk of never starting at all (p. 21)."
- "Can you force yourself to enter into arrogance and begin to write in spite of the fact that you do not yet know as much as you feel you ought to know (p. 21)?"
- Writing can provide a purpose for reading.
- "Write a preliminary draft of the study. Then begin the research (p. 22)."
- "Student writing most often is done on a hurried, one-shot basis, with neither time nor motivation for the reflection and revisions that lead to better writing. The entire process of drafting and revising is short-circuited in the tasks and timelines confronting students. We want them to become accomplished writers, but do not provide opportunities for them to practice what we have discovered necessary to accomplish it (p. 23)." I would also add the limited feedback we get about our writing.
Where to Begin
- Start where you are comfortable.
- The methods section may start with basic description.
In your methods section, you must tell your reader (p. 27):
- The nature and extent of your data base
- When the fieldwork was conducted. Be specific.
- Your role. Be specific on the extent of your involvement.
- The role and nature of the interviews.
- The extent that data was checked.
- "Our failure to render full and complete disclosure about our data-gathering procedures gives our methodologically oriented colleagues fits (p. 27)."
- Readers should know enough about your study to critique it and discount its findings.
- "Unless you prove to be a gifted conceptualizer or interpreter, the descriptive account is likely to constitute the most important contribution you have to make (p. 27)."
- The story can be organized into the chronology of the events or the chronology of the events as you learned them.
- "Whether to weave description and interpretation together or keep them separate - as separate chapters, if one wishes to be dramatic about it - is again a matter of storyteller strategy and personal style. Whatever your decision, do not lose sight of the fact that there is no such things as pure or natural description (p. 28)."
- "Without some idea of what is to be described, there can be no description (p. 28)."
- "The less theoretically inclined among us stake our reputations on solid ('thick,' whatever that is) description, but we also are socialized into the norms of various disciplines (p. 29)."
- "My assessment of qualitative studies in education is that they reveal a tendency toward heavy-handed or intrusive analysis, particularly among educational researchers who feel they not only know their educator audiences but know what is best for them. Informants in their accounts do little talking; the research does a lot. Every reported observation or quotation seems to prompt comment or interpretation on the part of the researcher (now turned theorist), something like the chatty guide who becomes rather than gives the tour - and assumes that, without such a monologue, we would not know what to think. I dub studies that exhibit intrusive analysis 'Grounded Theory - But Just Barely.' A variation of this approach occurs when researchers draw back the curtain to let us watch events unfold but constantly interrupt the account with scholarly interjections, as if duty-bound to remind us of their academic presence (p.29)." Separate description and interpretation. Pay attention "...to how other researchers handle the interplay between observational data and academic tradition. You may be surprised (even disappointed) to discover that some studies you previously regarded as exemplars of descriptive work actually are constructed upon a conceptual framework, with case data playing on an illustrative role (p. 29)." What do I think about this statement? Is that contrary to what we have been taught?
- "This litany of limitations applicable in general to all qualitative research should be coupled with an underscoring of any element deserving of special mention in your particular study. The purpose in putting all this in writing early is that having said it once you do not have to repeat it every time you introduce a new topic or propose some interpretation (p. 30)."
The Problem of Focus
- Go to lunch with a colleague to talk about your research. Even if the colleague isn't as helpful as anticipated, having the opportunity to vocalize your research could prove fruitful to you.
- We could think of research as problem setting rather than problem solving. (p. 31)
- "...our research questions themselves remain under continual scrutiny (p. 32)."
- "Data gathering and data analysis inform the problem statement, just as the statement informs the data gathering (p. 32)."
Problems of Sorting and Organizing Data
- Questions to ask ourselves: "What is going on here? What do people in this setting have to know (individually or collectively) in order to do what they are doing (p. 32)?"
- Sort or develop theory. Do not do both at the same time.