mini logo

Writing Guide for Nurses

mini logo

Clear, cogent writing allows nurses to effectively communicate with patients, families, doctors, other healthcare specialists, and insurance companies. Consequently, nursing students should expect to take writing courses when they enroll in an undergraduate program. On top of traditional academic styles, such as personal narratives and expository essays, nursing students also learn how to write patient charts and care plans. As nurses advance in their careers, particularly if they are enrolled in a doctoral program, they must also learn how to write journal articles, literature reviews, research papers, and dissertations. These courses are especially important for professionals who want to obtain positions as healthcare directors, program consultants, and postsecondary instructors.

Practicing nurses must demonstrate precision, objectivity, and careful attention in their professional writing. They must provide accurate information regarding patient care, symptoms, and medications. Careful, evidence-based documentation can help healthcare professionals decide on new treatment plans and how to settle potential litigation. This nursing school writing guide provides information on the diverse writing styles aspiring nurses should master during their studies.

Types of Writing Nurses Will Do in School

Personal Statements for Nursing School

Nursing schools want candidates who not only meet academic and professional requirements, but also demonstrate a genuine capacity for patient care and individual connections. Students should always craft a personal statement, even when the application does not explicitly require one. This piece of writing allows candidates to describe their goals, characteristics, credentials, volunteer work, and meaningful life experiences. A well-crafted essay can help students stand out among other qualified applicants. As with any piece of writing, students must take the time to revise.

In their personal statements, nursing students should portray themselves as determined and empathetic individuals whose characteristics, history, goals, work ethic, and healthcare philosophy align with their program’s values. Some nursing schools ask for a general personal statement, while others require a specific prompt. Colleges commonly ask students to describe a hardship they overcame, a difficult task they accomplished, or a professional goal they hope to achieve through the program. Many schools also ask students to detail previous experiences in healthcare. Students may write about how they connect with individual patients, particularly those facing difficult health challenges, or how they provide practical and emotional support to loved ones.


Nursing students also encounter writing prompts during examinations, including standardized tests like the GRE or MCAT, nursing school entrance exams, and course specific evaluations. They may also take exams in order to obtain state licensure or professional certification. In all these instances, students usually need to write one or more long-form essays. Proper planning is key. Though students may not know what specific prompt the test will require, they can anticipate certain common topics. Students can search the internet or use study guides to determine which prompts usually appear on each test.

On test day, examinees should begin by creating an outline that lists three main points in response to the prompt. Using these points, students work backwards to write a central thesis from which the essay’s structure begins to take shape. Students should review their content to ensure that the essay actually responds to the prompt at hand. Lastly, nursing students need to leave time to correct spelling, grammar, and stylistic errors.

Research Papers

Like essays, research papers follow a long-form structure. Unlike an essay, which heavily relies on the writer’s point of view, a research paper presents an in-depth investigation of a topic using the data, findings, opinions, insights, and ideas of experts. While an essay evaluates general critical thinking and writing skills, a research paper tests students’ knowledge, research skills, and original contributions. Research papers also allow students to demonstrate they understand what has been argued and discovered about a topic. Research papers, especially at the graduate and doctoral levels, require independent research and analyses. These papers sometimes take months or years to complete.

To write a successful research paper, students need to pick a topic relevant to their interests and the overall nursing field. Possibilities include elder care challenges, patient safety and ethics, mental health treatment and regulations in the U.S., and nursing shortages and possible solutions. Whatever their choice, students must plan accordingly. Advanced papers such as dissertations may require funding or assistance from professors. Research papers typically consist of the following sections: abstract, introduction, literature review, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, and references. Writers should keep this general structure in mind as they prepare notes and outlines.

How Do You Write a Nursing Essay?

In nursing school, essay writing includes academic papers, personal narratives, and professional compositions. Students should familiarize themselves with each of the five major forms below. There are commonalities between all of these essay types, including an overarching thesis and a supportive, logical structure. Students should bolster their claims with factual, statistical, anecdotal, and rhetorical evidence. However, each form requires distinct skills to achieve specific results.

  • Narrative: As its name suggests, a narrative essay tells a story from a clear point of view. Successful narratives feature a beginning, middle, and end. Students generally encounter this essay type during their personal narrative or statement, but they may also compose narratives during introduction to writing courses. A narrative must possess a clear purpose, usually centered on a particular subject matter. Students should use concise, evocative language. Writers may use the first person “I.”
  • Expository: Perhaps the most common academic writing form, expository essays usually follow a basic five paragraph structure. These essays explain or inform the reader about a specific topic. An expository essay features a clear structure and logical transitions between the introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. Students must also provide ample evidence to reinforce their claims.
  • Persuasive: Sometimes confused with the expository form, which also contains argumentative elements, a persuasive essay actively seeks to convince the reader to adopt a certain viewpoint or take a particular action. For example, a persuasive essay could argue for the federal legalization of marijuana in the U.S. due to statistically proven medical benefits and economic gains. Like the other essay types, students need to focus on clear arguments, logical transitions, and overall structure.
  • Comparative: This essay compares and contrasts two items. Students may evaluate theories, texts, events, and opinions on a singular issue. Students may offer an impartial analysis, argue for the superiority of one side, or suggest a synthesis. Whatever the case, students need to pay particular attention to structure in order to link two disparate items under a central thesis. Learners may organize a comparative essay by discussing all of A, then all of B. Alternately, they can move from one topic to the next, including data from both A and B.
  • Cause and Effect: Like a comparative essay, writers may use a cause and effect essay to report on a particular subject or advocate for a specific position. For instance, students may impartially discuss the causes and demonstrable effects of climate change, or they can argue for change through grassroot and legislative action. Like all other essay types, a clear and strong thesis provides a solid foundation. This form relies heavily on logical transitions. Students generally structure the body paragraphs by describing each cause and its collateral effect.

Citations Guide for Nursing Students

Citations allow readers to investigate which sources a particular piece of information comes from. By citing their sources correctly, students avoid plagiarizing or stealing another person’s ideas, research, language, and analyses. Whether intentional or unintentional, plagiarism is one of the most egregious errors a student can make. Consequences include automatic course failure, disciplinary actions from the university, and even legal repercussions. Consequently, students should take special care to ensure they properly cite their sources.

American Psychological Association (APA) Style

Created in 1929 by a group of anthropologists, psychologists, and business professionals, APA is the most commonly used style among natural scientists, social scientists, educators, and nurses. Like other citation styles, APA emphasizes clarity of font style, font size, spacing, and paragraph structure. APA citations prioritize publication date, and in most cases, the date comes right after the author’s name. This order makes the style particularly useful for scientists, who value new research and updates on current findings. For more information on APA style, visit this official website.

(Author and year of publication, page number)
“Punishment, then, will tend to become the most hidden part of the penal process” (Foucault, 1977, p. 9).

Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)

First published in 1907 by the University of Chicago Press, CMS (also known as CMOS or, simply, Chicago) features two citation systems, the notes and bibliography, and the author and date. Used primarily by historians, who place high importance on a text’s origin, the notes and bibliography includes a superscript number with a corresponding footnote or endnote. Scientific professionals use the author and date citation, a generic parenthetical system with similarities to other citation styles. In either case, students must also document their sources in a bibliography. The CMS official website provides additional information, including changes to citation systems in the current edition.

“Punishment, then, will tend to become the most hidden part of the penal process”.1

1. Michel Foucault, trans. Alan Sheridan, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), 9.

(Author and year of publication, page number)
“Punishment, then, will tend to become the most hidden part of the penal process” (Foucault 1977, 9).

Modern Language Association (MLA) Format

MLA format traces its history to 1951 when it was first published as a thin booklet. Today, MLA is the primary citation system used by academics and professionals in the humanities, English, literature, media studies, and cultural studies. To adapt to the rapid growth of new mediums over the past few decades, MLA continually updates its citation system. Students may visit the MLA Style Center for in-depth information on new guidelines and ongoing changes. In general, in text citations consist of author and page number, or just page number if the author’s name appears in the text.

(Author and page number)
“Punishment, then, will tend to become the most hidden part of the penal process” (Foucault 9).

Associated Press (AP) Style

Published in 1952, the original AP Stylebook was marketed to journalists and other professionals associated with the Associated Press. AP now stands as the go-to style for professionals in business, public relations, media, mass communications, and journalism. AP style prioritizes brevity and accuracy. The style includes specific guidelines regarding technological terms, titles, locations, and abbreviations and acronyms. Unlike the previous styles, AP does not use parenthetical or in-text citations. Rather, writers cite sources directly in the prose. For more information, including style-checking tools and quizzes, visit the Associated Press Stylebook.

In the book, “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” first published in English in 1977, philosopher Michel Foucault argues that “Punishment, then, will tend to become the most hidden part of the penal process”.

Which Style Should Nursing Students Use?

Because nurses rely on scientific terms and information, professionals in the field usually use APA style. Regardless of the purpose and specific genre of a nurse’s text, they should always strive for concise, objective, and evidenced-based writing. Nursing students can expect to learn APA style as soon as they enroll in a major course. However, they should also prepare to learn other styles as part of their academic training. For example, freshman composition classes tend to focus on MLA guidelines.

Common Writing Mistakes Students Make

Active Vs. Passive Voice

Active and passive voice represent two different ways to present the same piece of information. Active voice focuses on the subject performing an action. For example, the dog bites the boy. This format creates clear, concise, and engaging writing. Using active voice, nurses might write, I administered patient care at 11:00. Passive voice, on the other hand, focuses on the object of the sentence or the action being performed. For example, the boy was bitten by the dog. Students can generally identify a passive sentence if it contains the verb “to be.” Using passive voice, nurses might write, patient care was administered at 11:00.

Professionals in the sciences often use passive voice in their writing to create an objective tone and authorial distance. Passive voice can prioritize specific terms, actions, evidence, or research over the writer’s presence. Additionally, nurses use passive voice because it is usually clear that the reported thoughts, actions, and opinions come from them. However, nursing students must also learn how to use active voice.


There are 14 punctuation marks in the English language, each with multiple and sometimes overlapping uses. Additionally, certain punctuation marks only make sense in highly specific and nuanced grammatical instances. To master punctuation, students must actively learn through practice, particularly by revising their own writing.

For example, students often use colons and semicolons interchangeably, when they actually serve distinct purposes. Generally used before itemized lists, colons stand in for the phrases “here is what I mean” or “that is to say.” For example, I am bringing three things to the picnic: applesauce, napkins, and lemonade. Semicolons separate two independent clauses connected through topic or meaning. FOr example, It was below zero; Ricardo wondered if he would freeze to death. Comma splices, which create run on sentences, are another common mistake. Students can identify a comma splice by learning the differences between an independent and dependent clause.


Grammar refers to the rules of a particular language system. Grammar determines how users can structure words and form sentences with coherent meaning. Aspects include syntax (the arrangement of words to convey their mutual relations in a sentence) and semantics (how individual words and word groups are understood). Unless a student majors in writing, literature, etymology, or another related field, they generally do not examine English grammar deeply. Through years of cognitive development and practice, native users implicitly understand how to effectively employ the language.

Distinct grammatical systems exist for each language and, sometimes, even within a single language. For example, African American Vernacular English uses different syntactic rules than General American English. All students should actively learn grammatical terms and definitions. Common errors include subject/verb agreement, sentence fragments, dangling modifiers, and vague or incorrect pronoun usage. Hasty writers can also misuse phonetically similar words (your/you’re, its/it’s, and there/their/they’re).

Writing Resources for Nursing Students

  • Purdue OWL: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab provides comprehensive general grammar guides and subject-specific assistance. Resources include writing guides for professional nurses, APA style workshops, research paper examples, and database research tools.
  • APA Style CENTRAL: This page helps students learn APA style and use the citation system. Students can access writing guides, interactive tutorials, and infographic handouts. CENTRAL also provides assistance to individuals who want to conduct original research and publish their findings.
  • All Nurses: The site contains information for all individuals in nursing, from students searching for the right bachelor’s program to seasoned professionals looking to advance in their careers.
  • EasyBib: In addition to citation and grammar guides, EasyBib also provides a citation generator. Students only need to choose the specific format (APA, CMS, MLA, etc.) and plug in required information.
  • Grammarly: Students can download the free Grammarly application to access writing help in real time. The website also features a blog that publishes articles on grammatical rules and other general writing topics.
Advertisement is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Whether you’re looking to get your pre-licensure degree or taking the next step in your career, the education you need could be more affordable than you think. Find the right nursing program for you.