Why write?

By Karen Roush | 06/25/2015

Nurse stories are about life—its messiness and its truths.

Why write? is a question that often comes up in my work of mentoring nurses in writing. The question doesn’t arise as often with faculty members, who are expected to disseminate research findings and are required to publish to get tenure. Nor does it come up with nurses working in the policy arena, who understand the necessity of writing to create change and promote a health care agenda. But nurses working as clinicians don’t see writing as integral to what they do.
While it’s true that you can provide excellent clinical care without ever publishing an article, writing will enrich your practice, enhance your experience, and create more positive outcomes for your patients. If writing isn’t part of your nursing life, I encourage you to start. And if it is, I encourage you to expand your writing, try a different genre, reach a new audience, or consider a new purpose.
Roush_Karen_ID_embed_SFWWrite to improve patient care.
Nurses do amazing work. We conduct research, develop innovative approaches to care, and carry out quality-improvement projects that change outcomes and make a real difference in patients’ lives. We need to share with other nurses and health care professionals what we observe and learn in our work, and writing is the best way to do that. When you solve a problem, discover previously unseen connections, or find a better way to care for patients, writing enables you to disseminate your knowledge beyond the bedside for the benefit of many.
For example, take a quality-improvement project you’ve completed on your unit that has resulted in positive outcomes for your patients. Perhaps they are better able to self-manage their diabetes or are more prepared for a complex surgery, resulting in less fear preoperatively and improved pain management postoperatively. Talking to co-workers spreads the information within your unit or to the wider facility. Presenting at a conference shares it with a few hundred or even a thousand attendees. But publishing has the potential to spread the information to thousands of nurses across the country and around the world. And that means your efforts to improve care for a few will benefit an untold number of patients.
Write to bear witness.
As nurses, we are present at the most profound events—from the beginning of life to the end of life and everything in between. We are there with the mother who hears her baby’s first cries, and we are there with the mother whose baby is born in awful silence. We are there with the patient who awakens from surgery to hear his or her prognosis, and we are there as that patient figures out what that prognosis means. We are there when patients recently diagnosed with diabetes realize that, yes, they can administer their own insulin—they’re going to be all right, after all.
Sharing these stories offers meaning and insight to other nurses and those who experience situations similar to what we write about. These stories ease suffering and provide paths to new perspectives that help people heal. When people recognize themselves in stories, they realize they are not alone, that others have been where they are and have made it through. Through that recognition, they may come to a place where they are able to say: “I will be OK. I will get through this, too.”
Write to share your own stories.
When we write about our own experiences, we communicate the unique perspectives of two worlds—the world of the healer and the world of the sufferer. We cannot separate our stories from what we’ve learned and lived as nurses. When our personal stories are embedded in that knowledge, they gain power and have potential to be transformative.
I am a survivor of intimate partner violence (IPV) and, as a nurse, have cared for many patients who have experienced IPV. Writing as both a survivor and nurse gives a weight to what I write that neither perspective alone would have. It engenders trust and credibility and, therefore, creates an opportunity and—I believe—a responsibility to share my personal story for the possibility of change.
Recently, I visited a class of graduate students to talk about writing. They had been assigned to read some of the pieces I’ve written about IPV over the years, including opinion pieces, blog posts, poems, and research findings. The responses of two students illustrate the impact writing can have.
The first confessed that, when she saw the topic of the reading assignments, she was not happy. “I thought, ‘Oh no, this is going to be such a downer.’” But the insights she gained from reading about IPV in those formats—stories, poems, and opinion pieces—made her realize how little understanding she had of the experience of IPV and how her misconceptions had resulted in her providing poor care to women who suffered from it. She was determined to change her practice.
The second student was a woman who was in an undergraduate class I had visited a few years earlier, a class that also had read some of my writing on the subject of IPV. Now, in this graduate-level class, she asked if she could read something she had written. It was a personal essay about reading my stories and how it had given her courage to finally speak about her own experiences as a survivor of IPV. Through writing, she was able to break through the silence and isolation and begin to heal. These two examples illustrate the tremendous power of writing to transform lives, professionally and personally.
Write to tell the stories of others.
Nurses have a long history of speaking up for the vulnerable and the voiceless, beginning with Florence Nightingale, a prolific writer, and onward to nurses such as Lillian Wald, the great pioneer and champion of public health nursing. Wald published a series of articles in The Atlantic Monthly that later evolved into her book, The House on Henry Street. In the articles and the book, she told stories of the poor and disenfranchised that she and her organization of nurses cared for, a population of new immigrants to the city who were unable to speak for themselves.
As Wald writes in The House on Henry Street, “Conditions such as these were allowed because people did not know, and for me there was a challenge to know and to tell” (p. 8, italics original). Writing is the best way to tell—not only because, as noted above, it can potentially reach so many, but because it endures. Speaking about a story or a project resonates in the moment, but writing can resonate through time. A hundred years after she wrote them, Lillian Wald’s words enhance our understanding of social injustice and move us to do something about the injustices we see today.
Write to understand.
Writing forces us to see gaps in our thinking. We cannot write well about a topic unless we understand it completely. When we see gaps, two things may happen: 1) We go out and seek more information, which may cause us to question preconceived ideas, change perceptions, and open ourselves to discovery of new ideas, or 2) we begin to formulate questions that will guide research to help fill the information gaps. Eventually, writing leads to new understanding, not only for ourselves but for other nurses and health care professionals.
Cover_SBSGtoWriting_SFWWriting also helps us make sense of this world of health and illness, trauma and redemption that we inhabit. We are called upon day after day to deal efficiently and logically with suffering, to apply science and rationality to the irrational. Moving quickly through a morass of tubes and wires, we combine numbers and evidence with the subjectivity of the life in front of us. Amongst all the equipment, diagnostics, and data, writing keeps us connected to humanity. It helps us interpret and analyze our actions and reactions. It helps us see some small part of ourselves in our patients and, as a result, to be that much more empathetic and to go back the next day and do it all again. Maybe better.
So, why write?
Our experiences as nurses—our stories—are about life, all of its confused messiness as well as its transcendent truths. Few other professions put members in the thick of it like nursing does. When we write about it, we make connections, improve care, and transform lives. Isn’t that the very essence of what nursing is?
Karen Roush, PhD, APN, assistant professor of nursing at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York, USA, is the author of A Nurse’s Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Your Dissertation or Capstone. Roush served for many years as editorial director and clinical managing editor for the American Journal of Nursing (AJN) and continues her affiliation with the journal as an editorial consultant. The founder of The Scholar’s Voice, established to help professionals and scholars in the health sciences, particularly nurses, become skilled, confident writers,Roush blogs regularly for AJN’s “Off the Charts” and advocates against gender-based violence by writing and speaking on the topic.
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