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What Is Qualitative Writing?

Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden

Qualitative writing is a form of writing that relies on non-numerical detail and description instead of a presentation of quantified, numerical data. The distinction is often very important in fields of research that can rely either on numerical data or on qualitative descriptions. Useful qualitative writing must still maintain a high degree of precision and careful use of language despite the lack of precise numerical data. Case studies, particularly in sociological and psychological fields, often result in research papers devoid of precise quantified data. In such cases, exact and careful discussion of methods used and results observed is extremely important, as language is the only way to communicate findings that do not return precise numerical results.

In the absence of quantitative data, the writer must rely entirely on language to express gathered data in qualitative writing. This can be both practically and ethically difficult, given the difficulties of expressing some observations in words and the ease with which one can use language to subtly express a certain opinion. A reader is free to make his own judgments when examining a table containing objective numerical data about an experiment, for example. When one must use qualitative writing, however, it is important to strive for the same level of objectivity through precise use of language and through the conscious omission of anything that could influence the opinions of the reader.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

One highly important aspect of expressing observations though qualitative writing is describing the methods used to obtain those observations in a clear manner. A reader can develop a much clearer understanding of the findings presented if he understands the context in which they were found. The reader can also identify any potential biases or problems with the results that could be introduced by the methods used. The purpose of qualitative writing in the context of research is generally to present some final analytic finding. The presented results can only be considered valid in the context of the methods used to obtain them.

Other forms of traditionally non-numerical writing, such as fiction and poetry, are seldom labeled as "qualitative writing." Technically, they do tend to be qualitative writing by virtue of lacking numerical data, but labeling these types of writing as such is not often fruitful because such writing is generally assumed to rely on language rather than on data. The term is, therefore, most commonly used to refer to formal research-based writing, as the division between qualitative and quantitative data is very important in the context of research. Building the writing skills necessary to objectively and clearly express non-numerical research findings is of the utmost importance to those who commonly conduct non-numerical research.

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