This set of guidelines provides both instructions and a template for the writing of case reports for publication. You might want to skip forward and take a quick look at the template now, as we will be using it as the basis for your own case study later on. While the guidelines and template contain much detail, your finished case study should be only 500 to 1,500 words in length. Therefore, you will need to write efficiently and avoid unnecessarily flowery language.
These guidelines for the writing of case studies are designed to be consistent with the “Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals” referenced elsewhere in the JCCA instructions to authors.
After this brief introduction, the guidelines below will follow the headings of our template. Hence, it is possible to work section by section through the template to quickly produce a first draft of your study. To begin with, however, you must have a clear sense of the value of the study which you wish to describe. Therefore, before beginning to write the study itself, you should gather all of the materials relevant to the case – clinical notes, lab reports, x-rays etc. – and form a clear picture of the story that you wish to share with your profession. At the most superficial level, you may want to ask yourself “What is interesting about this case?” Keep your answer in mind as your write, because sometimes we become lost in our writing and forget the message that we want to convey.
Another important general rule for writing case studies is to stick to the facts. A case study should be a fairly modest description of what actually happened. Speculation about underlying mechanisms of the disease process or treatment should be restrained. Field practitioners and students are seldom well-prepared to discuss physiology or pathology. This is best left to experts in those fields. The thing of greatest value that you can provide to your colleagues is an honest record of clinical events.
Finally, remember that a case study is primarily a chronicle of a patient’s progress, not a story about chiropractic. Editorial or promotional remarks do not belong in a case study, no matter how great our enthusiasm. It is best to simply tell the story and let the outcome speak for itself. With these points in mind, let’s begin the process of writing the case study:
Title: The title page will contain the full title of the article. Remember that many people may find our article by searching on the internet. They may have to decide, just by looking at the title, whether or not they want to access the full article. A title which is vague or non-specific may not attract their attention. Thus, our title should contain the phrase “case study,” “case report” or “case series” as is appropriate to the contents. The two most common formats of titles are nominal and compound. A nominal title is a single phrase, for example “A case study of hypertension which responded to spinal manipulation.” A compound title consists of two phrases in succession, for example “Response of hypertension to spinal manipulation: a case study.” Keep in mind that titles of articles in leading journals average between 8 and 9 words in length.
Other contents for the title page should be as in the general JCCA instructions to authors. Remember that for a case study, we would not expect to have more than one or two authors. In order to be listed as an author, a person must have an intellectual stake in the writing – at the very least they must be able to explain and even defend the article. Someone who has only provided technical assistance, as valuable as that may be, may be acknowledged at the end of the article, but would not be listed as an author. Contact information – either home or institutional – should be provided for each author along with the authors’ academic qualifications. If there is more than one author, one author must be identified as the corresponding author – the person whom people should contact if they have questions or comments about the study.
Key words: Provide key words under which the article will be listed. These are the words which would be used when searching for the article using a search engine such as Medline. When practical, we should choose key words from a standard list of keywords, such as MeSH (Medical subject headings). A copy of MeSH is available in most libraries. If we can’t access a copy and we want to make sure that our keywords are included in the MeSH library, we can visit this address: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov:80/entrez/meshbrowser.cgi
Abstract: Abstracts generally follow one of two styles, narrative or structured.
A narrative abstract consists of a short version of the whole paper. There are no headings within the narrative abstract. The author simply tries to summarize the paper into a story which flows logically.
A structured abstract uses subheadings. Structured abstracts are becoming more popular for basic scientific and clinical studies, since they standardize the abstract and ensure that certain information is included. This is very useful for readers who search for articles on the internet. Often the abstract is displayed by a search engine, and on the basis of the abstract the reader will decide whether or not to download the full article (which may require payment of a fee). With a structured abstract, the reader is more likely to be given the information which they need to decide whether to go on to the full article, and so this style is encouraged. The JCCA recommends the use of structured abstracts for case studies.
Introduction: This consists of one or two sentences to describe the context of the case and summarize the entire article.
Case presentation: Several sentences describe the history and results of any examinations performed. The working diagnosis and management of the case are described.
Management and Outcome: Simply describe the course of the patient’s complaint. Where possible, make reference to any outcome measures which you used to objectively demonstrate how the patient’s condition evolved through the course of management.
Discussion: Synthesize the foregoing subsections and explain both correlations and apparent inconsistencies. If appropriate to the case, within one or two sentences describe the lessons to be learned.
Introduction: At the beginning of these guidelines we suggested that we need to have a clear idea of what is particularly interesting about the case we want to describe. The introduction is where we convey this to the reader. It is useful to begin by placing the study in a historical or social context. If similar cases have been reported previously, we describe them briefly. If there is something especially challenging about the diagnosis or management of the condition that we are describing, now is our chance to bring that out. Each time we refer to a previous study, we cite the reference (usually at the end of the sentence). Our introduction doesn’t need to be more than a few paragraphs long, and our objective is to have the reader understand clearly, but in a general sense, why it is useful for them to be reading about this case.
Case presentation: This is the part of the paper in which we introduce the raw data. First, we describe the complaint that brought the patient to us. It is often useful to use the patient’s own words. Next, we introduce the important information that we obtained from our history-taking. We don’t need to include every detail – just the information that helped us to settle on our diagnosis. Also, we should try to present patient information in a narrative form – full sentences which efficiently summarize the results of our questioning. In our own practice, the history usually leads to a differential diagnosis – a short list of the most likely diseases or disorders underlying the patient’s symptoms. We may or may not choose to include this list at the end of this section of the case presentation.
The next step is to describe the results of our clinical examination. Again, we should write in an efficient narrative style, restricting ourselves to the relevant information. It is not necessary to include every detail in our clinical notes.
If we are using a named orthopedic or neurological test, it is best to both name and describe the test (since some people may know the test by a different name). Also, we should describe the actual results, since not all readers will have the same understanding of what constitutes a “positive” or “negative” result.
X-rays or other images are only helpful if they are clear enough to be easily reproduced and if they are accompanied by a legend. Be sure that any information that might identify a patient is removed before the image is submitted.
At this point, or at the beginning of the next section, we will want to present our working diagnosis or clinical impression of the patient.
Management and Outcome: In this section, we should clearly describe the plan for care, as well as the care which was actually provided, and the outcome.
It is useful for the reader to know how long the patient was under care and how many times they were treated. Additionally, we should be as specific as possible in describing the treatment that we used. It does not help the reader to simply say that the patient received “chiropractic care.” Exactly what treatment did we use? If we used spinal manipulation, it is best to name the technique, if a common name exists, and also to describe the manipulation. Remember that our case study may be read by people who are not familiar with spinal manipulation, and, even within chiropractic circles, nomenclature for technique is not well standardized.
We may want to include the patient’s own reports of improvement or worsening. However, whenever possible we should try to use a well-validated method of measuring their improvement. For case studies, it may be possible to use data from visual analogue scales (VAS) for pain, or a journal of medication usage.
It is useful to include in this section an indication of how and why treatment finished. Did we decide to terminate care, and if so, why? Did the patient withdraw from care or did we refer them to another practitioner?
Discussion: In this section we may want to identify any questions that the case raises. It is not our duty to provide a complete physiological explanation for everything that we observed. This is usually impossible. Nor should we feel obligated to list or generate all of the possible hypotheses that might explain the course of the patient’s condition. If there is a well established item of physiology or pathology which illuminates the case, we certainly include it, but remember that we are writing what is primarily a clinical chronicle, not a basic scientific paper. Finally, we summarize the lessons learned from this case.
Acknowledgments: If someone provided assistance with the preparation of the case study, we thank them briefly. It is neither necessary nor conventional to thank the patient (although we appreciate what they have taught us). It would generally be regarded as excessive and inappropriate to thank others, such as teachers or colleagues who did not directly participate in preparation of the paper.
References: References should be listed as described elsewhere in the instructions to authors. Only use references that you have read and understood, and actually used to support the case study. Do not use more than approximately 15 references without some clear justification. Try to avoid using textbooks as references, since it is assumed that most readers would already have this information. Also, do not refer to personal communication, since readers have no way of checking this information.
A popular search engine for English-language references is Medline: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi
Legends: If we used any tables, figures or photographs, they should be accompanied by a succinct explanation. A good rule for graphs is that they should contain sufficient information to be generally decipherable without reference to a legend.
Tables, figures and photographs should be included at the end of the manuscript.
Permissions: If any tables, figures or photographs, or substantial quotations, have been borrowed from other publications, we must include a letter of permission from the publisher. Also, if we use any photographs which might identify a patient, we will need their written permission.
In addition, patient consent to publish the case report is also required.
There is a difference between learning how to create a case study and learning how to create a case study that is memorable. That persuades. That sings from the rooftops, “Just look at these results — you know you want to work with us!”
Unfortunately, many of the case studies I’ve read are boring, self-aggrandizing, and uninspiring. That’s because most organizations know they need case studies, but fall terribly short in execution.
It’s kind of like that old saying, “It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.”
There is an art to creating a case study that will be the proverbial milkshake bringing all the prospects to the yard. So, today I’m going to teach you everything you need to know on how to create a case study that attracts the right buyer personas and helps you close deals.
(I'm also going to share my personal, free case study template with you that makes creating case studies a breeze!)
But First, What Is a Case Study?
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of pulling together your case study, I want to give you a quick refresher on what a case study actually is.
I know, I know; You’re a pro. But in order to write a killer case study, you need to understand its purpose, as it will inform every decision you’ll make as you go through this process -- plus, it's never a bad thing to brush up.
We all know that case studies are critical when it comes to nurturing prospects through the buyer’s journey. This is particularly true since potential customers are usually about 70 to 90 percent of the way through the buyer’s journey before they reach out to someone in sales -- and by that point, they’re still going to ingest about 11.4 pieces of content before they make their final purchasing decision.
That’s why your content strategy needs to cover more than just eBooks, blogs, and podcasts targeting the awareness and consideration stages.
When done well, case studies can be invaluable inbound marketing tools during that critical decision stage, when prospects are evaluating who is going to help solve their problem -- and you want them to choose you.
Case studies are also indispensable during the sales process, once a brave prospect has decided yes, they crave the human connection only a sales rep can provide. So, every time you create a case study, ask yourself:
"Would my sales team consider this case study valuable and compelling enough to send to a prospect to help them close a deal?"
If the answer is no, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get to work on how to create a case study…
Step 1: Pick Your Case Study Subject
In my experience, one of the most common reasons a client’s case study has gone off the rails is the foundation of their case study was flawed from the start. In other words, they chose the wrong subject to spotlight.
That’s why you need to vet the focus of your case study before you begin work on it.
Fortunately, there is some good news: When it comes to the scope of the work you choose to feature, size doesn’t matter.
One-off projects (infographics, branding), a short sprint campaign (promoting an event, new content offer), or a long-term, strategic endeavor that took months to complete (website redesign, software implementation)… they’re all viable candidates for your next case study.
But what do the most successful case study subjects have in common? Well, the easiest way to answer that is by telling you what to avoid.
- The project should not still be in progress. You can’t write aspirational case studies, where there is “hope” or “intent” to bring about certain results. That would be like Michael Crichton ending Jurassic Park while the dinosaurs were still running around, eating people. “Don’t worry, I’m sure someone will get the power back on and save the day. The end.”
- If your client is not happy with the work you produced, move on. This should be obvious, but given that we were once put in this exact situation (and our client’s client was more than happy to share how unhappy they were during our case study interview), I’m going to throw in this reminder. When it comes to your case study, you should not be the only one satisfied with what you delivered. Even if they are happy, however...
- If you don’t have results to share, you don’t have a case study. It’s that simple. So, if you’re still in a pilot phase, waiting for results, hold off.
If any of this rings true for a project you’re considering for a case study, set it aside. It’s not case study material. The best case studies highlight completed work supported by measurable results that show how you solved a problem for a now-happy client.
Step 2: Gather Your Information
Once you’ve identified your case study subject, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and go on a fact-finding mission. There are a lot of questions you’ll need to answers before you start working on a draft and you’ll probably need to talk to a number of different people in order to get them.
- Which of your personas will this case study target?
- What problem did your client need solved?
- Why were you chosen to help them solve it?
- How did you approach the challenge?
- What was the ultimate solution, and how long did it take to implement?
- What benefits or results did your client see as a result of your work immediately?
- What benefits or results did your client see as a result of your work over time?
- Do you have a client testimonial?
The goal is to gather as much information as possible across the entire story:
First: Who is your client, and what is their problem or goal?
Next: How did you help them solve their problem?
Finally: Did everyone live happily ever after? Great! Prove it.
"Wait, How Do I Know All of the Questions I Need to Have Answered?"
I am so glad you asked!
To make your life a bit easier, I’ve pulled together this free case study template. It contains every single question you should ask when gathering information for your case study.
The questions are also grouped by where they fall within your “story," and I've included prompts if you feel stuck or need inspiration for certain questions.
One of my favorite things about this case study template is that you’ll be able to spot gaps in your story immediately. Are you light on results? Did you forget to ask for a testimonial? It’ll all be at your fingertips, in a single, well-organized document.
Step 3: Write Your Case Study
With your completed case study template, writing it should be a breeze. But like I said at the start of this, your case study will live and die by your ability to craft a narrative that is memorable.
There are two ways you accomplish this: tone down the fluff and be persuasive.
Minimize Your Editorializing
Whenever I’ve worked on a project I’m particularly proud of, I have a tendency to provide way too many superfluous details.
It’s just because I’m excited, but in the context of a case study, this kind of overeditorializing can make it look like you’re trying to fluff or pad your case study, because your results are flimsy.
Instead, streamline your narrative and your language.
Every detail you include should serve one purpose: to support the thesis of your case study. If it doesn’t, cut it out.
(No one cares if it was raining when you came up with that brilliant idea to drive website conversions, or that your shirt was blue when you thought up that ideal tagline for a new product.)
Also, avoid words or phrases that attempt to influence an opinion, such as unnecessary adverbs or adjectives.
For example, if you’re showcasing a branding project, don’t say the final logo was “beautifully designed.” That kind of statement should only be shared if it’s a testimonial from a client — the client's opinion of your work is the one that matters, not yours.
Put Your Persuasive Writing Skills to Work
Your case study should inspire people to take action. They should want to immediately pick up the phone and call you because they feel compelled to work with you, right?
That only works if you write in a way that is both inspirational and compelling.
Persuasive copy is powerful. Here’s how you do it:
- Even though you’re telling a story about a specific client, include qualifiers about that them (industry, size) - or their situation (pain point, objective) - that allow a reader to feel like you’re speaking directly to them and the problem they’re trying to solve. They should be able to easily step into their shoes and say, "Hey, that sounds like me."
- Comparisons, such as metaphors and analogies, can be your best friend in a case study, as they can help a reader accept a certain scenario as being true if it’s related to something they already understand. However, there is one caveat: Don’t use clichés. While they may exist for a reason, science says we are trained to ignore them.
- Use power verbs. In fact, here are 109 of them, waiting for you to choose them. Power verbs have momentum. Power verbs imply results. Power verbs aren’t wimpy.
- Don’t use passive voice. Use active voice. (What’s the difference, and why does it matter?)
- Spotlight data, client quotes and testimonials to demonstrate the effectiveness of your work.
Finally, don’t forget to proofread!
Step 3: Design Your Case Study
Okay, so you have your case study draft in hand, filled with persuasive phrasing and glowing client testimonials. Now it is time to send it to design.
Of course, the end result at this step will probably depend a lot on your brand’s visual standards, but I still have a few tips for you.
If you’ve been blogging or creating content for any amount of time you — and your designers — probably already know the basics.
- Whitespace is your friend.
- Include visuals.
- Break up walls of text with headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists.
- Call out relevant data points and quotes you want readers to remember visually.
- Include videos (if you’ve got ‘em).
- Also, if you have a testimonial, include the person’s name, job title, and their photo. It shows you solve problems for actual people.
When it comes to case studies, design is just as important as the copy itself.
A well-written case study will only be persuasive if you create a piece that is visually appealing enough that a prospect will actually read it. If they don’t read your case study because of ugly, unfriendly design, all of your hard work will have been for nothing.
The format of how you present your case study is up to you, but keep in mind, they should be easy to find and read. Our success stories are on our navigation and they're ungated. (We don't any barriers between prospects and proof that what we do delivers results.)
However, if you decide to go a similar route of creating a case study that lives as a website page, create a PDF version that is easily printed, as well. It should be a document a sales rep can bring to a meeting and walk through in person, instead of having to say, “Oh, I’ll shoot you a link when I get back to the office.”
A Great Case Study Is Worth the Effort
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Man, Liz. This sounds like a ton of work.”
Well, yes. It is.
In the world of inbound marketing, it’s not enough to simply create content anymore. All of your competitors are now creating blogs, and case studies, and eBooks. In order to stand out today, you have to create quality content that clearly demonstrates you understand the problems of your buyer personas and how to solve them better than anyone else.
So, again, yes. This process is comprehensive, but only because I want to make sure that you are empowered to create case studies that make prospects want to call you instead of someone else.
Now, get to work!