“Water, stories, the body, all the things we do, are mediums that hide and show what’s hidden” (Rumi, 1991, p. 29).
As the writing scholar at the University Of Victoria School Of Nursing, my job is to assist students and faculty with academic writing and writing for publication. I teach online writing courses, cowrite a blog on writing and research, tutor individual students, and provide faculty support on writing issues. After reading an article on how to intervene with graduate student writing in nursing (Hanson Diehl, 2007), I decided to create an optional 1-day writing workshop for incoming master of nursing (MN) students. I worked closely with a PhD student, Coby Tschanz, who has an interest in writing and agreed to collaborate on developing and presenting a shorter version of the 3-day workshop Hanson Diehl describes. This article is our account of how we designed and delivered a writing workshop for our incoming MN students to address the dearth of explicit instruction in academic writing in graduate nursing. We offer this description of the development and delivery of the workshop, its differences from Hanson Diehl’s, and discussion of our pedagogical rationale so that other nursing faculty may draw from our experience.
Hanson Diehl’s (2007) article appealed to us because she identified storytelling as a starting point for scholarly inquiry and helped students to make connections to nursing literature. Frequently, students see the literature as a monolithic and intimidating presence in their studies (Kamler & Thomson, 2006) and cannot fathom how their own experiences, thoughts, and ideas might be connected to published writing. We wanted students to have the opportunity to become familiar and feel relaxed with academic writing—to see the connections between academic writing and their nursing stories, learn about some tools, and gain confidence in their writing abilities. Rumi, a 13th century poet and spiritual leader, inspired us to consider how stories are like water (see epigraph). Drawing on this poetic expression, we explored with students how stories flow from personal experience and how immersion in stories may sustain and refresh academic endeavors.
In planning the workshop, we took inspiration from many of Hanson Diehl’s (2007) activities and condensed them into a shorter time frame, employing a variety of instructional methods and materials. Hanson Diehl’s workshop comprised three sessions: “storytelling to connect to the literature and discover thesis,” “accessing the literature” in which students visit the library and collect five articles connected to their stories, and “basic composition and calming the APA style monster” in which students create a draft of their papers in basic American Psychological Association (APA) style. Because of our time limitations, we replaced Session 2 with our own assignment to each student of an article we determined was connected to his or her story. However, we attempted to preserve the spirit of Hanson Diehl’s implicit pedagogy: When students begin to feel and see connections between their own practice as nurses and the world of scholarly writing, they start to feel comfortable entering the academic conversation (Graff & Birkenstein, 2010).
We sent out a request to registrants of the course to write a one-page nursing story from their point of view: a meaningful event or account of a situation in their role as a nurse (as described in Hanson Diehl’s  Session 1). The event or encounter could be recent or long past but should be directly situated in a domain of nursing practice: clinical, administration, education, or research. We told them that after we read their stories, we would assign (by e-mail) a related article from the nursing literature for them to read prior to the workshop. We then asked them to bring print copies of their stories and their articles to the workshop.
We read the stories and found them heartfelt and varied. I relied on Coby’s knowledge of the nursing literature to find some of the relevant articles, whereas I found others by using key words in the CINAHL database. We looked for articles that had an explicit or apparent philosophical or theoretical connection to each story. We told our participants in the e-mail accompanying their respective assigned articles that “these are not perfect matches, but we tried to find an article that had something to do with your topic.” We then asked them to make notes about ideas that came up and connections they saw between their stories and the article.
Morning: Freewriting and Storytelling
We started the morning with introductory rounds: “Tell us what you want us to know about you.” Then, after explaining what freewriting is, we did a 10-minute freewriting session. Elbow (1998) claims that this practice—to write without stopping for 10 minutes—is the “easiest way to get words on paper and the best all-around practice in writing that I know” (p. 13). Some students had never heard of this tool before. We asked them to write about “how I write” (Becker, 2007). The idea is to explore the way you write, describing your rituals and habits (e.g., full pad of yellow foolscap, 10 sharpened pencils). Freewriting can be done without a key idea or without responding to a particular question, but it turns out that the students appreciated the direction we gave. Some students reported an “aha” moment, and several felt that this technique was the most important thing they took with them from the workshop: a tool focusing on the process of writing that freed them to write without thinking about end product or usable material.
Next, we discussed storytelling and what inspires us to start writing and keep writing. Coby shared a story about hospice palliative nursing practice and then showed a mind map she created from the story. The mind map included tentative links with relevant concepts and literature. These two artifacts illustrated how our nursing stories and the interpretations of such stories can be linked with existing scholarly literature in fruitful ways. Our plan was to set the stage for students to work with their one-page stories to build bridges to the nursing literature. The group divided into pairs and each participant read his or her story aloud to the other student. Again, taking our cue from Hanson Diehl (2007), we asked the pairs to make notes in response to the following guiding questions:
Listener: What were your feelings hearing the story? What was the plot of the story? Why do you think the storyteller told the story? Are there any connections between the story and your own nursing experiences?
Storyteller: What was it like to write this story? What did you notice/feel when you read it aloud? What did you choose to write about and why? Can you see any implications here for future writing/research?
Both listener and storyteller: How is this writing similar to and different from a scholarly paper? (p. 202)
The results were again surprising. Some students became very emotional reading their own stories or listening to their peer’s stories.
During the hour before lunch, we talked in the large group about forms of academic writing. We asked workshop participants to name different genres and listed them on the board. We discussed what distinguishes scholarly writing from other types of writing. We then talked about the levels of scholarly writing. We ended the morning with a definition of thesis, advising the students that after lunch they would generate a thesis as an aspect of transforming a story into scholarly writing.
Afternoon: Connecting to the Literature, and American Psychological Association
We started our afternoon with a second freewriting session on thesis, asking students, “What is the thesis or main claim of your reflection?” Next, working alone to develop this thesis and bridge it to the article, students were encouraged to use any method that worked for them: mind and concept mapping using the materials at hand (including colored pens, index cards, and large sheets of paper), writing by hand or on their laptops, and discussing their ideas with peers. This part of the session required from us more interaction with individual students than we had anticipated, partly because some students felt that their assigned articles were not really relevant and other students felt uncertain about the task. Coby took advantage of these interstices of discomfort to facilitate discussion about the apparent “misfits” between story and article, asking, “Does a story—whether told informally or refined and published—necessarily have a ‘true’ interpretation or a single point to convey? Or, can the meaning of a story be fluid, depending on circumstance, focus, style, and teller?” In this discussion, an idea surfaced that pondering the relevance of available literature for interpretation and analysis of practice stories can bring new insights. Some students came to important realizations from an apparent lack of fit with literature and the resultant tangents in thought; others discovered unusual ways in which their work could be advanced by engaging with the literature.
We deviated most from Hanson Diehl’s (2007) schedule during this middle section of the workshop; whereas in her workshop students visited the library and discovered and used up to five related articles, we chose for our students just one article to read and make preliminary connections with. Although a library visit is not an option in a 1-day workshop because of time constraints, it may be desirable to allow students to choose their own articles if they have the technical ability to do so. Hanson Diehl stresses that overreliance on literature can undermine the student’s writing voice; she encourages students to use the articles to frame their own arguments. In one day, we were not able to advance to the point of coaching students on a first draft of a paper in which they cited the literature.
Next, we used a diagram (taken from Hanson Diehl’s work) to illustrate links between our stories and the literature. In one column under the heading “story” I wrote the words plot, characters, and message; in another column under the heading “article/essay” I wrote the words purpose, ideas, and thesis. I then drew bridges between plot and purpose, characters and ideas, and message and thesis. One student had a gestalt moment when she saw these connections on the board, a gestalt that helped her to see how her own story might be turned into an essay and even an article.
We ended the afternoon with an hour-long learning activity by Coby on working with the APA style guide. Several students had asked us to include advancing facility with APA style as a goal for the workshop. We began with a discussion about what is meant by the requirement to “use APA,” what experiences students had had with using APA style, and why APA style may be required. The students were interested to hear about the origins and development of APA style. We viewed a Website that cited the most common errors of APA usage. Students seemed surprised to note that errors of punctuation and grammar are very common. Otherwise, the main aspects of APA style can be articulated as matters of logical flow and organization, use of language, and procedures for citing and referencing sources.
Finally, I wrote on the board Hanson Diehl’s (2007, p. 203) acronym SEER as a useful framework for structuring papers:
S—Summarize what will happen in the paper.
R—Use the conclusion to review.
Students were happy to take away what they perceived as this nugget of gold.
At the end of the day, students felt more confident about their writing and more familiar with APA style, had an understanding of the fluidity of stories with respect to their meaning and use, and expressed a better understanding of academic writing and its relationship to their own experiences.
Quoting a graduate student about the strange absence of writing instruction in graduate school, Belcher (2009) writes:
If you enrolled in welding school, would you expect them to teach you everything but how to wield a torch? Would you expect them to say, “This is the main task of your future career, we shouldn’t have to teach you how to do it”? (p. 189)
Intensive interventions such as this 1-day workshop can go a long way toward helping students to “wield a torch” by demystifying academic writing and “the literature,” seeding the concept of writer’s voice and identity, and providing a starter toolbox for writers. We realize, of course, that this is only the beginning. Students will continue to work on their writing using the resources available to them; however, we cannot overestimate the significance of students starting graduate programs from a position of strength.
Becker, H. (2007). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Belcher, W. (2009). Reflections on ten years of teaching writing for publication to graduate students and junior faculty. Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 40 (2). 184–200. http://dx.doi.org/10.3138/jsp.40.2.184
Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2010). They say I say: The moves that matter in academic writing (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Norton.
Hanson Diehl, S. (2007). Developing students’ writing skills: An early intervention approach. Nurse Educator, 32 (5), 202–206.
Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision [e-reader version]. New York, NY: Routledge. Retrieved from http://lib.myilibrary.com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/
Rumi, J. (1991). One-handed basket weaving: Poems on the theme of work (C. Barks, Trans.). Athens, GA: Maypop.