Nurses often tell me “I wish I could write” or “It must be nice to be able to write.” This reflects the common, but flawed, belief that people who write are born writers. But a person is no more born a writer than born a nurse. Such thinking belies the fact that education plays a part—that in writing, just as in nursing, knowledge and skills must be acquired and then practiced in order to maintain competency. Writing can be taught and learned, although as with any field of expertise, some people will become more proficient than others.
Nurses who find writing hard might be surprised to know that even professional writers and editors struggle when facing a blank page. Some of my colleagues, whose journals either publish every two months or don't feature editorials at all, have looked at me in horror when I tell them I write a monthly editorial for AJN. For me, writing is hard work. And yes, my work is edited; I answer queries from my editor and make revisions based on her suggestions. No one gets it right on the first try.
One key to becoming a good writer—or a good anything—is persistence. Over the years, AJN has published many articles on writing for publication, and most offer variations on this theme: you have to work at it. For example:
- from a 1953 column by Dorothy Deming, a former editor of Public Health Nursing: “The more you write the easier it gets. The point is to write. Don't wait for a free evening or your vacation.”
- from a 1977 editorial by former AJN editor Thelma M. Schorr: “Perhaps the most basic precept is that to learn to write, you must write. And write. And write.”
- from a 1994 column by Shirley Fondiller, a former adjunct associate professor at Columbia University's Teachers College: “[W]riting is a craft. You need to keep cultivating and refining your writing skills, and you can only do that if you keep writing.”
A good basic approach, and one that works for me, involves four steps. First, spend some time thinking about what you want to say before you start writing. Know what you want to tell readers—the purpose of your paper—so that you can say it clearly. Next, sit down and start writing. Write anything you want to say about the topic; you can go back and organize later. (Contrary to what many of us were taught, you don't have to outline first. Some writers write this way, but many don't.) Third, leave the work alone for a while. Take a walk or do something else. And fourth, go back and start shaping and polishing your piece, paying attention to organization and transitions. Aim for a logical flow of ideas. Weed out the jargon, too.
At the August meeting of the International Academy of Nursing Editors, I attended a session on overcoming barriers to writing given by Donna Nickitas, editor of Nursing Economic$ and a professor at the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing, City University of New York, and Joy Jacobson, codirector of a narrative writing program for health care professionals at Hunter College's Center for Health Media and Policy and adjunct faculty at the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing. (Jacobson, a former managing editor at AJN, also currently does freelance writing for this journal.) They offered strategies designed to prevent that “How am I going to fill this page?” block. One recommendation: plan a time and place for daily writing, even if it's only 15 minutes. Having a set time and place provides structure and routine, and will make writing seem less like an onerous chore and more like a familiar habit. Once you begin, you can always write for a longer period.
Nickitas and Jacobson also recommended keeping it simple: start anywhere, but start. And keep your hand moving, whether you're using a pen or a keyboard. Whether it's because of muscle memory or the mind–body connection, this works. Random thoughts will morph into coherent sentences, which you'll later organize into paragraphs; before you know it, you'll have 500 words and a good start to a short essay or an article.
In her 1977 editorial, Schorr spoke further of keeping the end goal in mind. The writer “will use the active voice and not shirk his [or her] responsibility by introducing a statement with such weaseling qualifiers as ‘It is considered that…’ or ‘It is generally believed that…’ [and] will never let secondary motivations, like trying to sound scholarly or contemporary, obscure what must be his [or her] basic purpose in writing: to communicate.” Nurses have incredible stories to tell, and much knowledge to communicate. Let yourself start scribbling!