Tips for writing features #9: Case studies will always surprise you

Allison Tait author
Posted on August 11, 2011

tips for writing features #9One of the biggest questions that new freelance writers have is all about case studies. How to find them. What to ask them. (Yes, that’s more than one question, but you get the idea.)

So I’ve written a post to address the vexing question of case studies.

I’ve spent much of my week looking for ‘real people’ for various things. I love the term ‘real people’. Like celebrities aren’t people. Or real. Which, I guess, in a way they’re not. I’ve written before about finding ‘real people’, so this post will not go into the trials and tribulations of life pre-internet (“does anyone know anyone…?”), nor how much I love Twitter for its instant gratification approach to rustling up case studies. Instead, I want to focus on the ‘surprise’ factor of case studies.

When I worked at CLEO in the late 90s, we were all about the case study. All magazines were. It was new and exciting stuff to feature ‘real people’ in those days. Prior to that, mags had been full of stories by staff writers featuring ‘my friend Alice’. No identifying details, no photographs. Suddenly, it was all about pics. Two of my first assignments when I joined the team were to find eight women of all shapes and sizes to pose nude, followed by ten men of all shapes and, er, sizes to pose nude. My friends started to avoid my calls after those two.

It always surprised me what people were willing to share with the hundreds of thousands of readers of a magazine. Why their wedding dresses hung, unworn and forlorn, in their wardrobes. How many times a week (or even day) they had sex. What they really thought about their partner’s dress sense – and what they’d prefer he or she wear. How their mothers made them fat/thin/happy/unhappy/mad. Where they thought the clitoris was (not always where one might expect). For every idea we came up with in a features meeting, there’d be (eventually, after a lot of stress) at least three people willing to share their stories.

Often I’d be asked ‘do you make that stuff up?’ My response? “I couldn’t if I tried.” The thing that always amazes me about case studies is how incredibly interesting people are once you start talking to them. Everyone has a story and I feel so privileged to be able to ask them all about it, even if it’s only a tiny part of their lives that my feature is focusing on.

I also learned early on what a responsibility it is. To listen hard. To question the details. To get it right. And to be aware, even if they’re not, that words take on extra weight when they’re printed and published.

So, tips for interviewing ‘real people’.

*Firstly, get the names right. It’s the one thing they’ll never forgive you for getting wrong.

*Be prepared to have a ‘chat’ to begin. Talk about the weather. Kids. Dogs. Whatever works. You need to establish some kind of connection before you hit them with questions about their sex life/birth story/shoe size.

*Have a list of questions ready to go, but be prepared to wander down a few side roads to get the best story possible – so often the crux of a case study has come from an aside or from a little throwaway remark right at the end of an interview.

*Sometimes you’ll need to ask the same question two or three different ways to elicit the response you want. And be prepared to discover that the response you thought you wanted may not be the best response on the day.

*Know when to stop. Sometimes, particularly if the subject is intense, it can feel awkward to extricate yourself from the conversation. Be gentle, professional and firm. This may sound like a strange piece of advice, but as someone who always wants to know more and has to stop herself asking people round for coffee, it’s a lesson learned the hard way.

So (and here I am being gentle, professional and firm) that’s it. Any questions?


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  1. Mrs Catch

    What a fascinating job. I can imagine there would have been a bit of stress on occasions. You can’t conjure up nude posers in a hurry, can you

  2. Salamander

    See, this is why I love talking to people. I may not be a hot-shot journalist writing awesome case studies, but I love talking to new people. You can meet some fascinating people, no matter where you are. And they call me a chatterbox like it’s a bad thing!! (Although, I’m not so sure about the nudity…)

  3. MultipleMum

    I never did see that cellulite story you talked me into…

  4. alison@thisbloominglife

    As an historian and curator, I would often ‘joke’ that I was part counsellor. It is truly amazing what people will say when you interview them sensitively. I totally get your tips. They are very much what we use when getting people to open up with the ‘tricky’ parts of their stories. And then the decision comes about what to share with the general public. My favourite was the condoms found in a caravan donated to a museum. Every single one of the family denied…when they were together. Seperately, could have been any of them – they were all studs! Thanks, I’ve been enjoying your blog (only discovering the technology now – what a dag).

  5. Jayne

    A very timely post, Al! We’ve just been covering case studies (and the anonymity that went with profiles and stories many years ago, and the move toward including pictures) in the course I’m doing with the Sydney Writers Centre.

    Thanks for this! x

  6. Sarah

    While in the US I ended up chatting to so many people and every single one of them had a ‘story.’ From the man who’d lost his legs in a car accident a year ago and was now stranded at an airport waiting for a bus through to Mr Reynolds the taxi driver who had a toy dog for company. Everyone has a story, the question is getting them to tell it. That said, I wasn’t asking any of them to pose nude….

  7. Jodi @ The Scribble Den

    Great post Al. I still love reading about real people which is why I love authentic blogs.

  8. Ms Styling You

    I’m always amazed at the requests from journos coming through SourceBottle. As an olden days journo who had to get out of the office, bribe friends to dob in their friends for case studies, young folk today have got it so easy!
    PS. You can interview me about how often I “blog” anytime.

  9. Maxabella

    With the explosion of ‘out there’ blogs the humble case study seems almost demure. Times have really changed, I think. I wonder if for the better sometimes?! x

  10. A Farmer's Wife

    I love this post. I honestly thought that you all just got together and made up the case studies! I thoroughly agree though about some stuff being so bizarre that you couldn’t make it up.

    Take care.

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