Embarking on your analytic journey with ATLAS.ti – Part 2: Writing memos
Written by: Dr. Susanne Friese
Writing is an important part of analysis in qualitative research. When using software, it is easy to fall into the code trap. Always remember that coding the data is only a means to an end – to think, retrieve and query data (Corbin and Strauss, 2008; Richards, 2009; Richards and Morse, 2013).
Figure 1 shows lots of benches in the imaginary data landscape that you are exploring. The benches signal points of reflection on our journey as an important part of data analysis. Reflection is important throughout the entire research process. As Richards (2009: 51) writes: ‘From the start of your project, get into a habit of “telling” what’s going on, rather than “writing it up”. […] Telling is much more purposive than writing – and much easier to do.’ All the memos and comments you write in ATLAS.ti do not have to be stylistically perfect. There is no need to check grammar or spelling. Just write down what comes to your mind. Do not make it unnecessarily difficult by thinking that the text must already be good enough for it to be used for the final report. This is all for later. Below I describe the kinds of memos that you can start writing early in the analysis process.
If you are writing a thesis or dissertation, or working on a student or scientific research project, it is a good idea to write a research diary that you can later refer to when writing up your method section and to document the analytic process. You could do this in a Word document but using an ATLAS.ti memo has some advantages. After an analysis session in ATLAS.ti, you can immediately write down what you have done and timestamp it without having to open another program. It becomes part of your evolving project and can later be submitted together with your project data and your analytic work in ATLAS.ti. Supervisors can follow your analytic steps and for teachers it is useful when grading a project. But there is more to it than just adding transparency: research diaries are useful reminders for the analyst, too. It is difficult to keep everything in mind when a project continues over months or even years. The research diary can be reviewed, for example, when it comes to writing the method chapter for a thesis or a paper publication.
When writing a research diary, it is a good idea to keep track of when you wrote what. This can be done easily by inserting the date above each entry. In the Mac version, you can use the shortcut Ctrl+D; in the Windows version you find a button in the button “insert timestamp” in the ribbon of the Memo editor.
To stay focused, adding a memo with your research questions can be done at an early stage of analysis. You probably already have a list of research questions or at least some ideas. You can add further questions and ideas to this list with progressing analysis.
If you have a great idea but no time to follow it up right away, write it down before it gets lost. However, do not write a memo for every single idea you have! Collect all the good ideas in one memo that you might entitle ‘Great ideas to follow up’.
Like the idea memo, you can have a memo that contains a to-do list for the next work session or a plan for the next week or analysis period.
When you work in a team, all the members can add a team memo to their sub projects. In the team memo, they can write down things that they want to discuss at the next team meeting. If you put all the team memos together after merging, you already have your agenda for the next meeting.
Team memos are also important for communicating about the code system. If you start out with a list of codes that everyone in the team should use, no one should make changes to those common codes. If a team member wants to change the name of a code or modify the code definition, this should be recorded in a memo. Existing codes in the code system should not be modified. The suggested changes regarding the code system should be discussed after merging all sub projects, and changes to existing codes should only be made in the new Master project. This way you avoid conflicts or code duplication when merging.
Theory or literature memos
This type can be used to add information from secondary sources to the project, such as excerpts from the relevant literature, main theoretical concepts, etc. These memos partly serve as reminders; instead of having to switch programs or look through a stack of papers to remind you of important theoretical concepts and their definitions, they are right there within your ATLAS.ti project. Additionally, these memos can be used to collect empirical evidence for theories proposed in the literature. When you come across a data segment that ties in with ideas proposed in the literature by other authors, you can connect the respective memo to this data segment.
The following video tutorial shows you how to create and work with memos in ATLAS.ti windows:
When you need more input regarding how to write memos, see, for example, the third or fourth edition of Basics of Qualitative Research by Corbin and Strauss (2008/2015), Wolcott (2009) or Charmaz (2014). I will teach you about possible types of memos and how to set up analytic memos in ATLAS.ti in a way that makes your research transparent and helps you engage with your data and enter an internal dialog, advancing your analytic thoughts and ways of thinking. Learning how to write good memos is experiential. Reading about it and seeing examples of how it can be done is one part, but you need to do it yourself and practice it.
Charmaz, Kathy (2014). Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis. London: Sage.
Corbin, Juliet and Strauss, Anselm (2008/2015). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory (3rd and 4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Richards, Lyn (2009, 2ed). Handling qualitative data: a practical guide. London: Sage.
Richards, Lyn and Janice M. Morse (2013, 3ed). Readme first: for a user’s guide to Qualitative Methods. Los Angeles: Sage.
Wolcott, Harry E. (2009). Writing Up Qualitative Research. London: Sage.
Friese, S. (2019). Embarking on your analytic journey with ATLAS.ti – Part 2: Writing memos. Retrieved from https://atlasti.com/2019/10/31/embarking-on-your-analytic-journey-with-atlas-ti-part-2/
About the author
Dr. Susanne Friese is the Product Specialist of ATLAS.ti, and she is the author of the book Qualitative Data Analysis with ATLAS.ti. With over twenty years of experience using, developing, and teaching ATLAS.ti, Dr. Susanne Friese is the perfect data analysis tour guide. Aware of common challenges and sticking points, she eases readers from readying and organizing data into coding and querying it, providing not only tips on how to prepare for analysis, but also the tools and technical know-how needed to observe, examine, and discuss data. Placing quick software ‘skills training’ tutorials alongside different stages of the data analysis process, she gives readers the opportunity to integrate software training with their actual analysis.