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Clear writing: how to get top marks for your essays

Writing clearly and concisely is a real skill.

We live in a world where everyone from the greengrocer to the carpet salesperson uses punctuation that distorts the meaning of sentences. And in academia, in particular, people like to use five words where one will suffice.

This studentnursingtimes guide to writing will help you get back to basics.

That is writing clear, short simple sentences that convey your argument to the reader without them having to work hard to get it.

The Plain English campaign believes that all documents - whether legal, financial or medical - should be written for people to understand instantly and so we are going to use a lot of their principles in this guide. Choosing simple, accessible vocabulary, short sentence structures and clear meaning will help you achieve that in your work.

Why is it important?

You may think the content of what you are saying is more important than how you are expressing it, but it is not true. When you are writing a dissertation, thesis or paper, you are demonstrating to your tutors, the clarity of your thought and ability to express an argument. If you can not make your points well, you will lose readers, and, more importantly, marks.

The best way to get used to writing well is to read a lot. Read nursing journals, but also well-written national newspapers and magazines. Don’t just read passively but observe the way they structure sentences and arguments, and think about what you find easy or hard to read.

Keep it short

The first rule of writing clearly is to keep everything short - words, sentences and paragraphs. If you can cut something out without losing the meaning, cut it out. If you are trying to say two things in a sentence, or make two points in a paragraph, break them up.

Let’s start with the building blocks. First your words. In heathcare, you’ll have to treat your reader to a lot of very long, possibly Latin, medical terms. So don’t make the glue that holds those words together even more dense and hard to plough through. Make them light, short and easy to read. Think of words like a thick mud you have to walk through, and as the words you use as burdens your reader has to carry. If your reader ends up walking through too much dense earth, it will get stuck to the bottom of their boots and they will not be able to walk - or read - on. As your objective in any piece of writing is to ensure your reader reaches the end - their destination - you must do whatever you can to make it easier for them. Don’t let them carry through a load of words to the end of the sentence, and don’t make those words be long. So for example, use “buy” instead of “purchase”, “cheaper” instead of “cost-effective” and “a year” instead of “per annum”. If there are more syllables in one way of saying something than in the other, opt for the version using fewer syllables. Always. It will always make your writing clearer.

As well as keeping your words short. Keep your sentences short. Very short. That’s right. Two words is often enough to make the point. All those rules you were taught at school about a sentence having to have a verb are sort of true. But sometimes, for emphasis, a very short sentence will do. So there. It makes the point. But in most cases, aim to have sentences that are no longer than 15 to 20 words. You don’t have to rigidly count the words in every sentence. If your writing contains sentences of all the same length, the flow of your writing would feel unusual. Once you start writing, you’ll get a feel for what is too long and it will come naturally to you.

Your paragraphs should also be trimmed down to express just one idea.

Ideally, they should be about two or three sentences, but you can use more or less - just don’t make them too chunky. And if you are making a second point, go on to a new paragraph. A paragraph should introduce an idea, explain it and then round it off, ideally by linking to the next paragraph or “thought”.

After you have written something, always go through it and see if you can cut it down or use shorter words and sentences. You will always find that you can, and this will always improve your writing.

Avoid repetition

One way of cutting down sentences and paragraphs is to avoid repetition.

Writers do this a lot, but it’s usually unnecessary if you have explained something clearly the first time. The second time you refer to something, merely put in a reference to it.

For example:

“The results of this survey show that nurse involvement in mealtimes increases the hydration and nutrition of their patients. By ensuring patients are not interrupted during the protected mealtimes, nurses are encouraging their patients to look forward to and build the mealtime into their routine, similar to how they would outside of the ward. Nurses’ involvement in such initiatives increases the hydration and nutrition of their patients.”

The last sentence is unnecessary, but the author is giving it to the reader who has the expectation that they will get new information from it.

Use active verbs

One way of making your writing stronger is to use active verbs instead of passive ones.

A sentence has three main parts - a subject (the person doing the action), a verb (the action itself) and an object (the person, group or thing that the action is done to).

An active verb always involves someone doing something. Passive verbs are the opposite - something is done to someone.

For example: “The nurse prepped the patient for his operation.” The nurse is doing the prepping - this is an active verb. The nurse is the subject, the verb is prepped and the object is the patient.

But in “The patient was prepped by the nurse for his operation.” The patient is being prepped - it is a passive verb.

  • “The nurse observed the ward round of the matron” is active.
  • “The matron’s ward round was observed by the nurse” is passive.
  • “The nurse injected the patient” is active.
  • “The patient was injected by the nurse” is passive.

When you can, always try to use active verbs. It makes your writing much stronger and cleaner. You will notice that in many cases, using the active verb will make the sentence shorter by one or two words too.

Nominalisations

You should also try and avoid nominalisations. These are an abstract noun formed by a verb. For example, arrangement instead of arrange, discuss instead of discussion, complete instead of completion and fail instead of failure. It’s always better to write “The task failed because…” rather than “the failure of the task was caused by…” or “we discussed the case” instead of “we had a discussion of the case”. Again, it keeps it short and more active.

Punctuation

Clear punctuation rules should be followed in all writing.

Commas - you should use a comma or a dash like this - to introduce a dependent clause or as an aside.

For example: Writing short sentences is a hard - but rewarding - task.

You could put the “but rewarding” in brackets (also called parantheses) or in commas. The words “but rewarding” could be take out completely, and the sentence would still make sense. The rule here is that if you do put in an aside, you should put in a comma, bracket or dash at the beginning rand end of the bit of the sentence that could be removed. You would not think of using one bracket (paranthesis) without finishing it, so don’t do it with commas and dashes.

That said, there are occasions where you use a comma not to introduce additional information, but to give the reader a pause, a breath in the sentence.

For example: “When the nurse did her rounds at 7am every day, she made a note of the patients’ blood pressures and glucose levels.”

In this example the part of the sentence after the comma is essential to the meaning, so you do not need to put a comma in after it. The comma merely acts as a breath for the reader to introduce the point.

Full stops - should be used often. Frequently, in fact. They make sentences short, after all. So we like them. A lot.

Apostrophes. If you hate apostrophes and don’t know how and when to use them, you’re in good company. People leave them out, overuse and almost always use them incorrectly. Here are the rules:

You use an apostrophe to indicate possession of something, usually, when it’s one person who owns the “object” the apostrophe goes between their name and the “s”:

  • The nurse’s uniform
  • The matron’s speech
  • The hospital’s patients
  • Ann’s book
  • Tim’s chart
  • The woman’s coat

This still applies if it is a plural, but the apostrophe goes after the s, showing that it is a plural:

  • The nurses’ uniforms
  • The doctors’ coats
  • The patients’ waiting room

You can see here how important it is to get this right. “The nurse’s uniforms” means one nurse has several uniforms, whereas “the nurses’ uniforms” is saying there are several uniforms belonging to several nurses - one apostrophe in the wrong place can change the whole meaning.

In a few cases, people get confused when the plural form does not end in s. For example men, women and children. But it’s very simple. As the plural form for these words does not require an extra “s”, they take the same form as a singular possessive construction. For example: Men’s room, Women’s clinic, children’s playroom and people’s rights. You could not think that men, women or children meant only one woman, man or child, so the apostrophe, unlike with the nurses’ or nurse’s, can stay after the word and before the s.

It’s is another form of contention. When It’s means “it is” the apostrophe is used to show that a letter (in this case the “I” of “is” has been left out of the contraction. Ie “it’s”. So “it’s going to be busy in the ward today.” “It’s important to update the patient charts before noon”

When its indicates possession, there is NEVER an apostrophe. So, “The hospital has several wards. Its busiest is the maternity ward.”

  • It’s = it is
  • Its = something belongs to it

Lynn Truss’s fabulous book on punctuation Eats shoots and leaves is actually very funny and very useful. I highly recommend it.

Good luck and happy writing.

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