Being a capable wordsmith may not be what you signed up for. But clinical nurses are spending more and more of their working day on writing tasks. Rob Ashton of Emphasis gives six tips on how nurses can become better writers.
A well-presented document, a clear and succinct email, a precise and persuasive report all go a long way to ensure nursing maintains professional standards. This makes sense, as good writing skills equal good communication – a prerequisite for effective nursing.
Just as nursing requires dedication and practice, so too do effective writing techniques within the clinical setting.
Identify your target audience.
To write effectively, you have to understand the needs of the people you are writing for. Think of the variety of audiences you have to communicate with as a practitioner – such as patients, other nursing professionals, physicians. Then think about how you communicate differently to each. If it’s a report for a healthcare organisation, find out the ethos of that organisation. If it’s for a nursing manager, do they need to be informed or persuaded – or both?
Overcome the fear of the blank page.
Break through writer’s block by:
- establishing the purpose of your writing and what you hope to achieve
- using mind maps or spider-grams to get ideas flowing
- creating a defined timeframe with deadlines and milestones
- writing in incremental bursts if you’re faced with a lengthy document
- Focusing on your readers’ needs but (crucially) forgetting about their possible judgements of the work.
If you’re really stuck, set an alarm for five minutes hence, then tell yourself you only need to write until it goes off. After all, how bad can five minutes be? What you’ll probably find is that you speed up as the time starts to run out, giving you the energy to burst through the block. But if that doesn’t happen, stop at five minutes, give yourself a ten minute break, then set the alarm for another five-minute session. Two or three short sessions like this are usually enough to cure the block.
These apply to most writing tasks, including proposals for improvement projects, reports, patient records, staff references, memos and even emails.
Keep going until you have a complete working draft.
Forget about perfection – for now. Organise the relevant information on separate piece of paper (such as with a mind map – see above), then write. Only when you’ve finished should you revise and edit. Even the greatest writers work from a rough, first draft. Make sure you plan first though, as a ‘stream of consciousness’ can be very difficult to disentangle once you’ve written it.
To help with the final edit, ask yourself if you’ve addressed all your pertinent issues, especially problems, action and results.
Don’t dress it up.
Florid language and great swathes of rhetoric won’t impress a busy board member, nursing manager or worried patient who wants to read only the salient facts. Time is of the essence in a clinical workplace, so clear, direct communication is key. Present your message clearly from the start in a straightforward style that will keep your audience interested.
Don’t be lax in your report writing.
Computerised report templates may have made the task easier but they are no replacement for courtesy and good grammar. Never make shortcuts in punctuation and spelling, and make sure the facts are correct. Get someone else to look over the document if you’re unsure of its accuracy.
If you don’t understand the subject matter, the chances are those reading it won’t either. Don’t mask your lack of understanding with unnecessary jargon. If you’re working collaboratively – on a report or proposal, for example – ask for help.
With written communication now so much a part of clinical nursing, these tips –and a little practice – should give you the confidence to handle any writing task. A little time spent perfecting the process now will leave you more time for other pressing responsibilities in the future.
Rob Ashton is Chief Executive of Emphasis, the specialist business-writing trainers.