Writing About Nursing

Writing About: Nursing

Every field has its own rules for writing. When you sit down to write a paper on Shakespeare you're going to handle it differently than you would a physics or psychology assignment. Below you'll find guidelines and helpful hints for academic writing in nursing classes.
Voice: active
Style guide: APA (American Psychological Association)
Person: 3rd
Central argument: research question or thesis statement

Scholarly versus professional writing

Writing in nursing school and within the nursing profession can be a challenge because you actually need to master two very different styles of writing. Academic work, including research papers, case studies, and article critiques, should be written in a scholarly style-the audience for this work is professors and other researchers, and these papers are meant to be read in an academic setting. All students, no matter the discipline, will be taught to write in this style. Nurses, though, also need to be able to effectively communicate in writing in a professional setting. Learning to craft high-quality nursing notes and nursing care plans is a central part of any nursing program because good communication is so important for patient care. These types of professional documentation have their own format and style requirements that are extremely specific and often quite different from what's expected in academic writing. Professional writing for nurses is a lengthy topic of its own, so this article is going to focus solely on academic writing for student nurses (although many of the guidelines for good writing described here will also be useful in a professional setting).

Types of nursing papers

Primary research papers

Some nursing programs will require students to perform independent, primary research. The results of this work will be written up in a research paper.

Secondary research papers

Nursing students will likely also be asked to research a particular topic and write a paper that puts forth a thesis and demonstrates an understanding of all the important aspects of that topic. These secondary research papers don't require any hands-on experimentation, but instead require you to read and evaluate other people's work.

Literature review

A literature review is a summary of the important published research that's been done on a particular topic. It can be included as part of a research paper or case study, or it can stand alone as its own project.

Case studies

A case study is a detailed analysis of a single patient. They're an integral part of the nursing profession, and you will be asked to both analyze and write them as part of your studies.

How to write about nursing

Primary research papers

Primary research papers detail original investigative work. This includes experimental work as well as meta-studies of a research topic. If you've done either type of primary research, there's a specific format that your papers should follow:
  • Abstract: The abstract is a 300-500 word paragraph that summarizes your work. It goes at the start of your paper but should be the last section you write.
  • Introduction: Like the name suggests, the introduction introduces the reader to your topic. It provides any background that's necessary to understand your work and also explains why your topic is important to the field of nursing. If your paper has a literature review, this section will be fairly brief. However, if your paper does not have a literature review, then this section will be much longer and should go in-depth about your topic and explain its relationship to wider issues in nursing.
  • Literature review: The literature review summarizes the important research that's already been done on your topic. In it, you'll explain why this topic is important and also describe how your work fills a void in the current research landscape.
  • Methods: The method section of a research paper describes in detail the materials you used in your work, the steps you took to set up your experiment, and your data collection methods. It should also describe any statistical manipulation you performed on the data.
  • Results: This section gives only the results of your work. It should not include any discussion about what the data means or why it's important. Also, it shouldn't just be a list of raw data; instead you should present key findings and the results of statistical tests in tables or figures.
  • Discussion: The discussion is the heart of your paper. It's where you explain what your results mean and discuss the implications of your work for the rest of the nursing field.

Secondary research papers

The purpose of a secondary research paper is to investigate a particular topic and make a persuasive argument about that topic. For example, if your professor assigns "The Future of Nursing" as a topic, you may choose to write your paper about how advances in drug delivery technology will improve the efficiency of nursing staff. To do that, you'd first look for research on the topic, then form your argument and write your paper. These papers don't have format requirements that are as strict as those for primary research, but below are some general steps you can take to prepare for and write a secondary research papers.
  • Step 1. Do the research: The first step in a secondary research paper is actually the most important-you need to do the research. Whatever your topic is, you need to locate and read enough reliable sources both to get a full picture of how a particular is issue is viewed by scholars and professionals in the field and to acquire enough evidence to prove the argument you'll make in your paper.
  • Step 2. Develop a thesis: Next you need to develop a thesis, which is a one- or two-sentence summary of your main argument.
  • Step 3. Make an outline: Once you have your research and thesis you can prepare an outline. Develop your argument paragraph by paragraph, with each paragraph having a topic sentence and one or two pieces or evidence.
  • Step 4. Write your paper: When the outline is done you're ready to write your paper.
  • Step 5. Proofread: The last step in any paper-writing process is to proofread. No matter how good your argument is, if your paper is full of typos and grammatical mistakes it will bring your grade down.

Literature reviews

A literature review is similar to a secondary research paper, but instead of forming an argument you just need to summarize the important research on your topic. Usually literature reviews start with a short introduction, then the main body of the paper goes through important research developments. Most literature reviews will go through the research chronologically, although you can also organize a literature review by content area or methodology. Research that's included in the paper should come from reliable sources, primarily peer-reviewed journals, but you can also look in books, conference proceedings, and other published scholarly works.

Case studies

Case studies are an important part of nursing. In school they're used as a teaching tool, but nursing students will also need to learn how to write case studies of their own. These papers have very specific formatting requirements.
  • Introduction: Give a short background on the patient and their presenting problem. You should also include a main argument that explains what the focus of the case study will be.
  • Pathophysiology: Explain the pathophysiology of the disease.
  • History: Present a detailed patient history, including other health problems and previous treatments.
  • Physical assessment: Give the patient's specific health stats.
  • Diagnosis: Explain the nursing diagnosis and the goal for treatment.
  • Intervention: Go through the interventions that are necessary to achieve treatment goals.
  • Evaluation: Explain whether the interventions were successful.
  • Recommendations: Lastly, you need to wrap up your case study with a reflection on what could be done in the future to improve the handling of similar patients.
If you have more questions about case studies, it's easy to find studies written by professionals in peer-reviewed journals that you can use for reference.



As with all the sciences, papers in nursing should be written in the third person to maintain objectivity.


Papers in nursing should be objective and dry. You don't want to dress up case studies or research papers with flowery language or overly complex writing.


Almost all nursing programs will require that you format your paper according to APA (American Psychological Association) style guidelines. You can use the APA style book to find the format for the bibliography, title page, and in-text citations.

What to avoid

Biased language

When writing case studies or research patient care, it's easy to become personally invested in your work; however, it's important to maintain an objective tone in all your writing. Use neutral language to discuss patient issues and never let your own feelings show in your work.

Thinking these papers don't matter

While it's true that you probably won't be called on to write any research papers in your professional career, that doesn't mean there isn't value in learning how to do academic writing well. Being able to effectively communicate your ideas and provide logical evidence for your arguments is absolutely critical for nurses. So, when you're struggling to find resources for a research paper or can't quite find the right diagnosis for a case study, it's worth it to take the time to get it right.

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