Richard McCracken’s top 10 case writing tips

Over a series of blogs in November and December 2017, Richard McCracken, The Case Centre Director, ran through his top 10 case writing tips.

In case you missed this series on Richard’s blog, or via our social media channels, you can recap here.

It is a teaching case

My first tip when writing a case is remember that you’re producing a teaching case. You’re not writing about best practice, and don’t tell us how the story ends, or you’ll leave little for students to discuss in the classroom. You want discussion and learning to come alive from your case, with students thinking What if…? You have to find a way of combining clear text with intellectual uncertainty and ambiguity.

simpleKeeping things simple

By the same token, don’t get clever either. Keep the structure simple and illustrate the basic information i.e. who, what, where and when? Don’t offer the solution to the problem, as that’s for the teaching note and no writer of a mystery story exposes the mystery.

Fiction

A teaching case is a work of fiction. Even if it is built on field research, a case is a made thing – you construct it. However, you do need to apply a dose of reality, as if you don’t believe something is real, don’t include it.

numbers

It’s all about the maths

Don’t forget your maths! A teaching case is a story with numbers, so people reading it are going to need to understand them; make sure the maths fits with your story. Also, understand the learning you want to provoke.

Understanding the story

You and your students need to understand the story, so write clearly and simply, edit and check your grammar and spelling. Think of each sentence, each paragraph, and each story as a tree. The object, the purpose, the story of the case is the trunk. Other information grows from the trunk like branches. Your writing is much easier to understand when you start with the trunk and move to the branches. This is the reverse of much academic writing, which starts with multiple observations (the branches) and proceeds towards a conclusion (the trunk). Make sure you understand the story. If you don’t, you get something that’s barely able to look a student in the eye let alone deliver anything of value in the classroom. 

The importance of redrafts

Redrafts are essential, as Terry Pratchett (fantasy novel writer) suggests: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” Before teaching the case, find a friendly colleague willing to read your draft and give critical feedback. Redraft.

ValueValue in the classroom is the only true value

Producing a case that is valued in the classroom is all that matters. Teaching your case in classroom will help it come alive, you know all of its nuances. Ask your students for their thoughts, reflect on the experience, redraft, make it even better.

Test your colleague’s friendship

Ask your colleague to observe you teaching the case and give critical feedback. Better still; ask them to test drive the case by teaching it while you observe. Redraft.

Don’t be seenDon't be seen

The rule of invisibility. The case doesn’t belong to you, the owner is the protagonist. Write their case with empathy, rapport and respect. You must be invisible. The principle of invisibility also applies to your views on what the protagonists should do next, or displaying your academic credentials, or any other irresistible urge that rips away the cloak of invisibility. Remember the point of the case is to generate sustained, complex, useful discussion in the classroom. Ask, how much can I leave out?  Not, how much can I include?

Own the teaching note

The teaching note belongs to you, and a good teaching note is arguably more important than the case itself. The teaching note is where you can suggest how and which theory can illuminate the analysis and discussion. It is also where you share and support other teachers in using your case. Be explicit about your own experience in teaching the case. Be generous with your knowledge. Don’t hide or keep to yourself the content you found useful. What level did you teach it at? What was the student reaction? Did different groups of students display typical patterns in moving through the discussion?

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