Photo of person practicing essential writing skillsIf you’re like many nurses, you’ve mainly written academic papers, possibly journal articles, and/or you’ve dabbled in creative writing in private. That’s OK, but you’ll need to master some essential writing skills that have nothing in common with those college papers you wrote in nursing school. To be successful as a freelance writer, you should work on the following writing competencies.

1. Grammar

You must be able to compose a grammatically correct sentence. Grammar mastery represents the king of writing skills. But what is grammar, exactly? It’s the language rulebook that encompasses spelling, punctuation, word choice and word usage.

It may be true that grammar is constantly evolving, but that doesn’t mean you can throw the rulebook out the window. Nobody’s going to buy your words if they lack structure and polish. “Debbie said me and her ain’t doin nuthin until she gets enuf chips” won’t pass muster in any article, even if you’re quoting someone.

On the other hand, you don’t have to hold a PhD in linguistics in order to become a freelance writer. There’s a reason many publications and other outlets employ editors and proofreaders, after all. But it’s up to you, as the writer, to submit what’s known in the business as “clean copy” — that is, prose that’s as error-free as possible.

If you feel grammar isn’t your strong suit, don’t despair; brush up. Here are my favorite grammar resources for non-English majors:

2. Structure

Granted, different types of writing use different types of structures. But all professional writing has a coherent structure of some kind.

If you plan to pursue journalism (which includes writing articles for magazines), you need to educate yourself about how to structure a news story.  Poynter offers a ton of free online journalism classes, where you can learn what a hed, dek and nut graph are. (Journalism, like nursing, has its own jargon.)

If you want to become a freelance editor of journal articles, you already know they start with an abstract and then move into a codified structure.

If you want to write consumer information inserts for pharmaceutical companies, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the specific sections every pill bottle leaflet contains.

Whatever type of writing you may want to pursue, devote plenty of time to reading within the genre. As you read, hold a pen in hand and mark up the story or journal article or pharmaceutical leaflet to pick apart the structure of each piece. Consider it an exercise in developing great writing skills. You’ll be a better writer for it.

3. Clarity

Mark Twain allegedly said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Journal articles and college papers are filled with jargon and bloat. You must eliminate these from your writing. Choose each word with care. Invest in a good dictionary and a good thesaurus. You can find several online, including a visual thesaurus. Use these reference guides to help you pick interesting words with precise meanings. Compose with economy.

4. Style

I’m not talking blue suede shoes. I’m not talking swank. I’m talking about guides that set forth the writing standards used by a particular group.

If grammar is the king of writing skills, style is the queen. Possibly the most common style guide in use for general freelance writing is the Associated Press Stylebook. Many, many media organizations and outlets use either straight AP style or have created their own style guide based on the AP version. You almost can’t go wrong by familiarizing yourself with its rules and conventions. Heck, AP even offers a convenient Microsoft Word add-on that checks your work for consistency with AP style.

However, the AP Stylebook isn’t the only game in town. Many journals use the American Psychological Association style guide or the American Medical Association manual of style. Still another popular guide is the Chicago Manual of Style.

So which one should you study up on? My answer: the AP Stylebook. Unless you plan to go into some sort of esoteric medical writing, chances are you’ll never use the others.

A word about passive voice

And that word is: eradicate. OK, that’s probably too extreme. Passive voice has its place, but don’t overdo it.

What is passive voice? It’s a convoluted type of sentence structure in which the subject does not directly act. Examples:

  • Warnings about staffing levels were delivered by the hospital administrator at the meeting.
  • Echinacea is said by many experts to be effective at reducing cold symptoms.
  • In the battle against type 2 diabetes, good advice is to exercise in order to maintain a healthy weight.

Here are my rewrites, eliminating the passive voice:

  • At the meeting, the hospital administrator warned about staffing levels.
  • Many experts say echinacea reduces cold symptoms.
  • Maintain a healthy weight through exercise to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In general, your prose will be livelier and more enjoyable to read if you avoid using too much passive voice.

Mastering these five essential writing skills will help move you from nurse to professional freelance writer in no time! If you have any questions about this blog post, feel free to use the comment section or email me directly. On June 29th, I’ll devote an entire post to answering all of your questions (you’ll remain anonymous).

Wishing you well!

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Photo by Jose Roco.