Reader and Writer Relationships in Academic Writing

I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite novels while on break between the end of one PhD course and the start of the next. It’s been glorious. I’ve been neglecting my fiction reading as of late in favour of academic articles, partially out of necessity and time but partially because I’ve been finding it harder and harder to connect with novels and get into them — it is hit or miss if I’ll find the writing compelling. I have also found it to be more of a regular occurrence to read a novel and have most of it be good and then the author ruins it with a cheap plot cheat that comes out of nowhere, like an act of God, and solves all the protagonist’s problems. I walk away from books like that feeling ripped off. Once upon a time, I used to insist on reading books from start to finish, even if I didn’t like them. My time is too valuable for that now.

And yes, I am a literature snob. I like a strong voice and strong voices are hard to find.

I also like strong voices in academic writing, and those are even harder to find.

But my Twitter feed keeps filling up with reminders of how important creative writing is to the mind and soul. They say that voracious readers are also good writers. Whether this is scientifically backed up is debatable, but reading, at the very least, gives you the skills to recognize good writing. What you read, says a lot about you as a person. Your ability to articulate your passion for what you’re reading also says a lot too. Because reading is relationship building, and having a passion for what you’ve read means that the relationship was successful. Here’s an untested hypothesis for you: It is possible that writers who are voracious readers, are best able to understand the needs of readers when they write.

In my academic reading, I’ve been examining the social construction of writing and one of the components of writing as a social construction is the relationship that a writer forms with a reader. This is a complicated relationship because intertwined  within it is the identities of both characters, and they never (or rarely) come face to face. The writer has to envision a reader as they write which means they have to guess what that reader knows and understands already, and what they will need to know to understand the argument. They have to guess what emotions that reader may be having. They have to accept the consequences that the reader may interpret what is written in a way that was never intended.

Having an intimate knowledge of your reader is one of the greatest challenges of writing. We see our undergraduate students fail at this time and time again.  I’m convinced this is one aspect of student writing that we mistakenly identify as poor grammar. Undergraduate students believe they have no knowledge or authority and, thus, that everything they do know must be common knowledge. This leads to them writing statements out of their head without citation. This issue also contributes to a lot of lack of clarity in their writing and the giant holes present in their description of their arguments.  Their teachers, to them, are all knowing beings. Why should they have to define that term or make that connection overtly for the teacher when the teacher is already the expert? I have had students come back to question a grade and when they provide their explanation as to why they deserve more marks, they fill in those holes they failed to explain in their original paper. Explaining what you meant after the fact doesn’t change the lack of clarity in the orignal.

Stephen King in On Writing talks about having an ideal reader in your head as you write. For him, it is his wife Tabatha. For an academic writer, it may be a teacher, or a editor, or anonymous reviewers. For a PhD student it may be an advisor or other opinionated committee member. When you are an undergraduate student only writing one paper for a particular teacher, sensing what a teacher defines as good writing can seem a daunting and impossible task. What pleased one teacher in the past may be lambasted by another. When writing for peer reviewed journals, it isn’t much different. What pleases one reviewer, another reviewer will tell you to cut as being a waste of space, or too editorial in nature. These issues can prey on your writing self-efficacy. And influencing writing self-efficacy runs as deep as preying on your identity  (or lack thereof) as a writer.

On the side of the reader, you are continually trying to imagine the person behind the writing. I have read academic papers that have sent me to google to search more about the author and their work or sent me back into the library databases to find other articles they’ve written. This is extremely rare. Yet, in the creative field, we all have favourite authors where we devour everything they’ve written. If a writer has done their job, you will demand to know more about what drove the work. When I was a teenager and in transition from Sweet Valley High to Stephen King novels, one of the things I liked best was his afterwords to his books which told the stories behind the stories of writing his novels. It was his way of inserting himself into his work and connecting with readers — until he got to the end of The Gunslinger series and he LITERALLY inserted himself in his novel, which really didn’t work for me…… but I digress.

The other component of relationship building on the side of the reader is the act of reading and interpreting what is being said. This is the risk that a writer faces when they send their work out into the world to be devoured, critiqued, or even ignored. Good writing will inspire the next idea. It should instil critical thinking. The reader will be making constant connections between what they have read and their own identities, and things going on in their lives.

In academic writing this means that when a writer cites another author, it could mean many things. It could be a direct paraphrase, a misinterpretation, it could be an inspiration, or it could be a leap in thinking to the next great discovery. All of us who have published, have experienced seeing our work cited and thought, “that’s not what I said.” And this is OK, in my opinion. It just means the writer as reader was inspired in some way by what you wrote. Argument building depends upon that inspiration. I’ve often said that citation in academic writing is like a sophisticated game of telephone — a game I remember playing as a kid, sitting in a circle and whispering a sentence from one to the next and seeing how it changes by the time it reaches the last person in the loop. The game itself is a lesson against gossip, but in academic writing, the cycle of reading, writing, and interpreting, and coming to the end of the loop with a new idea, is how knowledge is made. We don’t learn what we know prior to sitting down to write, we learn what we know as we write, and this is where the magic happens.

When I say, all writing is creative writing, I, in part, am talking about this reader/writer relationship building and the writing-reading interpretation loop. Connecting with a reader requires imagination and ideas that inspire, so that a reader takes those words into their world, imbeds them into their own identity and makes meaning.


This Writer’s Identity

I started writing this post earlier this week but got that sinking feeling in my stomach of boring myself, so I abandoned. It was that same feeling you get when someone not academic, like an old aunt or some random dude on a bus, asks you what you are studying in school and it requires too much thinking to make it digestible to outsiders so you make it really brief and boring so that they won’t ask any more questions. I didn’t start this blog to regurgitate my research topic and all the extensions of it … I started it to tell the stories about my research and writing that can’t go into academic papers.

Like the fact that this week I was doing statistical things. I’ve been learning SPSS, mostly on my own but also with the help of this book. I really need to take another proper stats class because the last time I took stats was in 2001. I kind of had to run my results in a hurry because I was writing an abstract for a conference. My results for my long term follow-up of writing self-efficacy across the nursing curriculum are really cool, if perhaps not really surprising. For example, just less than half of my sample fell out of synch from their entrance cohort and the comparison between the students who fell behind and the students who stayed on pace is validating for our recent decision-making about entrance requirements and ideas I’ve had for writing interventions with our students. The out of synch students have lower grades in general (writing, GPA, and clinical), higher anxiety and lower writing self-efficacy. It’s also suggesting that my second year paper I have the students write does a kick-ass job of being predictive of student performance and clinical ability — or at the very least, I make a very valid rubric.  I still have to figure out the “so what” of these findings.

The other thing going on in my school life parallel to that is that I am taking a philosophy of nursing science course. The topic of the week was theoretical integration or bridging the gap between the “received view” and and more modern philosophical thinking — maybe post positivism and mixed methods or qualitative and its various identities. I’ve been teaching research methods to undergrads for over 10 years and the textbook I use simplifies the post positivist paradigm so much that I always thought post positivism WAS mixed methods. Which it is totally not — or at least not entirely.

So a lot of what I had to read this week was about positivism and where it came from and the arguments against it, which are loud and strong but somehow it still survives as the dominant “received” view. I haven’t liked everything we have discussed in philosophy of nursing science. I hated our readings on defining health from different paradigms, for example. I said in class this week, after others said that they found the readings really challenging (I didn’t find them hard at all. I found them the easiest yet), “that all the cells in my brain breathe a collective sigh of relief when the readings are describing things in positivist, terms.” It such a comfort zone for me.  So comfortable in fact, I took a creative writing course one year and when forced to write some poetry, I managed to slip in the phrase, “skewed to the left.” I had to. I’m not a poet. But I do remember the class commenting on the oddness, but yet effectiveness, of the phrase — when they were told what it meant.

And this is where I finally get to my point about identity. Because positivism while comfortable, isn’t what I believe in, in terms of science. I’m not in the least suggesting that all that statistic-ing I’ve been doing this week is positivist. There is too much self-report in my work to be making that claim. I can feel comfortable with statistical thinking and still recognize its tremendous limitations. I’ve come to understand that social construction is my dominant view — especially feminism. Writing, gender, identity, pedagogy, and academia are all socially constructed. I want to sit down with each of these students and ask them why?  What makes writing assignments make you feel like it is an attack on your being? An attack on your sense of self and self-worth?

Of course IRL, I have these conversations every day with students. For the most part, they validate that what I am trying to do with my writing assignment, works. They walk away from my course knowing more, and learning more, about research than they do from reading the textbook. But the ones that really despise writing, of course, likely lie to me and avoid me. But I am convinced, that writing is the best way of knowing out there for student learning and theoretical integration with practice. (And that is the topic of my next paper).

The paper I wrote for my philosophy of nursing science course was on academic voice. And knowing my comfort zone is positivist, logical, and mathematical it may or may not surprise you that my argument about academic voice, which is not unlike the argument that every academic who takes the time to write about academic voice makes*, is that it needs to be better infused with the writer’s identity. I did something in this paper that I have never done in my entire academic life — I got autobiographical. It was a risk because the professor of this course is my advisor. I’ve already learned that she does not appreciate some of my little flair-ups of less-than-academic words (whatever that means) in some of the papers I’ve written — e.g.  the idea that we need to better “sell” the importance of writing to our students; that writers “juggle” many processes when they write; that some students fall out of “synch” from their cohort. She has considered all these phrases slang or colloquialisms.  I acquiesced and edited “sell” and “synch”, the latter of which I still think is now an accepted variant; note that I rebelliously used it in paragraph two, above. Synchrony is such a pretentious word. “Juggle” I would not cave on — there is nothing colloquial about this phrase; it is vivid and pulls a picture into the mind of the mental exercises writers experience when they write.

*(Because, lets face it, if you hold the received view on writing, you probably aren’t writing articles to try and sell the need to continue on with the objective, boring, colourless, turgid, disembodied voice that is positivist academic writing. There is no need to defend the dominant perspective. I can’t take credit for this statement. I read it somewhere. Or many somewheres.)

But my autobiographical use was for argument building. I was trying to illustrate that identity in writing is sometimes critical for understanding the meaning behind the text. Words may not be innocent but they are, for certain, often inadequate especially when it comes to making meaning. I had been using examples of how infusion of identity works when used strategically — see for example Potgieter and Smit (2009), or Fleischman (1999) and (1998). I have recently read two amazing papers where academic writers have struggled with voice and identity based on the nature of the epistemology of their work (see Leggatt-Cook, 2010; and Ward et al., 2015). There are times I am reading an academic’s work and my mind and being are begging to know who they are and what drives them (again, see the two Fleischman articles linked above). So at what I felt was a strategic and appropriate juncture in the paper, I shared that I was a woman and I had written a novel and that I believed all writing was creative writing.  And… that sometimes I don’t feel I have an identity unless I am writing. We’ll see if she “buys” that this paragraph enhances the paper. It is quiet possible we may not agree — but that’s OK. She told us she didn’t have to agree with us. We just had to have a sound argument.

So while my brain cells are in their comfort zone when I can use logic and statistics, my writing self is not in her comfort zone unless I can show myself in what I write. And so I embrace my Cartesian duality. I hope to spend the next five years honing it and flaunting it.

And just to really humiliate (and maybe humanize) myself, here is the poem I wrote in 2006 (at a really f&%ked up time in my life), where I used the phrase “skewed to the left.” (Looking at it now, almost exactly 10 years later — it is dated October 20 — for the first time … it is actually not terrible)

Two Dimensional

I wish the camera had caught the moment when

I glanced up and saw you watching

with your eyes flashing in a lens flare and

your smile back-lit with infatuation

That it could have captioned my heart

faltering and my voice cropping

a syllable in a lilt only I was aware of


But two dimensions flatten

events, unfocused and tinted

perspective appears as lint on a lens

mood a sepia shadow over my face

Memory imprints faulty connections

retelling the story not from the centre

but rather skewed to the left


Will it matter in five years

will I remember your presence

both awkward and comforting

or will dullness and discolouration transform it

me on display at that moment when

I was someone else

before I looked up and found you

Idea Generation: A Philosophical Conundrum

I’m watching my students wrestle with their ideas for their academic paper right now. It is always a fascinating process. I once did an informal survey about how often their topics changed before they actually wrote and submitted their assignments.  Very few people wrote on the first topic they picked. A larger number (maybe a quarter of the class) wrote on their second topic choice and an even larger proportion hit the jackpot on their third topic. A handful of students had filtered through 4 or more topic possibilities before finally settling on one they could work with.  Sometimes topics were abandoned because an appropriate media source couldn’t be located. This outcome happened for students who were doing exactly what I suggested they don’t do — self-identifying a topic and then retrospectively searching for a media source that stated their thinking. The assignment always works better if you let the media feed you the topic and you come across it organically, through a social media feed, or flipping through the newspaper Saturday morning. (Does anyone read paper news anymore?) More often, it was in the literature search phase where topics were discarded. Search terms weren’t working to find studies, or there weren’t enough appropriate studies to find 5 primary sources on their topic.

I find that period of time where you need to settle on an idea and focus to write about to be the most anxiety provoking phase of academic writing.  What if I never get a handle on how to write this paper? I have at least one student a term who emails me shortly before, or just after the due date, when it is waaaay too late, relating this nightmare to me. It is my personal nightmare. It keeps me awake at night when I am playing the student role.

I’m struggling with the same process right now. I have a philosophy of nursing science paper to write in the next couple of weeks. There are two of them due for the term and I instantly had a better idea as to how to handle the second paper, than the first.  My students have three pages worth of assignment guidelines to help them structure and get a handle on what they need to write about. My assignment guidelines are one sentence: Identify a concept in your research area and then critically discuss that concept from two theoretical perspectives.

My research area is writing self-efficacy. The concepts inherent within are numerous.  My gut told me to look at writing voice. My advisor (who is also the course instructor) thought that was interesting. Other possibles that came up included pinning down writing self-efficacy itself, but I wrote another paper which helped with that process already. Authorial identity (which is linked to voice) also came up as a possibility. Self-regulation in writing also seemed workable because while most scholars think self-regulation is a part of self-efficacy (as does the chief self-efficacy scholar, Bandura), there are some who believe it is a separate concept.

The bigger problem turned out to be the theoretical perspectives. I finished my Masters in 2002, and it was two years before that since I last took a theories course. I thought about looking at self-efficacy or self-regulation from the perspectives of Bandura, and the oft-cited theory of writing by Flower and Hayes. But I had my doubts that they were different theoretical perspectives.  A quick flip through my article stacks told me my assumptions were correct. They are both social cognitive theories and thereby constructivist in thinking — where the learner constructs an understanding of knowledge through experience and reflection. Even if Hayes himself has written that he’s “a psychologist and not a sociologist or cultural historian,” the social aspect is present in both the original model and the revised version.  Scratch that idea.

Other theories interested me including Vygotsky (nope, social cognitive), and situated learning. Nope, in situated learning, learning takes place through social relationships situated within a specific environmental context…. sounds pretty social cognitive/constructivist to me.

I then stumbled upon behaviourism. While constructivists believe that internal thinking is important to understanding the world, behaviourists believe in stimulus-response and that external encounters influence behaviour (e.g. If your phone beeps, you’re going to pick it up and look even if you are writing).  Self-regulation can be assessed through behaviour as much as through internal reflection.  It could work!

But I hated it.  It wasn’t exciting. And the topic wasn’t clicking for me. And as a true attest to the power of Bandura (and others) and his work, virtually no one discusses self-regulation from a behaviourist perspective.  My gut told me that my head was never going to be able to grasp this paper or this concept from that perspective.  I went home and put my feet up but still had that feeling of having an empty hole in my gut. That feeling always tells me I’m not done searching.

But something told me to return to this Ryan et al. paper (mentioned in this blog) on voice in academic writing. Academic writing and its objectified voice was developed out of the positivist tradition. But movements abound everywhere to eliminate obtuse writing. Suddenly the hole in my gut was gone. And I was excited.

What is the opposing view? The movement to make academic writing more accessible must come from some philosophical standpoint. Maybe it is interpretivism? Maybe it is constructivist? Post-positivist? Or maybe it is pragmatic — the value in it is found in the success of its implementation. I haven’t completely got a handle on that yet and I have a lot to learn about these epistemological standpoints but if you have any thoughts on the matter or any sources that might help me better grasp the philosophical underpinnings of this topic, let me know.


10 Reasons Why Your Students’ Writing is Bad — Part II (6-10)

In Part I of this blog post I discussed the reasons why our students’ writing can be bad that may be under the control of our own teaching methods, attitudes or ways we present our assignments. Part II will discuss 5 more causes of bad student writing that are as a result of perceptions, decisions, or knowledge deficits that the students may bring to the writing project.  The solutions are tricker in these cases but they do exist. As with Part I, inspirational credit must be given to John R. Hayes for some of the general points given here.

6. Luck vs. Skill 

The student believes her writing skills are fixed and that everyone’s writing skills are fixed and other students who get good grades are just lucky.  This point is straight out of Hayes’s article but one cannot mention role of the perception of ability being related to luck vs. skill without giving credit to the Mastery component of Bandura’s self-efficacy theory. Students who believe writing is a skill they can improve upon will seek help. Those who believe that writing ability is innate and something you are born with will plod along in isolation without asking questions and hand in substandard work without attempting to improve and probably never reading the feedback you give. (Although, I must acknowledge that very little is known about what students actually do with our feedback after we return their papers).

The only way to connect with these students is to somehow force interaction prior to the paper being due via a proposal meeting, a discussion about sources, or an outline.  Having pre-assignments to the main assignment does increase your workload in the paper preparation phase, but it will be worth it when you are grading more pleasant reading papers later on.

7. Someone Else Wrote the Paper (maybe)

Every once in a while I will have a student hand in a paper that just isn’t my assignment.  It usually comes from a known weak student and is usually someone who attends classes most of the time but huddles in the back and runs out the door immediately upon dismissal. The first thing I do when I get a paper like this is I start Googling passages, especially passages with jargony terminology or unusual phrases. A student who hasn’t been able to follow instructions isn’t likely to be able to come up with  either the jargon for their topic or complex ideas.  Funny thing is, I’ve never had anything come up in my search of key phrases in these situations so my suspicions then turn to the possibility that the student enlisted someone else to write the paper or they bought it from a paper mill (and not a very good one), or handed in a paper written by another student for a similar course at another institution hoping it would suffice. Because the paper failed to meet numerous content criteria, I can usually grade it appropriately with an F and carry on. That F grade often means a failure in the course as well.

This is a tricky situation to be in. As much as your gut tells you one thing, you have no solid proof and the student really could have been that clueless. If it is a case of plagiarism, it would be impossible to catch without a confession from the student. Do students confess to these transgressions? Not in my experience. You could also quiz them about the content and see how well they know what the paper says. If they wrote it, they should be able to talk about the paper fluently, but even inability to talk about what they wrote is proof of nothing specific. I generally chose not to question the student. The important factor in ensuring that a student who did not write their own paper does not get a good grade is to make your paper unique enough that only someone who attends class is sure to keep the paper solidly within the assignment guidelines. Having those pre-paper submission requirements, mentioned in #6, built into an assignment will also be a check and balance on the student doing their own work.  I’ve also required students to hand in portfolios of their paper preparation (outline, notes, rough draft) as evidence that they did their own work.  These portfolio components aren’t graded but they are there if I choose to look at them as an audit trail of the students’ work.

8.  Lack of Knowledge about How to Fix “Global Problems”

Most students know that they need to edit their drafts of their paper for grammar, spelling, and sentence structure but, for some students, this is as far is their editing goes. I’ve read many grammatically correct readable papers from students that lack cohesion or completeness of thought, or presents information in a random order without logical connections. Global problems is a phrase I borrow from John R. Hayes and refers to other major problems in a writing assignment such as clearer phrasing, more well developed ideas, a better ordering of information, and other higher level writing tasks. A student who revises their paper for grammar can usually successfully create a readable paper. Most first drafts of papers suck. Mine certainly do, and I would never let anyone read a paper I haven’t globally edited, at least once, first.

Having contact with these students by inviting them to share their drafts prior to the due date via a one-on-one appointment or peer review with strong students, may help these students understand the global editing process. Rewriting is the best writing of all.

9.  Issues of Audience and Voice

Early in my teaching career I had a student come into my office to discuss how I had graded her paper.  I explained to her what my comments meant and what was lacking. She disagreed and proceeded to paraphrase for me what she wrote — which wasn’t what she actually wrote but rather what she should have wrote and what would have got her a higher grade. Hayes notes that most undergraduate student think of themselves as their own audience when writing their papers. Problems can emerge from this perspective of audience because if you are writing for yourself, you can leave out points or make leaps of faith in your argument that are perfectly understandable to you, the author, but not clear to others or the person grading the paper. Other fallacies of audience students make include assuming they don’t need to clarify a point or include a definition because their teacher will know it, writing as if their paper is a magazine article or newspaper, and writing in the second person which leaves the impression that the information is intended for an instructional pamphlet.

Advise students to share their paper with someone who will understand the terminology but also be able to tell them if their writing or points are not clear. Grasping what the audience will and and will not understand in your writing is something that even advanced writers struggle with. When I share manuscripts with co-authors, or read reviewer comments, I often pay attention to questions asked that seem to indicate that the person editing the paper missed the point and saw something different than I intended. Rather than get frustrated with the critique, I take this to mean that what I wrote lacked the clarity I intended to some small degree.  All students of writing need to pay attention to those questions that seem to be off the mark as they are a strong clue to where your message may not be as clear as intended.

10. Poor Reading Skills

They may have had to pass an English language test to get into your program (our students do!) but academic articles are in a class of their own. Some students reject high level primary studies or review articles in favour of lower level material like websites simply because of readability and digestible content that is a fast read. Other students can gather appropriate sources but may not know what parts of the articles are appropriate to gather their points to form their argument.  Misinterpretation of article information abounds in student writing which can contribute to a convoluted presentation of information in their papers.

To read well you need to read more. Students time is limited so sometimes they attempt to take short cuts. You can’t necessarily make better readers of your students; that is a problem only they can work on. You can however help students read smarter. Require specific source types for all writing assignments and indicate there will be a palpable grade loss if those requirements are not met. If you scrutinize a bad paper, as I had to do in the scenario I describe in Part I, item #3, you’ll find that students writing bad papers are often drawing all their facts from the first 2 pages of their peer reviewed sources (indicating that is probably all they read) and the bulk of their major citations is material paraphrased from (questionable) websites.  So because I am asking students to compare and contrast the results of 5 primary research studies, I tell them that this section can only cite information from the results or discussion sections of those articles. Teaching students to grasp the terminology of the discipline or sub discipline will considerably improve their ability to interpret complex academic sources.

And so wraps up the 10 causes of a bad paper. I’m sure this is not an all-inclusive list. Do you have any others to add?  I would like to note that I’ve left out 2 perhaps mythical causes of bad papers: ESL and writing anxiety.  Thus far, in all my reading of the writing literature, the evidence suggests that ESL and writing apprehensive students tend to have equal writing ability to their non ESL and less apprehensive peers.

If you missed Part I you will find it here.

Starting a ‘movement’ of voice

I go to conferences sometimes.  I always present something because I don’t see any point in going unless my name is on the docket and — reality — it is now the only way to get money to go. There are always hot topics in nursing education; the past couple years it’s been simulation and NCLEX prep (the translated American to Canadian nursing registration exam). Transition from student to grad nurse seems to be everywhere these days as well. Years past, grade inflation was the big topic. I have often — no. Correction — always — had little interest in whatever has popped up as the hot topic of the decade, which has always made me feel a bit like an anomaly. Off and on for 10 years I’ve been going to conferences and presenting something about writing. And I am the only one talking about the subject. I have moderate sized audiences, though, and the attendees usually want to bitch about how bad students write and how big a problem it is.

(As an aside, I am also anomaly in feeling our student writing isn’t that bad at all — most of them anyhow — they write just fine when they feel their writing is valued).

At the last conference I was at, one senior administrator (no, not my own) raised her hand and said, “I would like to thank you for taking this on.”  Thanks. I need some friends. In my discipline, I feel pretty alone.

Nevertheless, every once and a while nursing does something brilliant about writing in the published literature.  There are only spots of brilliance in a pool of the mundane and superficial. How do we say that in academic voice?  There is a paucity of literature on this subject and what exists in the published literature is primarily anecdotal and refers to local contexts. For all the style guides that warn of the weakness of euphemism in writing, academic writing is really good at sophisticated euphemism: anecdotal and local contexts, vs. mundane and superficial. The latter is a little mean, isn’t it? The article I quoted in the image (Ryan, Walker, Scaia, & Smith, 2013, p. 297) is an exception and far ahead of the curve of where actual thinking about writing currently stands in the nursing discipline. That quote is the reason why I wanted to start this blog. There is so much that can be said when you aren’t governed by the need to cite everything — and you can use slang and contractions and funny punctuation like double-dashes, ask rhetorical questions, drop the occasional four-letter word, and sometimes even fragment sentences are OK (if for emphasis). Ironically, the ellipsis in the quote is a citation I removed (rebel!). There is a good chance it was cited more because it inspired the point rather than because it made the point.

I’ve never been one to be very good at not just saying out loud what I think. It’s got me in trouble on more than one occasion. I find blog writing easier because I can share my reflections that can’t go into my papers in their raw form, and I can write in a semi-controlled stream-of-conscious style. It is freeing to let go of structure and rules — neither of which I am very good with in real life anyhow. But paradoxically I find academic writing easier because of the ability to hide my real voice which is sometimes contemptuous, sarcastic, and critical. Like most women, I’ve been socialized that I should never make others feel bad, not even accidentally or if by telling the truth. Sometimes my real voice sends me into a tail spin of anxiety and embarrassment.

I wrote these sentences into a recent and pending paper I am working on:  Nursing students’ devaluation of writing can only exist because their instructors and their programs allow it to. While the importance of writing skills for nursing students is emphasized in every publication, the wider profession devalues its importance. 

Those phrases never made it past the first draft. I never send my first draft to my co-authors. So while they never got to read those sentences, they did get to read my track changes side comment a paraphrase of which was: I wrote (paraphrase of above sentences) in the first draft. I took it out because I’m not sure the world is ready to hear it yet. One of them, bless her soul, I love her, wrote back: “I agree!”

But let’s look at a sampling of evidence.

“Writing is not merely the responsibility of the English department, but of the entire academic community” (Luthy, Peterson, Lassetter, & Callister, 2009).

“Student competency in writing …. is often assumed rather than explicitly taught” (Miller, Russell, Cheng, & Skarbek, 2015).

“Students may actually view writing assignments as a burden, as they struggle with trying to determine what an instructor wants in a particular project” (Schmidt, 2004).

“nursing faculty … feel they do not have the time to grade written assignments” (Luthy et al., 2009).

“Many nurse educators do not write academically themselves and yet they expect their students to” (Whitehead, 2002).

“academic writing may not be perceived as a legitimate part of clinical nursing practice” (Whitehead, 2002).

“The central question here is why do nursing students have to write essays? … the emphasis on essay writing (and the failure to succeed even in that) is highly symbolic of the mess in which nursing education finds itself” (Cottingham, 2005).

Now I recognize that every one of the above quotes have been pulled out of context and with the exception of the last one (although, I may argue a devil’s advocate subtext is present here because the author is clearly a great writer himself), every one of these authors supports writing as valuable to nursing. Most of them say nursing could benefit from allowing students to have a voice and not locking them into academic conventions.  Creativity and individual personalized expression are valuable too.

But the message is clear. We have a problem with writing in nursing.  We suspect our profession would rather pass the buck on writing instruction to someone else (English departments) rather than be responsible ourselves, and that tendency affects our students’ understanding of what we are asking them to do. We have better uses of our time than grading (ubiquitously bad) writing assignments. We don’t do enough writing ourselves. Writing may not be important to clinical practice.

We are the only discipline that even questions why we write (that I’ve noticed). I’ve read about writing across many disciplines (with psychology, education, libraries, writing centres, and history being the most prominent). That students have to write and that instructors need to be a part of that learning process is a foregone conclusion.  But in nursing, not so.  We are the profession that published the article by Cottingham, which can also be read as an ironic and sarcastic piece,  proposing the question of why do we bother to teach writing at all?  “There is not a skerrick of evidendential connection between good essay writing and good nursing (or even intelligence, come to that!).” It made my blood boil when I first read it but, damn it!, he’s not wrong.  We haven’t provided any evidence at all. Does writing make nursing students better critical thinkers and clinical practitioners, as every article claims in its review of the literature as justification for their work, or is it the other way around? Or is there no connection at all? Does it matter? Does having evidence even matter?

I’m trying to do the work to find out. I may be alone in that mission. I recognize there is irony in my discussion of the need for us to step outside from behind the comfort of academic voice, show our real selves and say what we mean, while I write this blog not yet revealing who I am.  Right now I’m just putting out feelers. In due time, my readers, in due time.