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A word or two on writing

Hard work, research and editing; being skilled at communicating in print is far from glamorous but you can do it.

The ability to communicate effectively in the written format is one of the nurses and student nurse’s fundamental skills.

It is particularly relevant for both undergraduate and post-graduate nursing students who sometimes find assignments and essays rather daunting or challenging. In clinical practice, too, and in the development of academic and research skills, being able to write clearly and concisely is an art many nurses are required to master.

The first advice offered is to not panic when faced with a writing challenge. It may be wise to invest in a published guide. Many exist and they offer clear, easy-to-use guidance about crafting a written piece. Ebel (2002), Bailey (2003), Bailey (2006) and Taylor (2009)offer examples of handbooks or guides that may be useful.

In my own writing, I have used the mnemonic W.R.I.T.E.R. to help guide my development.

Work and effort: Nothing can be written without putting in considerable work and effort. In many cases topics are offered to the writer, making the direction of the work simpler. However, if the writer is offering up a new topic or building a written piece based on an area of their own interest or from an area of their research nothing falls in their lap. The general view is that writing is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. Nothing writes itself and from well before the computer is turned on, considerable work is required to initiate and follow through. This includes all the following steps.

Read or research: Before I can write anything, I need to do a lot of reading or draw upon research results for content and direction. I have found that before any words appear on the page a considerable proportion of my time is spent preparing by reading around the subject and researching the topic. Simply gathering books and articles about the topic and placing them in close proximity to your computer will not suffice. You will have to read them in a discerning way. Not everything you read will be helpful and some information may even be a distraction from your writing goal. But you cannot write anything worthwhile without doing the background work of reading or research.

Ideas: Writing well requires a good deal of creativity. Simply regurgitating information, applying copious references and reconfiguring the data may be writing, but bringing a degree of creativity to the things you have read about or researched will lift your work to a higher plane and lead the reader into your imagination or creative venture. Having an idea that can elevate your writing will make it more enjoyable to read and more rewarding to write. But, don’t get stuck here. Labouring over a creative angle can stifle progress on your work, so move on if nothing creative comes to you. It might be that it will appear later, in the editing or reading stages.

Time: Only about one-third of the time it takes to develop a good written piece is applied to the actual writing. In terms of time, I usually spend a third of my time reading and working on the concepts and ideas, another third doing the writing and the final third is spent making edits and corrections. Think about using time this way and you will not find yourself missing out on any one part or focusing all your time on the preparation and writing with no time for the corrections and editing stage. There may be other formulas for spending time when writing, but I have found this three-way split works well.

Edit: Once the core of an essay or assignment is done, it is time to start editing. This involves checking references, looking at ways to shorten or condense sentences and check spelling and punctuation. This is not the sexy part of writing, but it is the most important part. Many a great essay is ruined by shoddy editing and poor presentation. Editing can be a brutal phase of essay or publication construction. I can recall agonising over cherished sections of text that I thought added real insight to a piece, but that simply didn’t add to the overall work and had to go. Often with word limits or publishers’ guidelines, the editing is the phase of writing that makes the work fit and it allows the writer to craft their work into a tight and comprehensive set of ideas or concepts.

Read it: I know, hours have gone into the work. You have researched and read around the topic, you have come up with some great and creative ideas, you have spent time crafting and editing and you simply want to hand it in or submit it to the publisher. But wait; you really need to read it at least three times. I like to print the work out, hold a pen and correct it as I read. I always find things that need correcting that were not obvious on the computer screen and I often find myself reading sentences that made sense or that looked clever when I was constructing them, yet seem to have lost all meaning in the wider context of the essay or assignment. This is the time to re-write or abandon poorly constructed sections or sentences. You need to be honest with yourself and recognise that if things read poorly, they must go or be re-worked.

Writing does not come naturally to everyone, but all nurses are required to write at some point, ether in the course of their studies or as they engage with professional development or throughout their professional, research or academic lives. Becoming a W.R.I.T.E.R. is not easy, but I hope these few simple instructions will help.

David Stanley is an associate professor at the University of Western Australia.  

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