Writing a case study is kind of like being Santiago, the aging fisherman in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It takes days to catch an 18-foot marlin, and then once you manage it, the sharks eat it. (That is, your case study goes through a rigorous editing and review process). But you get some sleep and live to write another case study.
Which is to say: writing case studies is hard. Of course, it gets easier because case studies follow a strict editorial form. Once you’re practiced with it, the process can go pretty smoothly. If you want to write case studies, here are a few of my best tips to help you get started.
1. Rely on your advanced training. You have to be a writer to do this job. If you lack knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and composition, you will fail to meet standards of excellence and meaning—which should be the goals of effective case study writing.
2. Conduct a useful customer interview. The majority of your case study will be based on the customer interview. See Ten Tips for Interviewing Customers for ideas about how to effectively get a narrative from the customer. The interview transcript will serve as the foundation for your writing efforts.
3. Look for a lead. Some great case studies have journalistic leads that articulate the news value of the story and set up a narrative. The majority of case studies, however, start with a paragraph that features basic information describing the customer and its services. If you can weave a compelling lead into the piece, you have an opportunity to grab the reader’s interest.
4. Keep writing. Writing a case study takes quite a bit of time, so you need a pretty good attention span. I spend hours writing a draft, restructuring sentences and paragraphs, and seeking the best flow for the message. To get started, remember that the character (the customer or the person quoted in the story) has a problem—known as an “inciting incident” in fiction circles—and that’s the basis of your story. Start with the customer’s challenge and build from there.
5. Break it down. Here’s a trick. As you’re reading through the customer interview transcript, take each bit of relevant information and compose a sentence or two. Place those sentences in the right section of the case study—the challenge, the implementation, or the results section. If the customer provided compelling quotes, compose those quotes and add them to the appropriate sections. The idea here is to coordinate a structure before you have finessed the content. After you develop rough sentences in the right places, you can go back and rewrite concepts, reconstruct paragraphs, and create a strong narrative.
6. Find the right verb. In my work, I often write about technology and sometimes I get impatient because I seem to use the same verbs again and again. Some typical technology verbs include: implement, deploy, migrate, use, employ, take advantage of, facilitate, enable, need, want, adopt, and so on. Verbs are the heart of language. You should take verbs very seriously (but with a light touch) and use a variety of them. Find just the right verb—precise and accurate—to make your point in composition.
7. Use positive constructions as much as possible. If you focus on positive language constructions in your writing, you will get a more robust result. For example, instead of writing, “Company XYZ didn’t have a desktop infrastructure,” you should write, “Company XYZ needed a desktop infrastructure.” This falls in line with the guidelines that Hemingway learned working as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”
8. Avoid marketing speak. Hemingway was known for his lean, hard, athletic prose. Strive for the same elements in case study writing. Jargon and overblown language is inappropriate. Although case studies are, in essence, a component of marketing collateral, the job of a case study—which often finds its way into the hands of people deciding whether or not to buy a product or service—is to be sober and credible. Its effectiveness is in proving the utility of a certain solution and helping ensure a sale. Avoid marketing speak and—at all costs—exclamation points. (That should pretty much go without saying.) People instinctively trust a story, so tell the story and keep it real.
9. Know when it’s over. One key to storytelling is to know when your tale is finished. Keep your customer evidence concise, clear, and to the point. Hemingway’s old man knew that it was over when the sharks had eaten the crumbs of his prized-catch marlin. The most important thing is that you have described the change that the company has realized. The results section of a case study is fairly formulaic—you only need to articulate the solution’s benefits under relevant subheadings and include substantiating quotes. The results section will include some of your strongest pull quotes. As with every other section, trim your copy as much as possible to describe only the relevant details, and nothing more.
10. Work it. Readers are paying attention to your nonfiction customer evidence story because they have to make decisions about what solutions to adopt at their company. Still, a case study should have elements of storytelling, including regular instances of surprise and delight. A case study should feature at least one “moment of insight”—that’s another fiction writing metaphor for when a character has an “aha” moment. In case studies, it usually involves the character discovering how well a solution has solved a company’s business problems. For example, let your reader know when the subject of the case study realized that a cloud-based business model was going to change the competitive landscape forever. And remember, sometimes it’s the reader who has the moment of insight. You just have to lead him or her to it.