Writing Guide for Nurses

Nurses should be compassionate, pay attention to detail, and have acute critical-thinking abilities. They also need stellar verbal and written communication skills. Writing abilities can set a nurse apart when it comes to hiring or advancement decisions. Nurses are often responsible for educating patients and their caregivers on how to take their prescription medication or perform their assigned exercises, and it's vital for patients to understand these instructions, or they risk relapse or further health issues. Nurses must also communicate with physicians and other caregivers through notes and patient charts, which must accurately communicate changes in patient condition to help doctors make diagnoses or determine treatment options.

Nurse's notes become legal documents, detailing the care provided to a patient and the patient's response to treatment. Those notes demonstrate whether a nurse fulfilled his or her obligation to treat a patient, and help determine what went wrong, should problems arise. Nursing school prepares nurses for these responsibilities through writing assignments and research projects, plus chart exercises and personal reflections during clinical rotations. This nursing school writing guide helps students understand the basic rules of grammar, and the styles used in various types of writing.

Types of Writing Nurses Will Do in School

Personal Statements for Nursing School

Nursing schools' admission processes are often highly competitive, valuing both grades and personal statements. Personal statements help admissions officers understand why a given applicant wants to become a nurse, plus their unique skills and life experiences that may help that applicant succeed in the field. Personal statements give applicants the opportunity to be honest and self-reflect, and share personal anecdotes (though statements should maintain a professional tone).

When writing a personal statement, students should convey emotion while also sharing pertinent facts about their experience and education. Some nursing programs may ask applicants a specific question, or assign a statement prompt, such as discussing self-identified strengths and weaknesses. Often, schools require specific examples of how students' experience impacted their educational choices. These instructions may include statement word limits, so applicants should carefully consider their responses and stick to the allotted space. They should make sure to answer the question in the prompt, and proofread their work before submitting it. Make sure to adhere to any specific formatting requirements, such as font and spacing.


Aspiring nursing students can demonstrate their understanding of the course material, plus their writing and critical-thinking skills, through essay response questions on their exams. To prepare for these exams, students should review their notes, paying particular attention to the themes and content stressed in class. Once the test starts, students should review the test format and allocate adequate time to answer each question. If the teacher offers a selection of essay exam questions to choose from, test-takers should decide which questions to answer before they begin writing.

When answering an essay question on an exam, first identify the fundamental questions asked by the prompt. Some prompts may request an analysis of processes or procedures, or an explanation of cause and effect. Start by writing a thesis sentence, and outlining three main points to include in the essay body, providing specific evidence and examples. Avoid giving broad or overly detailed answers.

Research Papers

Research papers call for more preparation than essays, requiring more sources, references, and in-depth analysis. Students writing research papers must do more than recite what others have said about the subject -- they need to evaluate others' analysis and provide their own unique perspective the topic in question. Argumentative research papers state a thesis and use references to support that thesis, while analytical papers explore a specific question. Both types of research paper must include a thesis statement, analysis of the reference material, citations, and a conclusion.

Many students struggle to find suitable topics for their research paper, often going either too specific or too broad. For example, a proposal to review the efficacy of alternative pain management techniques may be overly broad. Focusing the topic to a specific alternative treatment, or a particular type of pain management (such as chronic pain, or acute pain resulting from injury), may help writers evaluate the topic in a few pages.

Before students begin writing, they should discuss with their professor about the preferred paper format, including font and margin sizes. They should also review citation requirements and gather necessary bibliography and reference list information, plus source material. Writers should proofread their work before turning it in, and may find it helpful to have another student or friend proofread the paper, as well.

How Do You Write a Nursing Essay?

Each writing assignment helps students develop the writing skills they'll need after they've completed their college courses and launched their careers. Writing assignments pop up in several nursing school courses, in a variety of formats, depending on the course and the class objectives. Each assignment requires unique skills and critical thinking abilities.


Narrative essays draw on a students' personal experiences, often using informal language and first-person perspective. These papers should still have a thesis and evidence to support it. Narrative essays often include elements such as plot, characters, and setting, plus some form of conflict and resolution. Carefully choose your words with these assignments, opting for descriptive terms that convey emotion.


Expository essays are sometimes known as five-paragraph essays, though they may be longer depending on the subject matter and assignment. These papers begin with a thesis statement, clearly stating the essay's goals, and end with a conclusion, wrapping up the supporting evidence. In between, students should include at least three paragraphs, each addressing one point of evidence or example to support the thesis. Students should use third-person point of view and more formal language in these assignments.


These essays state an argument and use supporting evidence to sway readers to agree with that argument. Language can convey passion here, but writers shouldn't rely on emotion to make their argument. Instead, they should back up their opinions with well-researched factual statements. Address counter-arguments with facts, as well, and make sure to attack ideas, not people.


Comparative essays ask students to examine two theories, policies, or events for similarities and differences. The essay prompt may specify what element of the two items should be compared, or the writer may be allowed to determine that on his or her own. These essays also begin with a thesis and end with a conclusion, but the body focuses on comparing and contrasting the two items in question.

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect essays ask students to link events using evidence and logic. Writers may need to narrow down broader subjects into more manageable topics here. These essays also begin with an intriguing thesis, with supporting evidence in the following paragraphs. The conclusion summarizes these points, and sometimes forecasts future events based on similar circumstances.

Citations Guide for Nursing Students

Style guides govern the nuts and bolts of research papers, scholarly articles, books, and news articles. These guides help standardize language and structure within writing, and ensure readers can find the information used to develop the paper at hand, which may include published research studies, academic literature reviews, or other scholarly work. Students writing research papers must bring their own thoughts and opinions to the work, while making sure they give proper credit to the authors they've used to develop those thoughts and opinions. Without crediting those authors, students risk being charged with plagiarism -- stealing another's ideas -- and could face stiff academic penalties, such as a failing grade or even expulsion.

American Psychological Association (APA) Style

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association guides grammar, formatting, and citations in academic writing. Now in its sixth edition, APA style comes from a group of psychologists who developed these stylistic rules for their scholarly manuscripts. APA uses a reference list that includes all sources used in the work, making it easy for readers to track down the original works for further research. Writers cite the reference material within the article, so readers know which information comes from each specific source. The APA offers guidance on citing several types of source material, including books, articles, websites, and social media posts.

Example: A well-stocked pantry keeps cooking staples at the ready (Bittman, 2012).

Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)

Now in its 17th edition, The Chicago Manual of Style serves the publishing industry with standard punctuation, word usage, abbreviations, and formatting rules. Editors and typesetters with the University of Chicago Press developed it beginning in 1906, and recent updates reflect changes in technology and information delivery made possible by the internet. It's popular among writers in the fields of history, arts, and humanities. Chicago style uses parenthetical citations in the text or superscript numbered citations that correspond with footnotes at the bottom of the page or endnotes at the end of the work. In parenthetical citations, include the author's last name, the year the book was published, and the page number where the information is found.

Example: A well-stocked pantry keeps cooking staples at the ready (Bittman 2012, 2)

Modern Language Association (MLA) Format

Many practitioners in the humanities and language arts fields prefer the Modern Language Association style for manuscripts and source citation. MLA style includes both the MLA Handbook, now in its eighth edition, and the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, currently in the third edition. Most secondary and undergraduate students will use the MLA Handbook while graduate students and scholars use the style manual and guide. Writers place citations within their text using parentheses, including the first term readers would find for that reference on the works cited page and the specific page where readers can find the cited information. A works cited page provides a comprehensive list of all source material.

Example: A well-stocked pantry keeps cooking staples at the ready (Bittner 2).

Associated Press (AP) Style

Developed by editors and reporters, AP style standardizes common word spellings, punctuation styles, and formatting rules unique to the newswriting industry. THe AP Stylebook also includes a review of libel laws, privacy rules, Freedom of Information Act compliance, and copyright protection. Because journalistic writing often serves as a primary source, there isn't a detailed bibliography or list of references. Journalists cite their sources as direct or indirect quotes, attributing them to people, publications, or reports. Attributions occur within the article or text itself. Online sources, such as government data and research outcomes, can easily be linked to the article, as well.

Example: In his book, "How to Cook Everything: the basics," Mark Bittner wrote that a well-stocked pantry keeps cooking staples at the ready.

Which Writing Style Should Nursing Students Use?

Nurse's notes provide a first-person, authoritative review of patient condition and treatment. Nurses writing these notes may refer to tests they performed themselves. Each employer may have his or her own preferred format for keeping nurse's notes. Nursing students, on the other hand, usually follow APA format for their nurse's notes, because it is the preferred style for scientific and medical professions. APA allows readers to easily cross-reference sources that formed the basis of the writer's ideas.

Common Writing Mistakes Students Make

Active Vs. Passive Voice

Active voice allows writers to convey ideas using fewer words and more exciting language than passive voice. In active voice, the sentence subject takes action, described by a verb. For example, instead of writing "Smoking was found to contribute to a higher risk of heart disease in research studies," try writing, "Studies found smoking contributed to a higher risk of heart disease." Look for passive writing by circling forms of "be" verbs, or finding phrases that include "by."

Readers often prefer active voice because it is simpler and clearer than passive voice. Readers don't have to ask themselves, "who did what?" Writers may encounter limited situations in academic or scientific writing where passive voice is appropriate, such as when they need to protect a subject's identity, or highlight an action instead of a subject.


Punctuation acts as the road signs of writing. Periods tell readers to stop, while commas only call for a slight pause. Proper punctuation ensures readers can understand a text's information and ideas as well as possible, and keeps that information well organized. Comma splices, a common punctuation error, occur when writers attempt to join two sentences together with only a comma between them. Writers may correct this error by writing two sentences, adding a conjunction, or changing one independent clause to a dependent clause. Many students also struggle with the correct usage of colons and semicolons. Semicolons help separate items in a list that already includes commas, or join two closely related sentences. Colons, on the other hand, introduce additional information to the reader, such as a list of items. Colons always follow complete sentences, and should never separate a noun and verb or a verb and object.


Grammar refers to the structure of sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and more. Grammar guidelines tell authors that their subjects and verbs must agree, and how to arrange words correctly within a sentence (this is known as "syntax"). In English, sentences follow this pattern: subject, verb, object. Standard grammar rules allow authors' ideas to shine through with clarity and strength.

Homophones are words that sound similar, but have different meaning and spelling. Homophone mix-ups can end up severely changing a sentence's meaning. Other common grammatical mistakes include mixing up affect with effect, or confusing fewer with less. Writers should also make sure their pronouns are clear, and avoid descriptive language that comes off as confusing or biased.

Writing Resources for Nursing Students

  • National Center for Biotechnology Information: This resource offers guidance on what to include in nursing notes, and who is responsible for keeping proper documentation of patient care. It explains the legal requirements of nurses to keep appropriate patient records, plus several writing tips for nurses.
  • American Psychological Association: Keep up with the latest updates APA Style updates, and find easy-to-reference instructions on basic formats. This site also includes a collection of frequently asked questions.
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab: The Online Writing Lab offers a collection of writing tips for a variety of assignments, plus tips on evaluating research materials and sources and examples of style guide citations and formats. It also provides clear explanations of common grammar questions, and guidance on commonly misused words.
  • Chicago Manual of Style: This site includes a quick reference of common style questions, plus a blog delving into the critical points of Chicago style. Subscribers enjoy access to additional resources, and a users' forum to seek help from other writers.
  • Online Resources for Writers: This collection of writing resources provides help with the writing process. Most of these resources do not require users to be students of Amherst College.