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Writing for Publication

Expanding Professional Practice

Gould, Kathleen Ahern PhD, MSN, RN

doi: 10.1097/DCC.0000000000000376

Editor-in-Chief Dimensions of Critical Care Nursing.

The author has disclosed that she has no significant relationship with, or financial interest in, any commercial companies pertaining to this article.

Conference season, during spring and summer months, illuminates new practices and professional knowledge, most often through posters and podium presentations. Professionals share their expertise and excitement about innovations and advances in practice. After the conference ends, presentations continue with local professionals and colleagues. Posters hang in hospitals, and education continues at unit conferences or organizational meetings. Dissemination may continue as the work extends to professional publication. Dissemination of ideas, results, and new practices through professional publication can influence practice at a global level. The written word is a digital platform with extraordinary bounds. Yet, the process of writing for a professional publication is often daunting.

Why write? Write because you have something to say. Write because there are people who can learn from you. Health care professionals write about complicated topics. They have much to teach and share. Often, they report the results of important scientific work. Sharing knowledge and projects stimulates practice change.

Writing is hard. It is often more difficult than conducting research or leading an improvement project. Yet, at some point in your professional journey, writing brings profound personal and professional satisfaction. Scientific writing is unique, with its own challenges. It is often constrained and guided by a formal writing style, specific author guidelines, professional tools, and restricted word counts. Editors, reviewers, and publishers are willing to help guide the process. This support makes it possible for writers to succeed. As new authors bring their work to the professional community, we all learn and grow within the process.

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Professional writing is very different from academic writing. This is an important distinction. These differences are best addressed before a manuscript goes to the publisher. Academic writing fits a different purpose and has a style of its own. Good academic writing does provide a framework for professional publication. Often, experienced professionals are also students who produce great academic papers. The transition from academic to professional publication is possible with some targeted revision. Authors adhere to details articulated by the leaders in professional publications. The Student Paper Work Group of the International Academy of Nursing Editors developed a white paper to assist faculty and mentors in guiding students toward successful publication.1 This paper informs and guides students and faculty as they transform work into a professional publication.

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It is often said that writing is a muscle that needs exercise. This is true, as the Zen of writing is elusive at first, but it does kick in at some point. When it does, it may bring levels of excitement and pleasure. It is a process, not a straight line. Begin with the end in mind. Know that you have something to share and begin to experience the methods that will help you express your work in a professional publication. Read professional work and establish a feel for the concept expressed in the cadence of the writing. Keep a journal of ideas. Keep writing tools near you. Use a notebook and pen, your phone, a bar napkin, a recorder on your phone—whatever works for you. Get your message clear in your own mind. Focus on the message and the face of your audience; keep these 2 things in the forefront of your mind as you write. When you feel you are veering off message or not speaking to your audience, stop and regroup.

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Develop writing habits that fit your life. Suzanne Hall Johnson, the editor emeritus of Dimensions of Critical Care Nursing, taught me to use little bits of time. Hours sitting at an airport, waiting to watch my kids at a sporting event, and sitting in my car waiting to retrieve children at dances, camps, hockey practice, and school became cherished time for my ideas. I carried pens, notepads, computers, iPads, and recording devices. It worked, and it fit my life. Develop habits that translate into success. As you need to, change those habits to fit your evolving life stages.

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Gareth Branwyn2 tells us to identify your work style. Writing is the work of writers, and one must approach it like any other work-related exercise. He cautions us to let your writing find its own path. Find out what works for you and replicate that style as you incorporate new learning from other writers, editors, and many resources. Read extensively and be mindful when you read. Circle, underline, take notes, and copy quotes that inspire you. Think about what sentence caught your eye, stopped your thoughts, or made you think. Learn new ways of expressing your thoughts through the work of others. Editorials provide a rich venue to see how authors capture a concept and engage readers.

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Create some type of outline focused on your message and audience—and begin with a thought that may or may not become your title. Use many tools, grammar tools, and stylistic tools such as the Hemmingway Editor.3 Hemmingway was a simplistic writer, but also a master writer of parataxis—short, simple sentences side by side. This style rescues us from the long, complex sentences that are difficult to read. In contrast, EB White used hypotaxis, which is good for comparing and linking complex thoughts.3 Simplistic writing styles enhance clear and concise writing. This is especially important when the topic or concept is complex.

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An important concept of writing is “voice.” During the editing process, I recognize the voice of the writer. Or too often, I wish the writers voice had come through. I may request that the author extend his/her work to expand his/her voice. Your writing may be formal, factual, and important to the scientific process. But, voice has a place in the message. Tell the audience why this is important to you, to the practice, to the patients. Share what you have learned and suggest how the reader may use this work.

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When you choose words to express your ideas, you have to think not only about what makes sense and sounds best to you, but also what will make sense and sound best to your readers. Think about your audience and their expectations as you choose your words. Good writing depends on word choice. It is within the word choice that the concepts come alive. Words are hard to choose, and often you do not find the right word until you stumble upon it! Writers may use too many wrong words in an incoherent string, until they find the right one. If you use words that are very unfamiliar to you, you may produce sentences that your readers cannot understand. Rather than trying to sound smart, think about clarity. Your goal should be to communicate clearly, and with conviction. Word choice is always a Goldilocks problem for me. A jumble of words can become something that is just right with a little attention and editing. Remember it is very difficult to create a feeling, a nonverbal emotion, and express it in language.

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Writers block may be a form of procrastination. I am a procrastinator. To combat this, I often make list of things I love to do and things that I would rather not do. Once I do something I love, I know I must balance the list and work on something I must do, or prefer not to do. This technique works well for me. The have-to, want-to-do, and love-to-do lists provide balance for me. Find out what blocks your work. Is it a place, time, or person that seems to stand in your way? For me, it may be the weather, or my space. When my desk area is too cluttered, it seems to clutter my mind. I move to another spot.

Learn your own patterns and identify personal strengths. Be flexible and write in many formats and in different places. Get words on paper or on the screen and let them guide you. Take those words to someone; envision that you are teaching someone else. It is harder to write than to speak—so if you read your work out loud and it sounds good, you may be on to something. Some authors use a trusted reader, a muse, or an editor. But, remember that the work is yours, and you must be comfortable and content with the final product.

Put your work aside. Some writers refer to this as marinating, letting it sit. Reread it later. If sentences feel awkward and you do not even know what you mean, get rid of it. Cutting words, sections, and often pages is difficult for a writer. If you cannot cut it right away, highlight it and save it as something you may move or use later. Bracket it in some way and revisit it if you must. Most often, I find that I must cut the sentence or section, but at some point, it feels ok. Don't hesitate to experiment, change, and revise your work.

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Don't confuse writing and revising. They require 2 very different approaches. Writing may flow best without complex rules. But rules, formats, and distinctions put forth by the publication guide revision work. Often, a publication requires specific formats for specific work. For example, a quality improvement report may be best described using SQUIRE guidelines. Guidelines and tools suggested by the publisher, editor, or writing group are a gift. These tools always add structure and organization to formal writing.

Be flexible and allow change to become a part of what you do. If something is not working and you cannot change, you cannot improve. Using lessons from Improvement Science works for everything, even writing. Improvement work reminds us that doing the same thing and expecting different results simply do not work. Revisions may require that you cut words, phrases, or sections to provide a more parsimonious article. As a prepositional phrase abuser, I target this first. I recently became aware that I use adverbs to the exclusion of the verb. If I cannot see this myself, I use writing apps, such as Hemmingway Editor. Although I do not edit with the rigor the app suggests, I do find that my sentences are crisper and clearer.

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Editors have little tolerance for sloppy work. Misspelled words or poor grammar denotes a lack of attention to detail. Make sure your work is clean. Check that grammar, punctuation, and reference formats are correct. Read the journal guidelines before you edit and revise. Each journal offers guidelines, or information for authors, to direct the manuscript. These essential steps provide structure and improve the chances for acceptance in the journal of your choice.

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Find a writing coach, mentor, or colleague who will support your efforts. Writing is a solitary journey and often feels like invisible work. Support is available within the publishing community and professional groups. Write a word, an idea, a sentence. Share your thoughts with others and begin the journey!

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1. Cowell JM, Pierson C. Helping students get published: tips from journal editors. A white paper developed by the INANE Student Papers Work Group. Nurse Author Ed. 2016;26(4):6.
2. Branwyn G. How to be a better writer: tips, tricks, and hard won lessons: from creating drafts to working with editors. Medium. May 29, 2019. Accessed May 28, 2019.
3. Hemingway Editor. Accessed May 28, 2019.
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