Fall Prevention among the Inpatient Elderly population in the Northern America

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Module 10: Structuring Papers Effectively

This module was written by J. Andre and L. McCloud Bondoc                 17 pp, updated March 5, 2014

Overview & Objectives

This module should help you organize your ideas and structure your papers effectively, with informative titles and headings, effective introductions and conclusions, strong arguments (and thesis statements) and well-focused, coherent paragraphs with strong topic sentences.

Readings & Resources. Please refer to these resources when directed to do so in the Module.

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual. Washington, DC: Author.
Chapter 2 (all) plus Chapter 3, Sec. 3.02 & 3.03 on Headings

Driscoll, D. L. (2007a). Writing the experimental report: Overview, introductions, and literature reviews. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/670/03

Driscoll, D. L. (2007b). Writing the experimental report: Methods, results, and discussion. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/670/04/

Procter, M. (n.d.). Using thesis statements. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from the University of Toronto website: http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/planning-and-organizing/thesis-statements

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (n.d.) Conclusions. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/conclusions/



A work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence. (Burke, 1931/1968, p. 124)


We might think of the research-writing process as a journey we take to learn the answer to a research question. At some point, however, we have to shift from our perspective from our own research journey and organize our information into a clear and coherent paper for our readers. As Linda Flower (1993) puts it, we must shift from a “writer-based” to a “reader-based” focus. If we fail to do that, our papers may lack structure. Though our research journey might have been an unfocused ramble, our readers will expect an orderly and predictable journey from the opening of our paper to its conclusion.


To provide the logical journey that academic readers crave, papers need to have a strong structure with highly visible structural elements, including an informative title, an effective introduction, a strong thesis or purpose statement, informative headings, and strong topic sentences. All these elements help readers to anticipate what information will follow in the paper as a whole or in a particular section or paragraph. And, as the above quotation from Kenneth Burke implies, structuring a paper effectively is all about creating expectations in the reader’s mind and fulfilling those expectations.


Sometimes, structuring a paper is a fairly easy task. This is the case, for example, if you are writing a paper for a journal in which the standard headings are expected to follow the so-called scientific or IMRAD structure: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. (For more information on the IMRAD structure, see the APA Manual (Chapter 2) and the links to Driscoll 2007a and 2007b provided at the beginning of this module.) The IMRAD structure captures an idealized version of the experimental research process, and readers of journals using that style will expect articles to conform to that standard structure.


Most academic writing tasks, however, do not come with a prescribed structure. In such cases, the freedom to structure a paper is both a gift and a burden, and the process of organizing a paper may require a lot of thought. This module offers some organizational strategies, covers structural elements in detail, and offers advice on constructing well-focused and coherent paragraphs, crafting effective conclusions, and revising for structure.


Organizing ideas and finding a structure

Sometimes the structure of a paper is assigned by an instructor or prescribed by a target journal. However, if you are not working with a prescribed structure and are struggling to organize your ideas, consider using the organizing process advocated by Sheridan and Dowdney (1986) in their book How to Write and Publish Articles in Nursing. Central to the process they recommend are three key steps: grouping ideas, using “Sun Diagrams” as visual structuring tools, and finding a structural framework for the paper (p. 122).

Sheridan and Dowdney (1986) explain how to create Sun Diagrams:

Write your focused theme in the center. Then draw lines from the center so that they look like rays from the sun. . . . On these rays, write your main ideas beginning with those ideas that you have grouped together. Related items go together on rays with their group label. . . . Supporting ideas are branched off major rays. (p. 122)

They suggest creating several Sun Diagrams to explore alternative ways to group ideas within your paper. Once you have hit upon a particular Sun Diagram that provides a clear and potentially effective grouping of ideas, Sheridan and Dowdney suggest the following strategies for getting to a final structure:

  • considering whether your idea groupings would work as a “natural framework” or could be adapted to fit a general structural pattern (p. 128)
  • numbering the rays in the order in which you tentatively plan to arrange the sections of your paper
  • drawing and labeling a transitional bridge from each ray to the next to indicate the logical connection between each grouping of ideas
  • revising the transitions or the diagram (e.g., by adding rays, deleting rays, or resequencing the rays) until you have a workable structure for your paper
  • for a long article, constructing a new Sun Diagram for every ray in your primary Sun Diagram to further develop your paper. On these “secondary Sun Diagrams, each ray will represent a thought, usually a future paragraph or two” (p. 139).
  • letting your diagrams sit for a few days before reviewing and finalizing the organization plan for your paper and moving on to the writing process.

As you can see, Sun Diagrams are a kind of concept map used for grouping, organizing, and even outlining ideas for a paper. For other examples of concept maps, use the Google Images search tool (http://images.google.com/ ) and type in “concept map” or “mind map.”

Any concept map may become the basis for a visual outline of a paper. From the concept map stage, you would simply decide what information you want to cover and in what order. Then you can add numbers to your concept map to mark the order in which you plan to cover topics, you can add logical bridges to clarify the connections between sections, and you can drill down and produce concept maps or outlines for particular sections of your paper.


Using an outlines

While making an outline—whether a classic outline or a visual outline like a Sun Diagram—isn’t always a necessary step in the process of structuring a paper, outlines can be immensely helpful structuring tools, they can result in more effectively structured papers, and they can save you time and effort at the revision stage. In her book, The Nurse’s Guide to Writing for Publication, Mirin (1981) noted that

most people find that outlines become objects of dependence and comfort once they start using them. In the midst of a first draft, as note cards, books, and crumbled papers spread across the desk and floor, the outline offers a reassuring sense of order. It’s a life raft the writer can cling to in a rising sea of facts, ideas, and statistics. (p. 20)


Whether you use a traditional outline or a visual outline (like a concept map or sun diagram), here is some advice on using outlines effectively:

  • Make the levels of hierarchy are clear so that you can see what the main sections or topics are and what the subtopics or subsections will be.
  • Keep the outline flexible so that you can add new information or rearrange topics as you progress with your research.
  • Indicate the sequence of ideas for your paper (e.g., 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 2c, 3), but don’t get bogged down with fancy numbering schemes (unless you like fancy numbering schemes).
  • Develop tentative headings for each major section of your paper, and consider developing a topic sentence outline, in which you write complete sentences expressing the key point of each section or paragraph. With a bit of tweaking, those sentences can then become topic sentences in your paper.
  • Type your outline into a word processing file, then copy and paste a second copy of the outline right after it. Use the first copy as a quick overview of your paper and the second copy as the skeleton of your working draft, which you can flesh it out by drafting draft sections of your paper right into that outline.

Using a natural structure or adopting a basic structural pattern

As Sheridan and Dowdney (1986) noted, the structure of a paper may evolve naturally as you group and organize ideas before you begin drafting. At other times, you might see that your paper would be a good fit with a common structural pattern like those described below.




(or pro-con analysis)




Application of a theory



on an issue



Comparative analysis


to solution

nursing process


scientific research
report (IMRAD)

  • or purpose statement

Thesis + supporting arguments

  • introduction with the thesis (or purpose statement).
  • background (if necessary, include relevant historical or research background, definitions of key terms, and so forth)
  • a series of arguments (sections broken into paragraphs) that support the thesis
  • optionally, a section discussing one or more counter-arguments
  • conclusion summing up the main argument (thesis)


Thesis + application of a theory or theoretical model

  • introduction with the thesis (or purpose statement).
  • explanation of theory (or model) + background (e.g., definitions of key terms, back-ground on the case or phenomenon the theory is being applied to)
  • a part-by-part breakdown of the theory or theoretical model and a discussion of how each part of the theory applies to the case at hand
  • optionally, a discussion of the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the theory or theoretical model in understanding the phenomenon or in guiding practice
  • conclusion summing up the key findings and possibly commenting on the value of the theory or theoretical model in guiding practice or understanding


Thesis + perspectives on an issue

  • introduction with the thesis (or purpose statement).
  • needed background (e.g., the history or context of the issue; definition of key terms)
  • a series of arguments organized according to selected perspectives (e.g., political, social, cultural, religious, economic, educational, legal, historical) or according to the perspectives of individuals or groups affected by the issue  (e.g., patients, doctors, nurses, healthcare administrators, the public; teachers, students, parents, school administrators, and the public).
  • conclusion

Example: introduction to a student paper structured around perspectives, entitled “Auxiliary Health Care Workers: Do They Have a Role in Acute Care Hospitals?”

The role of auxiliary health care workers in acute care hospitals is an important issue in today’s health care industry. The issue is a significant one because of the impact it has on professional nurses, patients, hospitals, and auxiliary workers. The issue will be presented in terms of its economic, theoretical, and labour relations components.


Note that in this student paper, the introduction included a purpose statement rather than a thesis. A thesis would actually sum up the impacts analyzed in the paper. The second paragraph provided background by defining and giving examples of auxiliary health care workers, commenting on their training, and defining “acute care facility.” The three body sections of the paper in turn analyzed the economic, theoretical, and labour relations aspects of the issue, as a reader might predict from the purpose statement. The one structural problem in this paper is the writer’s use of the term “theoretical.” The section discussing “theoretical” aspects of the use of auxiliary workers actually addressed practical, administrative and legal issues; the term “theoretical” was a structural weakness as it led readers to expect a different focus for that section.




Thesis + comparative analysis (a compare & contrast paper) or a pro-con paper

  • introduction with the thesis (or purpose statement).
  • necessary background (e.g., historical background, definitions of key terms)
  • comparative analysis pattern 1: a thematic comparison/analysis of X and Y organized around a series of points by which they are compared; OR

comparative analysis pattern 2: a discussion of X followed by a discussion of Y, with comparative links made back to X; OR

pro-con analysis: a discussion of the pros (advantages, benefits) of a possible approach to an issue or a course of action, followed by a discussion of the cons (disadvantages, costs) of that approach or course of action

  • conclusion summing up key points of similarity and difference between X and Y


Example: Intro to a student paper using a pro-con structure, entitled “Should One Professional Nursing Organization Represent the Interests of Both the Public and Nurses?”

. . . [In] this paper [I] will examine the membership, mission, and functions of the professional nursing bodies of Alberta and Ontario in order to develop arguments for and against the systems used in these two provinces.


This paper begins with a purpose statement rather than a thesis, and its three main section headings were membership, mission, and functions. Within each section, the writer discussed one nursing body and then the other. Note how a purpose statement previews the focus of a paper, but it doesn’t present an argument. Usually, a thesis statement highlighting the key arguments and findings would be a better choice than a purpose statement

Problem to solution structure, or Nursing process structure (assess, plan, implement, evaluate) or Medical model (pathophysiology, diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, nursing care)

  • introduction (with a clear purpose statement or thesis).
  • discussion of the problem (along with necessary background) (assessment)
  • discussion of criteria for a solution (optional)
  • discussion of potential solutions analyzed according to the criteria identified
  • proposed solution (plan)
  • discussion of implementation and evaluation of the proposed solution
  • conclusion advocating the proposed solution and the rationale for it


Classic scientific research report structure (IMRAD)

  • abstract—a brief informative summary of the research (See Module 7.)
  • introduction introducing the topic and purpose of the research. Usually, this section will not announce any principal findings or conclusions, but it may include a brief literature review (and possibly a hypothesis).
  • methods—details about the study design, survey instrument (and reliability and validity), sample selection, recruitment, and specific  procedures
  • results (including tables or graphs if applicable)
  • discussion—interpretation and analysis of the findings
  • conclusions—limitations of the study, generalizations about findings, and recommendations for future research

Crafting an informative title

As the first thing readers see, a paper’s title shapes readers’ expectations about the paper. Good titles “capture the manuscript’s essence, attract the reader’s attention, and indicate what the article is about” (Sheridan & Dowdney, 1986, p. 59). The APA Manual (2010) notes that a title “should identify the variables or theoretical issues under investigation and the relationship between them”; it also suggests limiting titles to 12 words maximum (p. 23).


Consider the following titles from student papers, with revisions suggested by a nursing instructor:

  • Orem’s Self-Care Deficit Theory and the Client with Substance Use Problems:
    A Hypothetical Application in Correctional Nursing
  • Nursing Interventions for an Older Client Guided by the Neuman System Model
  • A Nursing Approach to Pain Management and Lifestyle Modification Teaching  for the Post-operative Cardiac Surgery Patient

Note how the suggested revisions add precision and clarity for prospective readers.


When writing a paper for a course, consider whether another student submit a paper with the same title; if so, revise to make your title more specific. It’s also a good idea to brainstorm several titles before deciding on one. Here are two more strategies for crafting effective titles:

  • Include key words in your title that would enable librarians or prospective readers researching a topic to locate your paper through a key-word search.
  • If a title seems overly general, consider adding a colon ( : ) followed by a more specific subtitle. Here’s an example of a make-over for a vague title:

Vague: Professional Burnout

Possible revisions:
(1)  “I can’t take it anymore”: A Case Study of Burnout among Social Workers

(2)  Burnout in the Social Work Profession: An Exploratory Survey


In the first example, the words within quotation marks might have come from an interview with a social worker. In both cases, the subtitle after the colon adds specific information.


Writing an effective introduction

Most writers find the introduction the most challenging part of a paper to compose and the part that requires the most rewriting. While many writers prefer to draft the introduction last, others find that writing the introduction first helps to set a tone for the article and to keep them focused on the key message the paper will deliver.

Part of the challenge of writing an introduction is that it has to accomplish so many things in a relatively brief space. For example, an effective introduction not only will introduce the topic and purpose of a paper but also will usually

  • briefly put the topic into context for readers and establish its significance;
  • engage readers’ attention in some way;
  • present the thesis—a statement summing up the organizing argument, the central claim, or the key findings–or at least a purpose statement indicating the focus of the paper; and
  • preview the structure of the paper, particularly if the paper is long or complex and the structure cannot easily be predicted by the reader.


In papers presenting original research, the APA Manual (2010) advises that a good introduction (in a couple of paragraphs) “presents the specific problem under study and describes the research strategy,” thereby giving the reader “a firm sense of what was done and why” (p. 27).


In academic writing assignments, it’s good practice to keep introductions to one or two paragraphs. Writers can include additional background or a literature review in the following sections (with relevant headings, of course). Let’s consider the following introduction from a student’s paper on the use of restraints:

In Canada, adults of sound mind have the right to determine what shall be done with their body (Dickens, 1970). Individual right to bodily autonomy is protected by the Canadian Charter [of Rights and Freedoms], section 7, which ensures “protection of life, liberty and security of the person” as fundamental (Windwick, 1994, p. 20). Thus, non-consensual touching, being a breech of liberty, constitutes battery . . . (Dickens, 1970). However, when involuntary detention is indicated as prevention against the risk of patients injuring themselves or others, the withholding of these measures may constitute malpractice or negligence (Dickens, 1970). Use of physical restraints is thus seen as a moral/ethical/legal dilemma for all health care providers. The issue is the use of physical restraints and if there is a time when human rights should be denied for the welfare of the patient or the security of others. The issue is pertinent to nursing because the nurse is usually instrumental in the immediate decision to restrain the patient and then is required to implement the physical or chemical restraints.

In my view, this introduction has a number of strengths:

  • it effectively introduces the topic and gets to it quickly (without a long wind-up);
  • it captures the reader’s attention by showing how the use of restraints poses a dilemma for health care providers because it appears to violate Canada’s Charter of Rights, but in certain cases not using restraints “may constitute malpractice”;
  • it makes relevant and helpful links to the research literature;
  • it emphasizes the significance of the issue for the nursing profession; and
  • it is fairly well written (except for the adjective car crash pile-up of “moral/ethical/legal,” which should be untangled for elegance and clarity).

While this introduction explicitly defines the issue (in the second last sentence), it does not include a thesis statement (an answer to the implied research question). In papers following an inductive structure like this (i.e., without the thesis up front), the conclusion should clearly sum up the writer’s thesis or key argument.


Previewing the structure of a paper. The sample introduction above does not preview the structure of the paper, but since the paper is only four pages long, a structural preview isn’t really necessary. Here’s a structural preview from the last paragraph of a four-paragraph introductory section of a published research article:

The purpose of this article is to document the process of change of a mental health organization, using a case study that illustrates a shift in philosophy and practice. To outline the context for this study of change, we will present our conceptual framework, which includes a brief discussion of mental health reform and organizational change.
We shall also outline the methodology, including our role as researchers or members of the organization and how we participated as change agents throughout the process.
We shall then present a case study of the organizational change which occurred over a
3-year period. This will be followed by an analysis of the critical themes and issues experienced by this organization, with highlights and implications for other social change work of this kind. (Lord, Ochocka, Czarny, & MacGillivary, 1998, n.p.)

After the purpose statement, this preview helpfully tells readers how this rather long article unfolds. Though the preview is clear and detailed, it might have been a bit more concise and used the present rather than future tense (e.g., “we also outline” instead of “we shall also outline”). Note the use of first person (“we”) in the passage.

Presenting the thesis statement (or purpose statement)

As we’ve seen, in some papers, the introduction includes a thesis statement, while in other cases it simply includes a statement of purpose but not a thesis. As you will recall, a thesis statement sums up the key argument, the central claim, or the answer to the research question. In contrast, a purpose statement simply introduces the topic of the paper.


Thesis statements are most effective when they take a position or state a central claim and highlight the reasoning behind it. For example, if your research question was “What historical circumstances gave rise to the formation of nursing associations?”  and your research led you to conclude that nursing associations emerged, in part, in response to nurses’ desire to have nursing recognized as a profession rather than as simply a vocation, then your thesis statement might read as follows:

Because nursing leaders, influenced by the early women’s movement, wanted to establish nursing as a profession and to combat the view of nurses as servants, they developed the first nursing associations.

The sample thesis statement above is effective because:

  1. It sums up the main argument for the paper and highlights key themes that will be developed in the paper. In particular, it not only states that nursing associations arose because “nursing leaders wanted to establish nursing as a profession,” but it also answers the implied question “why”—because they were influenced by the early women’s movement and because nurses were traditionally viewed as servants.
  2. It incorporates key terms, such as early women’s movement, nursing as a profession and the first nursing associations, which preview the themes discussed in the paper.
  3. It is clear and specific, without vague words or ambiguous expressions. Suppose the above statement instead read “Because nurses wanted the good of the profession, nursing associations were born.” In that case, readers might wonder what exactly is “the good of the profession”? Does the writer mean “good” in terms of working conditions for nurses? In terms of remuneration?

For more on thesis statements, see the link on page 1 to Procter (n.d.).

Thesis statements vs purpose statements

Unlike thesis statements, which sum up the overall argument or position advanced in a paper, purpose statements simply introduce the topic of a paper. A good example of a purpose statement is the one from the article preview quoted above: “The purpose of this article is to document the process of change of a mental health organization, using a case study that illustrates a shift in philosophy and practice” (Lord et al., 1998, n.p.). This purpose statement indicates the topic of the article but doesn’t sum up its key message.

When writing a paper for a course, note that most professors prefer introductions to contain thesis statements rather than purpose statements. A thesis statement presented early in a paper serves as a preview of the argument and enables readers to grasp the significance of the arguments that follow. In a sense, a thesis statement is helpful to readers in the same way that the picture on the outside of a jig-saw puzzle box is helpful; without a clear thesis, readers may get frustrated trying to figure out how all the parts of a paper fit together into a coherent argument. A purpose statement is much less helpful; it is like having a label on a puzzle box stating “This puzzle depicts a dog” rather than a picture of the dog itself. A thesis provides readers with a “picture” or overview of a paper’s argument, a vision of how all the parts of the argument will fit together. As such, academic readers tend to prefer thesis statements over purpose statements and like to see a thesis statement early in a paper.

Learning Activity 10.1: Assessing Thesis Statements

Using the letter codes below, assess the thesis statements below for a paper in response to the following research question: is the use of physical restraints part of acceptable nursing practice in a geriatric setting? For each thesis statement, assess whether it is strong or whether it is

  • weak because it fails to sum up an argument or to provide answer to the research question  (perhaps because it’s simply a purpose statement or a question)
  • weak because it just states a known fact
  • weak because it fails to suggest reasons for the position or central claim
  • weak because it includes unclear wording or fails to include key terms

Code for all the weaknesses you see in each thesis. Check the answers at the end of the module.

Thesis Statement Assessment
  1. The issue is human rights and if there is a time when these rights should be denied for the welfare of the patient or the security of others.
  1. The use of physical restraints on an elderly patient is a controversial issue for nurses.
  1. This paper focuses on the use of restraints on geriatric patients.
  1. Smith’s (1998) research indicates that nursing home residents who are restrained can show up to three times more serious injuries than those who are not restrained.
  1. The use of physical restraints on elderly patients is acceptable nursing practice as long as a proper assessment of the patient has been made, the family has been consulted, and hospital policy on restraints is followed.
  1. Physical restraints can be beneficial for elderly patients in certain circumstances.
  1. Should nurses use restraints on their elderly patients?

Writing for publication

Although it’s a good idea to include a thesis in a paper written for an instructor, both the APA Manual (2010) and The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (2004) recommend against announcing principal findings (APFs) in the introduction to a research paper intended for publication. In published research articles, including principal findings in the introduction may seem redundant because such articles typically are preceded by an informative abstract summing up the key findings. As you read articles for your final research paper for ACWR 303, check to see whether the introduction contains a purpose statement or a thesis statement summing up the key argument or announcing principal findings.

Providing background information

Immediately after the introduction, research papers will often include one or more sections providing background information, including some of the following elements:

§  Definitions of key terms.  (For example, what is an “auxiliary health care worker”? What are commonly used “restraints” in a care setting?)

§  An explanation of the theory (or theoretical model) used in the paper

§  Relevant historical background or relevant information about the context for issue (e.g., recent government cutbacks or changes in legislation)

§  Information about a particular medical condition, organization, or client (depending on the topic). (Of course, discussion of patients or clients should protect their identity.)

§  A review of the literature summing up prior research on the topic or issue.

Not all papers need a background section. When considering whether to include background information, ask yourself what information a general reader would need early on in order to understand the paper as a whole. If you’re an undergraduate student, think of your audience (your instructor) as a general reader rather than as a specialist in your field, keeping in mind that part of the purpose of academic writing assignments is to demonstrate your knowledge.

If you include a background section in your paper, try to use an informative heading for that section. For example, rather than “Background,” you could use a heading like “History of the Mustard Seed” or “Orem’s Self-Care Deficit Theory,” depending on the focus of your paper.

Using headings effectively

Academic readers in education, health care, and social science fields generally like having informative headings in a paper. Consider the first eight headings from Sitler’s (2001) article “The Workplace Meets the Academy,” discussed in Module 1:

Context of the Study

The Shaping Discourse of the Medical Workplace

Writing in the Medical Workplace

Writing in the Nursing Curriculum

Nursing and Theology: Two Different Worlds of Writing

Brevity: Good Nurse’s Notes Get to the Point

Black, White, and Gray: Accuracy Counts Most on the Hospital Floor

Confidentiality: Nurses Don’t Disclose Private Information

Just by reading the list of headings, readers can get a sense of the focus and structure of the article. In this sense, headings act as important signposts for readers, helping them to see where they’ve been and where they’re going.

Sheridan and Dowdney (1986) summed up the benefits of headings as follows: “Headings guide readers . . . by dividing information into manageable segments, signaling topic changes, indicating the manuscript’s organization, and establishing each topic’s importance” (p. 217). By breaking up dense pages of text, headings also make articles more visually appealing, and they make information in a document more accessible. For example a reader interested in the research method can quickly jump to that section if a heading is provided.

Generally, you should format similar headings in a grammatically parallel way. For example, if your first heading is a phrase, try to write the following headings as phrases rather than as sentences or questions. For example, note how headings in this module follow a similar –ing phrase structure: Providing background information, Using headings effectively, and so forth.  And in the list of headings from the Sitler (2001) article presented above, note the logical and grammatical parallelism between the third and fourth headings (i.e., “Writing in the Medical Workplace” and “Writing in the Nursing Curriculum”) and between sixth, seventh, and eight headings, which all are relatively long, use colons, and highlight three attributes considered most important in nurses’ writing on the job: brevity, accuracy, and confidentiality.

The hierarchy of headings in a paper should also be distinguished typographically so that the reader can easily tell a major heading from a subheading. The APA Publication Manual (2010) provides formatting guidelines when using headings:

Table 10.1: APA Formatting Guidelines for Headings

Level of heading Format
1 Centered, Boldface, Uppercase and Lowercase Headinga
2 Flush Left, Boldface, Uppercase and Lowercase Heading
3    Indented, boldface, lowercase paragraph heading ending with a period. b
4    Indented, boldface, italicized, lowercase paragraph heading ending
with a period.
5    Indented, italicized, lowercase paragraph heading ending with a period.
a This type of capitalization is also referred to as title case.

b In a lowercase paragraph heading, the first letter of the first word is uppercase and the remaining words are in lowercase.                                                         (APA, 2010, p. 62)


When using the guidelines presented above, follow the top-down structure shown. For example, if you have three levels of headings, use the first three formats listed in the table.

Note: The APA Manual advises against numbering headings and states that an “Introduction” heading should not be used (2010, p. 63).

Writing well-focused paragraphs with strong topic sentences

Headings mark sections of a paper, but even in papers without headings, it is useful to think of your paper in terms of sections. Each section will have a particular purpose and may comprise one, two, or several paragraphs that somehow advance the overall argument of the paper. Within sections, avoid writing overly long paragraphs. If you find a paragraph that’s close to a double-spaced typed page or longer, try to break it up into two or more shorter, more tightly focused paragraphs. If you are using Word, you can use the “word count” tool to quickly check the length of a paragraph. Paragraphs over 400 words are the length of a short essay and should be broken up into two or more shorter paragraphs. (For a quick comparison, this paragraph is 135 words.)


When revising, you should also watch out for very short paragraphs only one, two, or three sentences long. Usually, such short paragraphs will not be long enough to introduce and adequately develop an argument. When you spot a very short paragraph, consider whether it needs further development or if it simply should be attached to an adjoining paragraph.


Structurally, most effective paragraphs are tightly focused (unified) and open with a topic sentence that sums up the main point of the paragraph. Consider whether the following paragraph (taken with permission from a student paper) is tightly focused and opens with a strong topic sentence.

Nurses today have new attitudes regarding the use of restraints with geriatric patients. Instead of blindly following a doctor’s order for the use of restraints, nurses are questioning the real need for the restraint and coming up with alternative methods for “behaviour control.” Nurses are being advocates for patients’ feelings. Also, research shows the use of restraints can cause very serious injuries. The legalities of restraints are beginning to change as well. According to Harry and Kopetsky (1991) nurses that apply restraints to patients without their expressed consent can face charges of false imprisonment.

If you think this paragraph needs work, you’re right. The paragraph starts out fine with the claim that “Nurses today have new attitudes regarding the use of restraints with geriatric patients.” However, by sentence four (on research findings) the paragraph shifts focus. The fifth sentence introduces yet another topic, the legalities of restraints. The result is a poorly focused paragraph that jumps all over the place without developing a single argument.


Sometimes, a paragraph that lacks focus may be improved by rewriting the topic sentence, deleting irrelevant points, and supplying more explicit connections between sentences. Consider the following rewrite of the above paragraph:

Nurses today have new attitudes regarding the use of restraints in geriatrics and have begun to employ restraints only as a last resort. For example, nurses have begun to question the use of restraints; they no longer automatically use restraints simply on a doctor’s order, as nurses have done in the past (source). Current nursing practice is to question the need for an order to restrain and to come up with alternative solutions to aggressive behavior such as better assessment of physical discomfort (source). These changing attitudes and practices suggest that nurses use using restraints judiciously with the safety of their patients uppermost in mind.

In this revised paragraph, the topic sentence introduces the main idea of changes in nurses’ attitudes and practices regarding the use of restraints, and all the other sentences help to develop the main point by discussing supporting evidence (with source citations). The points about restraints leading to injuries and about the legalities of restraints have been taken out and may form the topic sentences for two additional paragraphs. The revised paragraph is now well-focused and coherent.


Here are a few key strategies for crafting strong topic sentences:

  • For clarity and impact, make your topic sentences explicit and avoid the use of pronouns like it, this, and
  • Where it would be helpful, incorporate an explicit link to the previous paragraph or to the thesis. For example, note how the word “another” in the following topic sentence creates such a link: “Another reason why nurses have begun to question the use of restraints is that research has begun to indicate that restraints may lead to serious injuries” (sources).
  • To make a number of different but related points in a paragraph, craft a topic sentence that acts as an umbrella statement. For example, if you want to mention three or four different drawbacks to the use of restraints, then a good topic sentence might be “The use of restraints has several potentially serious drawbacks.” Within such a paragraph, words like first, second, and third might work well to emphasize specific points and to connect the sentences in the paragraph.


Ensuring paragraph coherence

In coherent paragraphs, each sentence flows logically and smoothly from the previous sentence. The general principle governing coherence is sometimes called the given-new principle, and it reflects the need to link new information back to “old” or previously “given” information. The given-new principle suggests beginning sentences with a link to previously given information before presenting the new information.


Coherent linkages in paragraphs can take several forms, including logical bridges and natural bridges (constructed through repetition, pronoun use, and synonyms). Logical bridges provide given-new links by making explicit logical connections between sentences. Logical bridges may signal the following kinds of connections:

  • Chronological (e.g., before, prior to, after, following, then, next, finally)
  • Sequence (e.g., first, second, third, etc.)
  • Consequence (e.g., therefore, as a result, consequently)
  • Addition (e.g., furthermore, in addition, also, moreover)
  • Development or restatement (e.g., for example, in other words)
  • Comparison or contrast (e.g., similarly, in contrast, however, but, on the other hand).


Natural bridges connect sentences by means of repetition, pronouns, and synonyms. For example, consider the natural bridges underlined in the following paragraph:

Cyril Williams was famous in Australia at the turn of the century for his compassion and skill as a doctor. As one of the first family physicians in the territory, he could often be found visiting a sick homesteader while his wife and family waited days for his return. Even today, his name lives on in the numerous hospitals and clinics that carry his name.

Notice how the new information is linked back to the “old” information through the natural bridges  (Cyril à he. . . his wife . . . his name; doctor à physicians).

To sum up, here are a few strategies for improving paragraph coherence:

  • Begin sentences with a link to previously given information (through natural or logical bridges) and position new information near the middle or end of sentences.
  • When a natural bridge exists and the connection between ideas is clear, resist the temptation to add a logical bridge. (Students whose first language is not English tend to overuse logical bridges or connectors to open sentences.)
  • Avoid confusion by making sure the referent for every pronoun is clear; replace any unclear pronoun with the noun it represents. Consider the ambiguous use of “they” underlined in the following sentence:

Nurses’ attitudes are more independent; they no longer automatically use restraints simply because they are ordered as they have done in the past (Smith & Jones, 1991).

In this example, does “they are ordered” refer to the nurses or to the restraints?

  • Whenever you use the pronoun “this,” try to add a noun to make the wording more precise (e.g., this practice, this problem, this example). If you cannot easily add a noun after a vague “this,” perhaps you need to revise your sentence for precision and clarity.


Crafting an Effective Conclusion

Writers often struggle to conclude their papers effectively. Strong conclusions not only sum up a paper’s argument but also help readers “see why all your analysis and information should matter to them after they put the paper down” (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d., p. 1). The writing center handout on Conclusions from the University of North Carolina (n.d.) suggests playing the “so what” game as part of the process of revising a weak conclusion. Summing up your point and asking yourself “So what?” or “Why should anybody care?” (p. 2) may push you to discover the real significance of your paper. Then you can take that insight and use it to revise your conclusion. Consider the following weak conclusion taken from a student paper and a proposed revision:


Original “weak” conclusion:

In conclusion, this paper has given an overview of the nursing issue of auxiliary health care workers in acute care facilities. Economic, theoretical, and labour relations components were briefly outlined. A discussion of the relevance of the issue to nurses was given.


Proposed revision:

In conclusion, the use of auxiliary health care workers in acute care hospitals has become an issue of growing concern to the nursing profession. As hospital administrators increasingly turn to auxiliary workers as a cost-saving measure, they may overlook such important matters as responsibility for supervising and managing these workers and concerns about legal liability in the event that work is inappropriately delegated to an auxiliary worker. The increasing use of auxiliary health care workers will also continue to have significant implications for the collective bargaining process. Registered nurses in acute care settings must continue their efforts to ensure that the increasing use of auxiliary health care workers does not undermine their ability to provide excellent patient care.

Notice how the revision effectively sums up the writer’s argument and highlights the significance of the topic for readers.
Here are a few strategies for writing an effective conclusion:

  • Revisit themes or scenarios raised in the introduction
  • Point to the need for more research on the topic
  • Emphasize the significance or the broader implications of the problem or issue discussed in the paper
  • Try to end on a strong note by crafting a strong closing sentence.


The Writing Centre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (n.d.) suggests avoiding the following strategies when writing a conclusion:

  • Stating the thesis for the very first time in the conclusion.
  • Introducing a new idea or subtopic in your conclusion.
  • Ending with a rephrased thesis statement without any substantive changes.
  • Making sentimental, emotional appeals that are out of character with the rest of an analytical paper.
  • Including evidence . . . that should be in the body of the paper.(p. 3)

Their handout on Conclusions discusses four kinds of ineffective conclusions, including the “That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It” conclusion, the “Sherlock Holmes” conclusion, and the “Grab Bag” conclusion (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d.). Review the handout, and see if you recognize any of your own conclusions in those described.


As discussed in Module 7, it makes sense to revise your papers in several waves. In one wave, early in the revision process, you should focus on issues related to structure and paragraph development. Strategies for revision are presented below.


Revising Your Papers for Structure: Selected Strategies

Here are a few strategies for revising your papers for structure:


  1. Read your title, your introduction, the headings in your paper, the opening sentence (topic sentence) to every paragraph, and your conclusion. Do all the parts form a coherent skeleton for your paper or do any parts seem disjointed or unconnected? Can you improve any of these key elements?
  2. If you think your thesis may be weak, try filling in the following sentence: “In this paper, I argue that ___________ because ____________.” Then take the specific ideas you just articulated to revise your thesis. (Leave out the words “I argue”)
  3. If you think the overall structure of your paper may be weak, write out an outline of your whole paper. Look for weak links, parts that don’t quite fit, and needless repetition.
  4. If any paragraph is only one or two sentences long, check to see if it could be attached to an adjacent paragraph or whether it should be developed more fully.
  5. If any paragraph is over a double-spaced page, look for opportunities to break it up where the focus of the paragraph shifts slightly.
  6. If the connection between two sentences seems weak, rewrite the opening of the second sentence to incorporate a stronger link — a natural or a logical bridge —from the old (previously given) information to the new information.
  7. Consider what expectations your title, introduction, section headings, and topic sentences will arouse in your readers, and ask yourself if your paper fulfills those expectations.
  8. Consider whether your conclusion “gives your reader[s] something to take away that will help them see things differently or appreciate your topic in personally relevant ways” (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d., p. 1).

Student Revision Example

Below, you will see a revision done by Nicole Bretzer, an ACWR 303 student who has generously allowed me to use her work here. For their module task in the year Nicole was in the course, students had to revise the title and introduction (or conclusion) of a paper they had previously written. What strengths do you see in Bretzer’s revised title and conclusion?


   Original title & conclusion

Ethical Decision Making Models: Rational vs. Virtue

All decision making results in a final action, but outcomes often vary dependent on the focus of the decision making model being used. In this paper we reviewed decision making models and why we use them. In particular we examined factors of rational decision making models and virtue decision making models and compared the outcomes and implications they hold for seniors living in long term care. We reviewed the decision making steps used by rehabilitation professionals and the focus of the model of decision making provided in the CARP (2002) Canadian Code of Ethics. We discussed potential consequences that decision making processes have on seniors living in long term care, and implications on the professionals using these models to base their decisions. Lastly we examined potential areas of knowledge building which included the emerging need for a focus on resident’s cultural beliefs to be incorporated into decision making models, and the need for further research and training for professionals using these models. In the future, specific integrated decision making models will continue to help guide professionals to make well rounded decisions in the ever changing culture of long term care.

  Student’s suggestions for a revised title + revised conclusion

Rational vs. Virtue Decision Making: Outcomes for Seniors Living in Long Term Care


The Effects Our Decisions Have on Seniors: An Overview of Ethical Decision Making Models

All decision making results in a final action, but outcomes often vary dependent on the focus of the decision making model being used. If decisions made by rehabilitation professionals in long term care are solely based on rational or virtuous evidence the resulting outcomes will not fully benefit the patients being treated. Professionals need to focus on using integrated decision making models to create well rounded decisions with positive outcomes for all parties involved. In the future, specific integrated decision making models will continue to help guide professionals in the ever changing culture of long term care.

Nicole’s comments on her revision. The original title for this paper is vague and does not provide enough detail about what the paper explores. The paper discusses various ethical decision making models, but it also applies those models to long-term care settings. Perhaps one of the two titles I suggest above would work better. Overall I feel that the original conclusion is weak and simply outlines what the paper discussed. After reading the Conclusions article from the University of North Carolina Writing Centre (n.d.) I realize that my conclusion models their “That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to it” example of an ineffective conclusion. In rewriting this conclusion I removed the section which outlines what the paper discussed and replaced it with a stronger ending which emphasizes why the information should matter to the reader.


Most students put a lot of effort into writing research papers but don’t spend much time considering the structural elements in their papers. However, structural elements, including the title, headings, introduction, thesis, topic sentences, and conclusion, can make the difference between a “reader-based” versus a “writer-based” focus (Flower, 1993). As you research your papers, you play the role of explorer, but as you plan, draft, and revise your papers, you must shift your focus to that of tour guide. Through careful attention to structure, you can ensure that your readers have a clear, engaging, and logical journey through your paper—rather than a frustrating and confusing trek through an untamed jungle of ideas.

Answers to Learning Activity 10.1

Thesis Statement Assessment
  1. The issue is human rights and if there is a time when these rights should be denied for the welfare of the patient or the security of others.
a, d. This purpose statement does not present a claim, but it does hint at some lines of argument to be developed–human rights issues, patient welfare, and the safety of others. One key term (“restraints”) is not mentioned.
  1. The use of physical restraints on elderly patients is a controversial issue for nurses.
a, b, c. The statement is clear but simply presents a fact; there is no position, argument, or reasoning presented.
  1. This paper focuses on the use of restraints on geriatric patients.
a, c. This statement sums up the purpose of the paper without summing up the argument (or reasoning) being advanced.
  1. Smith’s (1998) research indicates that nursing home residents who are restrained can show up to three times more serious injuries than those who are not restrained.
a, b. This “thesis” previews one line of argument or research finding that will be developed in the paper, but it does not clearly state a position.
  1. The use of physical restraints on elderly patients is acceptable nursing practice as long as a proper assessment of the patient has been made, the family has been consulted, and hospital policy on restraints is followed.
This is a strong thesis that effectively states an answer to the research question and sums up the key arguments to be advanced.
  1. Physical restraints can be beneficial for elderly patients in certain circumstances
  2. This is a clear thesis, but it would be improved if the writer elaborated the lines of argument underlying the position—beneficial in what ways? Under what circumstances?
  3. Should nurses use restraints on their elderly patients?
a, c. This question is clear and suggests the focus of the paper, but it is a question, not a thesis.

Module 10 task  

The Module 9/10 online quiz will remain open until March 31 (inclusive of a grace period).




American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington: APA.

Burke, K. (1931/1968). Counter-statement. Berkeley: U of California Press.

Driscoll, D. L. (2007a). Writing the experimental report: Overview, introductions, and literature reviews. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/670/03

Driscoll, D. L. (2007b). Writing the experimental report: Methods, results, and discussion. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/670/04/

Flower L. (1993). Problem-solving strategies for writing (4th ed). Fort Worth TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). (2004). Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals: Writing and editing for biomedical publication. Retrieved October 10, 2004, from http://www.icmje.org/

Lord, J., Ochocka, J., Czarny, W., & MacGillivary, H. (1998). Analysis of change within a mental health organization: A participatory process. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 21(4), 327 – 3339. Retrieved from http://www.bu.edu/cpr/prj/

Procter, M. (n.d.). Using thesis statements. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from the University of Toronto website: http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/planning-and-organizing/thesis-statements

Sheridan, D. R., & Dowdney, D. L. (1986). How to write and publish articles in nursing. New York: Springer Publishing.

Sitler, H. C. (2001). The workplace meets the academy: The hybrid literacy of returning RNs in journal writing for Introduction to Theology. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, 5(1), 20-35. Retrieved from http://wac.colostate.edu/llad/v5n1sitler.pdf

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (n.d.) Conclusions. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/conclusions/

Module 7:  Managing the Writing Process             11 pages, updated Feb. 25, 2014

Overview & Objectives

This module should help you develop an appreciation for the complex nature of the writing and research process, a realistic understanding of the time required to write and revise papers, and a repertoire of strategies for generating and organizing ideas; for overcoming writer’s block; and for note-taking, drafting, revising, and editing papers.


Readings & Resources

Most of these sources may be scanned quickly, but pay special attention to “The Maker’s Eye” and to the resource links included with the University of Minnesota assignment calculator. The module includes prompts about when to read each source.

Austin, C. D., & McClelland, R. W. (1998). Writing: The maturing of ideas. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 79 (6), 641-643. Retrieved from http://alliance1.metapress.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/content/0877927611t712p3/?p=168e0ac6bf224833b4d8a13e8786f418&pi=8

Gray, M. (1999). Writing for a journal: Blood, sweat, and tears. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 80 (3), 305-307. Retrieved from  http://alliance1.metapress.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/content/1331764k54540402/?p=7a8dc178db004904b072ee3f44146790&pi=14

Murray, D. M. (1998/2000). The maker’s eye: Revising your own manuscripts. In P. Eschholz, A. Rosa, & V. Clark. (Eds.), Language awareness: Readings for college writers (pp. 151-182). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s: 161-165. [To access this article on the Internet, just Google The Maker’s Eye D Murray]

University of Minnesota. (2011). University of Minnesota assignment calculator. Retrieved February 24, 2014, from http://www.lib.umn.edu/help/calculator/

Wills, C. E. (2000). Strategies for managing barriers to the writing process. Nursing Forum, 35 (4), 5-10. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-6198.2000.tb01224.x  Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/doi/10.1111/j.1744-6198.2000.tb01224.x/pdf


Other helpful resources may be found in the Online Writing Resources section of the U of Calgary Writing Services Support website: http://www.ucalgary.ca/ssc/writing-support

My struggle is how to express and organize [ideas] to make them coherent and interesting—within a small number of pages. . . . [E]ach beginning . . . points me in a different direction—toward certain conceptions and understandings and away from others. . . . Can I even know what these ideas are until I write them down? (Witkin, 2000, p. 389)

When beginning writers complete their first draft, they usually read it through to correct typographical errors and consider the job of writing done. When professional writers complete their first draft, they usually feel that they are at the start of the writing process. (Murray 1998/1973, p. 1)

The “shitty first draft” . . . is “twice as long as it should be with a self-indulgent or boring beginning, stupefying descriptions, . . . lots of quotes . . . and no ending to speak of. . . .
[A]ll good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”
(Lamott, 1995, cited in Gray, 1999, p. 306)



Introduction: Is there such a thing as the writing process?

Most writers find writing a messy process, one that seldom corresponds to the neat step-by-step sequence of activities described in writing textbooks, where hypothetical writers move in an orderly way from planning, to drafting, revising, and editing, with an early stop at outlining. A more realistic model of the writing process would capture the complex, recursive (non-linear) relationships between generating ideas, evaluating ideas, focusing, reviewing, structuring, drafting, rewriting, and editing.  Research indeed confirms that the writing process is recursive; it also indicates that writing and research processes are context-dependent and, to some extent, idiosyncratic or particular to individual writers (Van Waes & Schellens, 2002).


Given the complex and recursive nature of the writing process, its dependence on context, and individual variations in the process, we might well conclude that there is no such thing as “the writing  process” or even an ideal writing process. However, we might agree that some approaches to writing and research are more efficient and productive than others. We might also agree that all writers can benefit from critically examining their own writing processes, expanding their repertoire of writing strategies, and taking a more focused approach to drafting and a more structured approach to revising.


Before we consider such strategies, let’s first review research findings about how the composing practices of experienced and novice writers differ. As shown in Table 7.1, research indicates that, at each stage of the writing process, some composing processes and strategies may be more productive or more likely to lead to a successful outcome. As you read the table, consider which column best reflects your composing processes.


Table 7.1: The Composing Process of Experienced and Novice Writers

Experienced (skilled) writers Novice (unskilled) writers

Pre-writing and planning

  • Usually engage in exploring and planning activities before drafting
  • May or may not use an outline
Pre-writing and planning

  • Spend little or no time exploring and planning



  • Revise plans as they write
  • Spend more time drafting; frequently stop to reread, reflect

  • Frequently interrupt drafting to make revisions

  • See the goal of revision as improving the content, structure, and voice of the writing
  • Make up to a third of revisions after rereading drafts; constantly evaluate their evolving text
  • Revise a little or a lot depending on context, but focus largely on meaning-related changes
  • Are more successful than novices in revising because they are more skillful at detecting and diagnosing problems and . . . more willing to experiment with rewriting (Flower et al., 1986)

  • See goal of revision as fixing errors
  • Revise relatively little
  • Make nearly all revisions while they are drafting
  • Tend to focus almost exclusively on mechanical problems rather than issues of meaning
  • Tend to focus on substantive changes only if they have a good sense of purpose and audience (Flower et al., 1986)

This table was adapted from information provided in Carosso (1986, p. 22), with additional information from Flower, Hayes, Carey, Schriver, and Stratman (1986)

Strategies and tools for managing your time in the writing-research process

Most students underestimate how much time they should budget for completing research papers, and particularly the time to reserve for revising. A good approach is to reserve 20 to 30 minutes per page for revising and editing. Yes—that means 3 to 5 hours for a typical 10-page paper. Another rule of thumb is to break down the total time you have available for your paper in the following way: 40% for planning, prewriting, and research; 20% for drafting; and 40% for revising and editing.

For a neat tool to help you plan your writing and research process by breaking your task into smaller steps and setting deadlines for completion of various milestones, see the University of Minnesota Assignment Calculator at http://www.lib.umn.edu/help/calculator/ For each step in the process, the calculator page provides links to helpful online materials.

Strategies for overcoming writer’s block

Part of overcoming writer’s block is figuring out the source of the blockage. As research by Mike Rose indicates, students may experience such blocks when they mistakenly think that even first drafts should come out sounding good, when they lack strategies for approaching a writing task, when they edit prematurely, and when they invoke inflexible, incorrect, or conflict­ing rules (cited in Harris, 1986). Writers can also become blocked when they lack confi­dence, are anxious about writing, or become overwhelmed by research and reading on their topic.


Some strategies for overcoming writer’s block are provided in the handout Overcoming Writer’s Block on the Writing Support Services webpage: http://www.ucalgary.ca/ssc/node/217 Donald Murray, in “Twenty-Six Ways to Start Writing” (1995/1990), offers additional strategies, including the following:

  • Break the task down into smaller parts
  • Pretend you are ghostwriting for someone else.
  • Talk to someone about the writing and take note of what you say, as it may help you shape the piece of writing.

In fact, this last strategy—talking to someone about what you’re writing—can be extremely useful. Even talking into a digital voice recorder can help writers discover the ideas and the words they need to break through a particular writing block.


Deadlines can also work wonders to dispel writer’s block. As Dolle (2002) puts it, “A dead-line creates a sense of urgency that prevents us from dying in a state of procrastination, indecisiveness, and perfectionism [and] . . . melts away writer’s block” (p. 40). To use the power of deadlines, break your writing task into smaller parts and impose your own deadlines. One strategy that I have used is pretending that a writing task is part of a two-hour essay exam; at the end of the allotted time, I would often have a complete first draft or at least some text that I could use as a springboard for further discovery and writing.
However, sometimes personal and situational factors can act as barriers to tackling writing projects. Such barriers are examined in Wills’ (2000) article “Strategies for Managing Barriers to the Writing Process,” which you might read now (or at the end of the module). Wills noted that “publication is essential to advancing nursing knowledge for clinical practice,” and she reviews research acknowledging that “personal factors, such as inadequate knowledge and writing skills, lack of confidence, and low motivation for writing for publication; and . . . situational factors, such as limited time, energy, and other resource constraints” often hold nurses back from writing for publication (p. 5). She analyzes these barriers and offers a number of strategies for overcoming them.


Strategies for generating ideas & prewriting

As the research summarized in Table 7.1 suggests, experienced and successful writers understand the benefit of prewriting activities in which they explore their topic and begin to generate ideas and plans for approaching their paper. Below are a few strategies that you can use to explore topics and generate ideas at the earliest stage of the writing process.

  • Talking to others. One of the most basic ways for writers to generate ideas—and one of the most frequently overlooked—is talking to others about a topic. Through dialogue, writers get new ideas and begin to articulate what they think, know, and don’t know about a topic. Here’s what writing researcher Mina Shaughnessy (1977) said about dialogue as a tool for generating ideas:

Paradoxically, we tend to discover what we as individuals have to say by talking with others. Here, in the give-and-take of discussion, we see our experiences in larger contexts: what seemed idiosyncratic or unimportant before now illuminates a general truth; what seemed obvious must now be defended; what seemed inexplicable now begins to make sense. Ideas come out of the dialogue we sustain with others and with ourselves. Without these dialogues, thoughts run dry and judgment falters. (pp. 82-83).


  • Idea mapping. In this approach, sometimes called mind mapping, concept map-ping, webbing, or clustering, writers take a blank sheet of paper, write their topic at the centre, and add ideas with lines showing their connection to each other or to the central topic. An advantage of idea mapping is that while writers are generating ideas, they are also connect­ing and grouping those ideas in a potentially useful way. An example of an idea map is included below. Idea mapping can also be a useful strategy for summarizing readings, taking lecture notes, and preparing for oral presentations.


  • In this approach, pioneered by Peter Elbow, writers take 10 or 15 minutes and write non-stop about anything that comes to mind on their topic. The underlying idea is that the very act writing stimulates ideas and serves as a process for discovery. After completing a freewrite, writers can review what they’ve written, highlight useful bits, and perhaps even start another round of freewriting (sometimes called looping or nutshelling) based on promising points emerging from the first writing.


  • Focused freewriting. In this approach, writers begin by writing a zero draft, a garbage draft, or a discovery draft, before even thinking about a first draft. This approach can free writers from anxiety and allow them to break through writing blocks.


  • Structured questioning (heuristics). A simple but powerful way to generate ideas on a topic is to ask yourself structured questions about your topic and to note the results. A few common questioning heuristics are described below.


3 Cs: Consider the topic or phenomenon as a thing in itself (components), its relation to other things (context), and as something that changes over time (change).


5 W’s: the journalist’s questions. Ask a variety of questions on your topic based on the journalist’s questions who, what, when, where, why, & how. For example,

What is this phenomenon? How is it defined? What are its components?

What are examples of it? What experiences have I or others had with it?

What are its benefits or advantages? Its costs or disadvantages?

What are its causes? What are its effects?

What solutions are there to this problem?

Whom does this thing affect and how? Who has taken a stand on this issue?

Why is this phenomenon important?

When did this become an issue or a problem, and why? Where is this an issue?

How should we make a decision on this matter?

How can we evaluate possible solutions?


  • Using disciplinary, participant, or theoretical perspectives. Consider your topic from a number of key (disciplinary) perspectives; for example, consider its historical, political, social, cultural, religious, economic, educational, legal, and other dimensions. Alternatively, explore your topic by considering it from the perspectives of individuals or groups affected by it (e.g., teachers, students, parents, and school administrators; or patients, doctors, nurses, healthcare administrators, families, and the government).

If you are writing a paper for a particular course, you should also take some time to also explore the topic from the theoretical perspectives covered in the course and in relation to the themes highlighted in the course outline, lectures, and readings.


  • Using Aristotle’s common topics. In ancient Greece, Aristotle, one of the first theorists of communication and rhetoric, proposed the use of the following topics to generate and explore ideas on a subject: definition, relationship, comparison, circumstance, and testimony (including research, statistics, law, and precedents)


  • Using a SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis invites exploration of a topic or proposal in terms of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.


  • Doing a critical analysis. See Module 9 for ideas on critical analyses or book reviews


  • Using structure to prompt ideas. Consider if your topic lends itself to a problem-solution structure, which can guide your explorations about a topic. For example, for a report about a business problem or an academic paper on a social problem, writers can generate ideas by asking themselves the following questions:

What is the nature of the problem?  What are its causes?  What are its effects?

What are criteria for a good solution?  What are potential solutions and their

advantages and disadvantages? How should the solution be implemented?

Strategies for note-taking

In papers requiring research from secondary sources, a key part of your research-writing process will be note-taking.  As described above, idea mapping or charts can be useful for certain kinds of note-taking. Other helpful note-taking strategies, including the Cornell Method, are described in the information collection stage of the WISPR tutorial, which you visited in Module 3.  Another note-taking strategy that does double-duty as a strategy for organizing information involves the use of index cards, as described below by former ACWR 303 student Tania Lewis:

When conducting research using journal articles, I find using colored cue-cards works best to keep information organized. I label the corner of the articles, using numbers and then I pick a cue-card color to go with that article and label the top of the card according to the article number. Each time I get information that is relevant and could be useful for the paper, I write the sentence(s) down and the page number. After I have gathered all the useful information from a few sources, I sort through the cue-cards and put them into piles. Each pile contains similar information. If I have chosen information that is not relevant or useful, I discard it. I then tie an elastic band around each pile and label it according to the compiled information. In the end, I am ready to write the paper with ease because I have the information organized and ready for the writing process to take place.  — Tania Lewis, student, Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies

Whenever you are taking notes on sources, always identify the source fully and put quotation marks around wording you copy directly from a source. If you do not do this, you may later forget what words were your own and what passages came from the source, and you can end up accidentally plagiarizing material in your paper.


Strategies for organizing ideas

When it comes to organizing ideas, coming up with a thesis or organizing argument, and tentatively structuring a paper, writers might find the following strategies useful.


  • Contextual analysis. Thinking about your audience and context can help you to plan the content and structure of your papers. For example, University of Calgary social work professors Carol Austin and Robert McClelland noted that considerations of audience influence how they focus and structure articles, what information they include to make their arguments credible to readers, and how they deal with writing issues such as “the extent to which [their] values should be stated explicitly” (1998, p. 642).


Careful analysis of the writing situation is also helpful for undergraduate students. Though they are generally writing for instructors who are specialists in their field, students need to keep in mind that part of their task is to demonstrate their knowledge in their papers. As such, they should write as if addressing a general rather than specialist audience. When writing to general audiences, writers typically need to define specialized terms and include more background information. Within a course context, students also need to consider what the instructor expects in terms of length, structure, and links to themes or theories highlighted in the course.


  • Formal outlines. Formal outlines can be a useful tool, particularly when writers have a good idea of what information and arguments they want to include in their papers. However, many writers will find it much easier to produce a detailed formal outline after they have written a discovery draft or formulated their key arguments. And visual learners may find visual approaches like charts, idea maps, and tree diagrams more effective and easier to use than formal outlines. (See Module 2 for more on outlines.)


  • Producing a chart or table can be a great way to begin to structure a paper comparing and contrasting two or more things (e.g., alternative therapies, solutions to a problem, theoretical frameworks, teaching methods, etc.). Across the top row of the chart, list the things to be compared, and down the left-hand column, list categories or criteria for comparison. Then fill in the cells. Here’s what such a chart might look like:



Aspects of comparison

Theory A
on family dynamics
Theory B
on family dynamics
Theory C
on family dynamics
Basic components of the theory      
Research evidence supporting this application      
Applicability in this case      
Ease of use      
Weaknesses / gaps      
Clarity & elegance      

Once you have your raw material organized in the form of a chart (perhaps complete with source references), you should find it easy to write a compare-contrast paper, organizing either by Theory A, then B, then C (for example) or by the particular aspects your comparison focuses on.


  • Idea maps. Even if you don’t use an idea map to generate ideas, such maps can be useful when you begin to structure your argument because the process of mapping ideas requires you to group related ideas and to consider their relationships. Variations on idea maps include sun diagrams, in which all the key points to be developed branch out on rays from the central topic, and tree diagrams, with the topic at the top of the page, with downward branches to the subtopics, which lead to further levels of branching. Tree diagrams can even work as structured outlines for a paper.

Strategies for drafting a research paper

While the following strategies may help you make your drafting process more efficient and more productive, you should expect to go through multiple drafts before getting to the final draft. Writing and revising are recursive processes, and as you move from drafting to revising and back again, you should review what you’ve written. As Table 7.1 indicates, experienced writers frequently stop to reread and reflect on their drafts.


Formulate a tentative thesis early. When writing an academic paper, it’s useful to formulate a tentative thesis (hypothesis) early in the process, keeping in mind that it’s only a starting point. In fact, the University of Minnesota assignment calculator site lists “Write a working thesis” (2011, p. 1) as step three in the research-writing process. Having a tentative answer to your research question in mind will make you a more critical reader as you begin to review the published research on a topic. It will help you to remain focused on your own tentative argument and avoid the kind of research paralysis that arises when you read so many sources that you no longer know what you think about your topic.


Though developing a tentative or working thesis can be useful, always treat it as a flexible tool. Expect it to evolve as you do your research, just as your expectations about a far-off place would no doubt change once you actually visit it. On your research journey, take along flexible expectations about what you will find and tailor your final thesis to reflect your newly informed understanding of the best answer to the research question.


Think of research and writing as intertwined processes. It is generally unrealistic to expect to do all your research and then all your writing. A more productive approach may be to start drafting early on, then to search for information, gather evidence, refine your tentative arguments, and return to drafting and additional rounds of research as needed to fill in gaps where more evidence and support is called for.

Start drafting whatever section comes easiest. If you’re finding it hard to write an opening paragraph, try drafting a body section instead. Most writers find it easier to write an introduction once they have written at least part of their first draft. Think of your paper in terms of sections, and start writing whatever section you feel ready to work on.

Defer editorial concerns to later in the process. A key strategy for most writers is to defer minor editorial concerns about wording, grammar, spelling, and punctuation until they have a complete draft. It’s nearly impossible to maintain the creative momentum required for writing when you constantly sabotage the creative flow with concerns about spelling or grammar. Just go with the flow and edit later. As Table 7.1 indicates, experienced writers frequently stop to reread their developing text, but they don’t let themselves get sidetracked by minor editorial concerns as inexperienced writers often do.

Five key strategies for revising

Once you have a complete draft of your paper, you may be ready to focus seriously on revising and editing. Here are five key strategies for this stage of the writing process:

  1. Leave ample time to revise and edit. A good idea is to allow 30 minutes per page (or 40% of the total time budgeted for your paper) for revising and editing.
  2. Set your text aside for a day or two before revising. “Revision” literally means
    re-vision–seeing something again. It’s much easier to review your writing critically and with a fresh perspective when some time has elapsed between drafting and revising.
  3. Get reader feedback. Having someone read your draft and point out lapses in clarity and other problems can be helpful. However, having your reader edit or rewrite parts of your paper amounts to plagiarism in academic contexts. Use reader feedback to inform your own editing and revision; your peer can point out problems, but you need to do any rewriting.
  4. Read your paper aloud when revising. This strategy can help you find problems with phrasing and sentence structure that you might otherwise miss.
  5. Revise and edit your paper in several stages. Work from larger concerns like content and structure to micro-level editorial matters like grammar and punctuation. Most writers find it nearly impossible to focus on both macro- and micro-level concerns at the same time. A four-stage revision process might look like the following:
  6. Revise for content, structure, and transitions
  7. Revise for paragraph development and use of sources
  8. Revise for sentence style and clarity
  9. Edit for grammar, spelling, punctuation, consistency or format, and proper documentation of sources both in the text and in the reference list.

These four stages form the basis for the checklist provided below. For another take on the revision process, one that focuses on seven elements (subject, audience, form, genre, structure, development, dimensions, and tone) plus strategies for line by line editing, see Donald Murray’s classic article, “The Maker’s Eye.”


Never overlook the importance of careful revision and editing. Your final round of revision is your last chance to add, delete, or rearrange content; to reconsider your key argument and the connections between ideas; to assess your use of sources and the arguments and evidence you’ve provided; and to consider whether you have phrased your ideas clearly and effectively. The final editing process is your last chance to correct errors in citation, grammar, spelling, and punctuation that might detract from the quality of your paper and from your reader’s impression of you as a writer.



A Four-Step Process & Checklist for Revising Research Papers

  1. Revise for content, structure, and transitions                               
  • Have you fulfilled the requirements for the assignment? (Double check.)
  • Is your title specific to your paper? Could another student have the same title?

à strategy: To fix a vague title, add a colon plus a subtitle to make it more specific.

  • Have you assumed a general audience for your paper (unless instructed not to)?

à strategy: Define key terms in your paper. Provide enough background information

  • Does your paper reflect the theory, methods, and terms you learned in the course?
    à strategy: If your paper could have been written by someone who has not taken the course, then add more analysis and link discussions to course themes and concepts.
  • Does your thesis sum up the main point or central argument of your paper? Does it assert an arguable proposition and highlight key supporting arguments discussed in your paper? Does it appear in your introduction (or very early in your paper)?
  • Does your introduction frame your paper effectively?

à strategy: Get rid of overly general “filler” sentences. Check if your second or final paragraph might actually make a better introduction.

à strategy: If your introduction seems boring, try starting with a relevant quotation, an arresting fact or statistic, or an apparent paradox.

  • Is your paper structured effectively? A thematic organization often works well; for example, an analysis organized around causes or effects would be a better choice for a history paper than a completely chronological structure.

à strategy: If a paper’s structure seems weak, outline the paper’s sections and look for duplication of ideas, gaps, and potential ways to restructure.

à strategy: Consider whether the first few paragraphs should provide more back-ground or context for your argument (e.g., definitions or historical background)

à strategy:  If you’re struggling to find a structure, try producing a visual map of your arguments and evidence. For example, if doing a comparison, draw a chart comparing your subjects according to your categories of analysis). Group related information. Identify your key and supporting ideas.

  • Do the opening sentences of paragraphs capture the main point of the paragraph and implicitly or explicitly link to the thesis or to the previous paragraph or section?

à strategy: Read your intro, topic sentences for all paragraphs, and the conclusion to see whether a coherent argument appears to be unfolding. Revise any topic sentence that seem disconnected from the flow of your argument.

  • Have you provided enough evidence and discussion to support your arguments?

à strategy:  If you can imagine a reader asking questions, requesting more evidence, or making counter-arguments, try to strengthen your arguments and to fill in any gaps.

  1. Revise for paragraph development and use of sources
  • Are all your paragraphs effectively focused and developed?

à strategy:  If any paragraph is only one or two sentences long, check if it should be attached to an adjacent paragraph or if it needs to be more fully developed, by adding evidence, examples, discussion, or more explicit links between ideas

  • Are your paragraphs coherent–does each sentence flow logically, clearly, and smoothly from the one before?

à strategy: If adjoining sentences seem disconnected, rewrite the beginning of the second sentence to provide a clear link from the old information to the new information.

  • Have you used your sources effectively? Do they support your points effectively?

à strategy: Paraphrase most of the time. Quote only if the original wording—not just the information or idea—is important. Consider quoting if you are working from primary sources (e.g., historical documents, interview data, or literary or other texts being analyzed), if you are comparing definitions, or if the original wording conveys some-thing special that a paraphrase would destroy. When you quote, provide enough context so that the reader can tell who is being quoted and so that the significance of the quoted material is clear.

  • Have you used quotation marks or inset the text to signal quoted material (and cited a page number for the quoted material)?


  1. Revise for clarity, precision, and conciseness
  • Are your sentences all clear and readable?

à strategy:  Read your paper aloud. If a sentence seems unclear or awkward, ask yourself “who’s doing what?” and reword accordingly.

à strategy:  Ask yourself how you’d explain your point to a younger person; your  response may lead you to a clearer, more straightforward expression.

  • Have you used pronouns effectively?

à strategy:  Get rid of second person pronouns (you, & your).

à strategy:  Unless you are writing a reflective paper or a journal or referring to personal experience, edit out uses of I, me,  and my. But do use these pronouns if they add clarity (e.g., by distinguishing your point of view from that of someone else).

à strategy:  Try replacing the pronoun one with we if your paper sounds stilted.

à strategy:  After the word this, add a word to clarify the reference (e.g., “this___”)

à strategy:  Try to keep nouns in your discussion plural so you can use the pronouns they, their, and them, avoiding sexist usage, awkward “he or she” combinations, and ungrammatical pronoun shifts (e.g. a studentà they)


  • Is your writing concise?

à strategy: Cut empty sentences and unnecessary references to your paper (e.g., “In this paper, I will…”)

à strategy: Get rid of adjectives like “very,”  long introductory phrases that say little, and unnecessary “it is” and “there are” phrases.


  1. Edit for grammar, citation & referencing, punctuation, and spelling
  • Have you used the past tense when referring to published research?
  • Have you cited a source for every piece of borrowed information (whether quoted or paraphrased) and included a reference list in a standard format like APA?
  • Have you edited your paper systematically?

à strategy:  If English isn’t your first language, check each verb for (1) correct tense, (2) correct verb form, and (3) proper agreement with the subject of the verb.

à strategy:  Use spellcheck and a good dictionary (e.g., the Collins Cobuild)

à strategy:  If you think you have a sentence fragment, test it by using the following phrase: It is true that [insert suspected fragment]. If something seems missing, revise.

à strategy: Use a semicolon (not a comma) to join what could be two sentences. Use a semicolon only where a period would work or as a “super-comma” in a complex list.

  • strategy: Use a colon only after a group of words that could stand as a sentence.

à strategy:  Write it’s only if you mean “it is” or “it has”; otherwise, write its.

à strategy:  Write effect (a noun) when you mean consequence, result, or outcome; use affect (a verb) when you mean Act on.

  • strategy: Write than for all comparisons (note the A, no E, in both words)




At this point, you should read (or briefly scan) the articles and resources highlighted at the beginning of this module.


! Module 7 task:  Please complete the online Module 7 quiz as soon as you can. (The quiz will remain open until March 31, 2014.) The link to the quiz is in the ASSIGNMENTS area on Blackboard. Just click on the quiz title.




Austin, C. D., & McClelland, R. W. (1998). Writing: The maturing of ideas. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 79 (6), 641-643. Retrieved from http://alliance1.metapress.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/

Carosso, R. B. (1986). Technical communication. Belmont CA: Wadsworth.

Dolle, R. (2002). Past and future deadlines. Writing Professionally, 64 (6), 40-41.

Elbow, P. (1981). Writing with power. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Flower, L., Hayes, J. R., Carey, L., Schriver, K., & Stratman, J. (1986). Detection, diagnosis, and the strategies of revision. College Composition and Communication, 37: 16-55.

Gray, M. (1999). Writing for a journal: Blood, sweat, and tears. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 80 (3), 305-307. Retrieved from http://alliance1.metapress.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/content/1331764k54540402/?p=7a8dc178db004904b072ee3f44146790&pi=14

Harris, M. (1986). Teaching writing one-to-one: The writing conference. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Hayden, A., Rutherford, S., & Pival, P. (2011). Workshop on the Information Search Process for Research (WISPR). Retrieved January 25, 2011, from the University of Calgary library website at  http://libguides.ucalgary.ca/ACWR303

Heron, G., & Murray, R. (2004). The place of writing in social work: Bridging the theory-practice divide. Journal of Social Work, 4 (2), 199-214. Retrieved from http://jsw.sagepub.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/content/4/2/199.full.pdf+html

Murray, D. M. (1998/2000). The maker’s eye: Revising your own manuscripts. In P. Eschholz, A. Rosa, & V. Clark. (Eds.), Language awareness: Readings for college writers (pp. 151-182). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s: 161-165.

Retrieved from http://robertnazar.pbworks.com/f/The+Maker%27s+Eye+-+Donald+Murray.pdf

Murray, D. (1995/1990). Twenty-six ways to start writing. In J. Rackham & B. J. Slaughter (Eds.) The Rinehart Reader, Vol. II, (pp. 61-67). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Rau, P. S., & Sebrechts, M. M. (1996). How initial plans mediate the expansion and resolution of options in writing. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 49A (3), 616-638.

Richardson, L. (1994). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 516-529). Thousand Oaks CA: Sage.

Rutherford, S., Hayden, K.A., & Pival, P. (n.d.) Workshop on the information search process for research (WISPR). Retrieved February 18, 2010, from http://library.ucalgary.ca/wispr

Shaughnessy, M. P. (1977). Errors and expectations. New York: Oxford UP.

University of Minnesota. University of Minnesota assignment calculator. Retrieved December 10, 2009, from http://www.lib.umn.edu/help/calculator/

Van Waes, L., & Schellens, P. J. (2002). Writing profiles: the effect of the writing mode on pausing and revision patterns of experienced writers. Journal of Pragmatics, 35 (6), 829-853).

White, R., & Arndt, V. (1991). Process writing. White Plains NY: Longman.

Wills, C. E. (2000). Strategies for managing barriers to the writing process. Nursing Forum, 35 (4), 5-10. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-6198.2000.tb01224.x Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/doi/10.1111/j.1744-6198.2000.tb01224.x/pdf

Witkin, S. L. (2000). Writing social work [editorial]. Social Work, 45(5). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca:2048/ login?url=http:// search.epnet.com/

Module 8: Writing with Style                                     updated Aug. 9, 2012

Overview & Objectives

This module focuses on writing style and effective expression. It should help you learn how to

  • use first-person (“I” and “we”) appropriately in academic writing
  • edit for precision, consistency, and clarity in pronoun use
  • improve your writing by using strong verbs, human subjects, and active voice
  • avoid anthropomorphism
  • make your lists grammatically parallel
  • edit for conciseness and achieve a professional tone in your writing
  • adhere to accepted guidelines for avoiding bias in writing


Required Readings. Read the Module first and then do these four readings.  

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual. Washington, DC: APA.
Chapter 3 – Sections 3.05 to 3.23 inclusive.

American Psychological Association. (2009). The basics of APA style. [PowerPoint]. Retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://www.apastyle.org/learn/tutorials/basics-tutorial.aspx.  (See slides 9 to 12, which cover strategies for reducing bias in writing.)

Webb, C. (1992). The use of the first person in academic writing: objectivity, language and gatekeeping. Journal of Advanced Nursing 92 (17), 747-752. Retrieved from http://search.epnet.com/direct.asp?an=8532499&db=hch

Zinsser. W. (2010, winter). Writing English as a second language. American Scholar.
 Retrieved from http://theamericanscholar.org/writing-english-as-a-second-language/

Optional reading:

Witkin, S. L. (2000). Writing social work [editorial]. Social Work, 45 (5), 389-394. Retrieved from http://sw.oxfordjournals.org.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/content/45/5/389.full.pdf+html

In an attempt to encourage the use of theoretical, literature-based arguments and evidence rather than anecdotes in their work, students in [nursing] diploma and degree courses have been taught to write using the third person. When inexpertly used, this format leads to excruciatingly tortuous sentences about what “the writer” and “the author” think. (Webb, 1992, p. 747)


Write the way you talk. People don’t usually talk in five-syllable words and multi-clause sentences; and readers are, after all, seeing the written words of someone who is talking to them. Here’s how to check it out: If you would feel uncomfortable saying aloud something you have written, your writing is probably stilted and unnatural. Say to yourself what you would say to another person, and then write it that way. You can do the polishing later. (Alexander & Wall, 1975, p. 773)


Using first-person (I, we) appropriately in academic writing

Most students have been taught to use the third-person exclusively in academic writing—in other words, to avoid the use of “I” and “we.” However, both the American Psychological Association (APA) and many refereed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Nursing, now urge writers to adopt the “direct form of expression” afforded by first-person pronouns (Webb, 1992, p. 417). As Christine Webb (1992), the editor of the Journal of Clinical Nursing, advises researchers who are thinking about submitting an article to that journal,

Over the years, with increasing use of qualitative research methods, use of the first person has become more widespread in nursing articles. . . . Examples of this would be “We suggest that our findings demonstrate…” or “We have consider[ed] that further research is needed . . . .”  We wish to encourage use of this direct form of expression in JAN [the Journal of Clinical Nursing]. (p. 417)


Webb’s advice aligns with that found in the APA Manual (2001): “Writing ‘The experimenters instructed the participants’ when ‘the experimenters’ refers to yourself is ambiguous and may give the impression that you did not take part in your own study. Instead, use a personal pronoun: ‘We instructed the participants’” (pp. 37-38). Elsewhere, the Manual suggests that instead of writing “The survey was conducted in a controlled setting,” a better choice would be to write in the active voice: “We conducted the survey in a controlled setting” (p. 41). The advice in the sixth edition of the APA Manual (2010) is even more succinct:

To avoid ambiguity, use a personal pronoun rather than the third person when describing steps taken in your experiment.

Correct: We reviewed the literature.

Incorrect: The authors reviewed the literature. (p. 69)


Aside from the possibility of confusion that can arise when you refer to yourself in the third-person, referring to yourself as “the writer” results in an awkward and stilted style. If you were doing an oral presentation, imagine how unnatural it would be for you to say “The speaker will begin by reviewing…” instead of saying “I will begin by reviewing….”  In writing, it is equally unnatural (and potentially confusing) to refer to yourself as “the writer.”


In general, you should consider using first-person pronouns (I, me, my; we, us, our) when

  • you are writing papers based in a qualitative or feminist research tradition which encourages the use of first-person (Webb, 1992);
  • you are referring to your own actions and experiences, as for example when you are writing a case study in which you describe your interactions with a client or patient;
  • you are presenting your personal opinions, reactions, and reflections in more informal genres like reflective journals and even book reviews; and
  • you wish to avoid anthropomorphism, which occurs when you attribute human actions to inanimate objects or groups. For example, rather than writing “This paper argues that
    . . . ,” you could write, “In this paper, I argue that . . . .”

A good rule of thumb is to use the first-person (I) when it adds clarity or allows you to avoid awkward phrasing in your academic writing.

While it’s fine to use first-person pronouns in your writing, you should avoid adding tags like “In my view,” “I think,” “I believe,” and “in my opinion” to statements in your papers. Such phrases may weaken the claims that you are making. Let’s look at a couple examples:

                      Weak:    In my view, nursing shortages are compromising patient care.

                     Better:   Nursing shortages are compromising patient care (source citation).

In academic writing, your claims should be supported by research sources (evidence) and logical reasoning; by labeling your claims as (just) your personal opinions, you risk undermining your arguments. Moreover, such tags are unnecessary; readers understand that the your papers present your conclusions based on your careful examination of a topic.


When considering the use of first-person pronouns, you should also keep your specific audience in mind.  In either a classroom or workplace setting, if you are uncertain about whether the use of first-person pronouns would be appropriate in a particular piece of writing, check with your instructor or your supervisor.

Eliminating second-person pronouns (you, your) in academic writing

When editing for pronoun use in academic writing, you should make a point of editing out the second-person pronouns “you” and “your.” While “you” and “your” work well in business correspondence, brochures, and instructional materials, their use in academic genres like research papers, proposals, and book reviews results in an overly informal tone. The use of “you” and “your” may also address the reader inappropriately and lead to ungrammatical and illogical shifts, as in the following sentence: “Nurses know that you should immediately report cases of assault.”  Here, for logical consistency, the sentence should read “Nurses know that they should immediately report cases of assault.”

Editing for effective, consistent, and accurate pronoun use

The pronoun “they” can also cause problems in writing. When editing, always check your use of “they,” “their,” and “them” to make sure that you are not using these plural pronouns to refer to singular subjects, as in the following examples:

Incorrect: The hospital revised their personnel policies.

ü Revised: The hospital revised its personnel policies.

Incorrect:  The university is considering an increase in tuition because they are facing increased costs and decreased funding.

ü Revised: The university is considering an increase in tuition because it is facing increased costs and decreased funding.

Incorrect:  When an instructor suspects that a student has a learning difficulty, they should arrange for the student to be tested by a professional.

ü Revised by making the noun plural: When instructors suspect that a student has a learning difficulty, they should arrange for the student to be tested by a professional.

A good rule of thumb is to use plural nouns and pronouns for all general statements, as in the final revised example above. That way, you can freely use the pronouns “they,”  “their,” and “them” without worrying about pronoun shifts or errors in pronoun agreement.  Consider the following example of this strategy in action from section 3.17 of the APA Manual: “Authors . . . their…. Authors…. Historians and scholars…Contemporary authors….” (2010, pp. 76-77).


And, of course, when you use a pronoun, you make sure that the referent for that pronoun—what it refers to—is nearby. Readers should never have to guess what “it” is or who “they” refers to. It’s also a good idea to avoid using pronouns in opening sentences to paragraphs.

Increasing precision and clarity by eliminating vague uses of “this”

One quick way to increase clarity and precision in your writing is to search for and root out all vague uses of the pronoun “this.” Sometimes, simply adding a word after “this” will do the trick; at other times, you will need to substitute a more explicit phrase or even rewrite the entire sentence. Consider the use of “this” in the following sentences taken (with permission) from student papers and note how the revised versions add clarity and precision:

An elderly patient, restrained to prevent falling out of bed, may regard this as an act of control, punishment or convenience.

Revised: An elderly patient, restrained to prevent falling out of bed, may regard the use of restraints as an act of control, punishment or convenience.


Family members may request restraints for the protection or safety of the patient. This creates more legal support for nursing staff to use restraints as they see fit.

Revised: Family members may request restraints for the protection or safety of the patient. In such cases, family consent to the use of restraints may provide nursing staff with more legal justification to use restraints …

Tip: Use the search function of your computer to search for “this” while editing; check each use of “this” for clarity and precision.


Increasing precision and clarity by eliminating dangling participles

Vague uses of “it” are also a problem in writing, and vague “it” often pops up in the company of another sentence problem—the dangling participle. Consider the following example of a dangling participle (underlined and highlighted in red) followed by a vague “it”:

By assessing the patient’s vital signs, it will provide the nurse with important information.

Simply put, a dangling participle is an action expressed in a phrase (here, “by assessing …vital signs”) that is not clearly attached to an agent or “doer” of the action. Now, here’s the revised version; note how much clearer, more precise, and more grammatical it is because the doer of the action (i.e. who is assessing the vital signs) is absolutely clear:

By assessing the patient’s vital signs, nurses gain important information.

Here is another example of a dangling participle (underlined for emphasis):

After administering the survey, the clients left.

Note how this sentence problematically implies that the clients administered (rather than completed) the survey. Here are two possible revisions for clarity and precision:

     After administering the survey, the researchers advised the clients that . . .

     After completing the survey, the clients left.

In most cases, you can fix a dangling participle in at least three ways:

  • By inserting the “doer” of the action after the opening phrase:

e.g., By assessing the patients’ vital signs, nurses obtain valuable information.

  • By rewriting the opening phrase to include the doer of the action:

e.g., When nurses assess patients’ vital signs, they obtain . . .  

  • By rewriting the sentence to make the –ing verb phrase into the subject of the sentence (dropping the word “By” in the process) :

e.g., Assessing patients’ vital signs provides nurses with valuable information.

When editing, look for sentences that begin with “By” plus an -ing verb (a gerund); check to make sure that such sentences unfold with the doer of the action coming right after that opening phrase. Take a minute now to complete Exercise 8.1, and check your answers at the end of the module.


Exercise 8.1  Eliminating dangling participles

Three of the following sentences are correctly structured, and two are not. Can you identify the two incorrect sentences?  (Hint: the doer of the action should come immediately after an opening “By… ing…” phrase.)

  1. By paying attention to feedback on your writing, it can help you to eliminate problems that tend to arise in your assignments.

  Correct    Incorrect

  1. By paying attention to feedback on your writing, you can gradually eliminate problems that tend to arise in your assignments.

Correct    Incorrect
  1. Paying attention to feedback on your writing can help you to eliminate problems that tend to arise in your assignments.

Correct    Incorrect
  1. By paying attention to feedback on your writing can help you to eliminate problems that tend to arise in your assignments.

Correct    Incorrect

  1. By paying attention to feedback on their writing, students can eliminate problems that tend to arise in their assignments.

Correct     Incorrect
Writing with style: three key strategies for an extreme make-over

To make your writing clearer and more precise, sometimes you simply need to fix a few vague or ungrammatical pronouns and to repair a few dangling participles. At other times, you may sense that your writing needs an extreme make-over, but you may not know where to start. This section offers three strategies for transforming clunky, awkward, and boring sentences into clearer, more engaging, and more effective sentences.


Before considering strategies for an extreme style make-over, look at the following “before” and “after” version of a student paragraph (used with permission). Which version do you find clearer, easier to read, and more engaging?  Can you identify specific strategies that the writer used in the more effective version?  When trying to identify writing strategies used in the version that you think is clearer and more engaging, look for clues in the subjects (bolded) and the verbs (underlined).


Version 1:
There is a wide variety of dependent behaviour by marginalized women living on the street. Some examples of dependencies are related to charitable support systems, drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships, welfare payments, financial support provided by pimps and gang members, and money obtained from the result of theft… (Golden, 1992; Roberts, 1993; Rothman, 1991; Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1985). Outcomes of these dependent relationships are feelings of low self-esteem, powerlessness and hopelessness (Minehan, 1976; Rothman, 1991). Closely knit constraining support systems as a result of seeking acceptance are developed. This controlling environment places the women in high risk situations of abuse, unhealthy influences and criminal activity (Farmer, 1990). Maintenance of the street life through gang ideals and standards is a constant struggle. Constraining support systems and length of stay on the street create strong feelings of alienation and resistance.


Version 2:

Marginalized women living on the street exhibit a wide variety of dependent behaviours. These women may become dependent on charitable support systems, drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships, welfare payments, financial support provided by pimps and gangs, and money obtained from the result of theft… (Golden, 1992; Roberts, 1993;  Rothman, 1991; Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1985). As a result of these dependent relationships, the women may develop feelings of low self-esteem, powerlessness and hopelessness (Minehan, 1976; Rothman, 1991). As they seek acceptance, they may find themselves in closely knit, constraining support systems. Women in such controlling environments are at high risk for abuse, unhealthy influences and criminal activity (Farmer, 1990). Women on the street face a constant struggle trying to maintain life on the street and to meet gang ideals and standards. As these women struggle with constraining support systems over long periods on the street, they begin to feel alienated and hostile towards…


In Version 2–the “extreme make-over” revision of Version 1–did you see the following strategies at work: the use of strong verbs, human subjects, and active voice? These three strategies are discussed below.


  1. Use strong verbs to embody the action in sentences.

In the “before” (version 1) passage above, three of the seven verbs are weak “is” or “are” verbs, while all the verbs in the rewritten passage are “stronger” verbs (i.e., exhibit, may become, may develop, seek, may find, face, struggle, begin to feel).


When editing to make your verbs stronger,

  • ask yourself “who is doing what?” and present the action in the form of a strong verb
  • look for verbs hiding in nominalizations (long nouns derived from verbs). For example, the noun “dependencies” can be changed into the verb “depend” and you can ask yourself “who is depending on what?” to get to a clearer sentence. Here are a few more examples showing verbs hidden in long nouns:

implementation   can be transformed into à  implement
necessity                                                       need
co-ordination                                                co-ordinate
resistance                                                      resist
integration                                                     integrate
collaboration                                                 collaborate
mediation                                                      mediate
confrontation                                                            confront

Can you add more examples to this list? 

Once you’ve pried out the hidden verbs lurking in long abstract nouns, you can put them to work in sentences that are clearer, more concise, and more engaging.

  1. Bring your writing to life by putting human beings into your sentences whenever possible—particularly when you are writing about human beings.

In the “before” passage above (version 1), even though the passage focuses on women, “women” do not appear as the grammatical subject of any of the sentences; instead, the grammatical subjects of nearly all the sentences are hard-to-visualize abstract nouns like dependencies, outcomes, support systems, and maintenance.

When the passage is revised with “women” (or “they”—the pronoun equivalent) as the grammatical subject of every sentence, the passage immediately becomes clearer, more engaging, and easier to read because now women are doing things in the sentences: they are exhibiting behaviours, becoming dependent, seeking acceptance, and struggling with support systems. Such actions are easier to visualize, and the revised sentences are more vivid and readable.

Let’s look at another example of a sentence makeover; this one is taken from Camilleri’s (1987) article on writing in nursing (again, with the subject of the sentences in bold and the verbs underlined):


The confrontation with family dismemberment and the necessity for relation-ship redefinition within the family system usually occur at the death of a parent.


Usually when a parent dies, family members confront the ways that death has dismembered their family and the ways they must redefine relationships within the family system. (p. 210)

The revised sentence demonstrates the following revision strategies:

  • It replaces four abstract nominalizations in the original (i.e., confrontation, dismemberment, necessity, redefinition) with strong verbs in active voice (i.e., confront, has dismembered, must redefine)
  • It adds human beings to the sentence (a parent, family members, they)
  • It moves the contextual information–“when a parent dies”–from the end of the sentence to the beginning.

As suggested above, when revising, one useful strategy is to ask yourself “who is doing what?” and then to present the action in a strong verb with a human being as the doer of the action. This strategy will automatically lead you to write in the active voice, which is discussed next.

  1. Use active rather than passive voice.

In active voice, the doer (subject) of an action comes before the verb, as in (2) below; in passive voice, the doer of the action may not appear at all, as in (1a) below or it may come after the verb, as in (1b) below. In the following examples, the verbs are underlined and the doer of the action appears in bold red type:

Passive voice
(1a)  The problems were reviewed and a decision was made.
(1b)  The problems were reviewed and a decision was made by the board.

Active voice

  • The board reviewed the problems and made a decision.


Now let’s look more closely at the two revisions from passive to active voice in the long passage on marginalized women presented above. In the examples below, the verbs in passive voice appear underlined, verbs in active voice appear in bold type, and the “doers” of the actions appear before the active voice verbs:

  • Original (in passive voice): “Some examples of dependencies are related to charitable support systems…”

Revision strategy: Ask yourself, “Who’s doing what?”

Revised (to active voice): These women may become dependent on charitable support systems…

(2)  Original (in passive voice): “Closely knit constraining support systems as a result of seeking acceptance are developed.”

Revision strategy: Ask yourself, “Who’s doing what?”

Revised (to active voice): As they seek acceptance, they may find themselves in closely knit, constraining support systems.


If you take another look at the entire revised passage (version 2) above, you should see that all the revised sentences except one have verbs in the active voice (with human beings as the subjects of the verbs).



Recognizing the passive voice.

To revise for active voice in your writing, you need to be able to recognize passive voice. As noted above, in passive voice, the doer of the action does not come before the verb. You can also recognize passive voice by its two-part structure, as shown below. Verbs in the passive voice always have two parts:



A form of the “to be” verb       +               the past participle of a verb
                                                                             (which will often end in -ed)

E.g.          is, are                                     given
was, were                               organized
will be                                     evaluated
should be                               implemented
may be, must be                   decided
can be, could be                   awarded

                 might have been                  presented
could have been                   reviewed

                 should have been                provided
written, etc.

Here are several examples of verbs in the passive voice:

The award was given to John.

The plan will be reviewed.

Problems can be seen in the document.

Concerns should be relayed to the committee.

The patient should not be moved.

Note that in the passive voice, doer of the action may come after the verb—or it may not appear in the sentence at all.


In general, sentences in the active voice are more concise, more informative, and more engaging than sentences written in the passive voice. However, passive voice can be a good choice when it provides a smoother link to the previous sentence or when you want to focus attention on the object (receiver) of an action rather than on the doer of the action. For example, the passive voice would be the best choice in the following sentence: “The patient should not be moved.” In this case, the focus is on the patient rather than on who might be doing the moving.

A good rule of thumb is to use the active voice unless you have a good reason to use the passive voice. For more information on active and passive voice, see these resources:

·         Active and Passive Verbs. Purdue University OWL (Online Writing Lab): http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/01/

·         Passive Voice. The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:


Avoiding anthropomorphism

Some academic readers (especially nursing professors!) hate a particular usage problem known as anthropomorphism, which involves attributing human qualities or cognitive actions to inanimate objects. Here are a few typical examples of anthropomorphism from academic writing, along with suggested revisions:


Weak (anthropomorphic or illogical) Revised
This paper examines….

This study concludes that…

The results concluded that

The article found that children often…

The article hypothesized that…

The article studied the effect of…

The study reported that….

In this paper, I examine….

The researchers concluded that…

From the results, we concluded that…

Smith et al. (2008) found that children often….

Smith et al. (2008) hypothesized that…

Smith et al. (2008) studied the effect of….

Smith et al. (2008) reported that….


Here’s what the APA Manual (APA, 2010) says about anthropomorphism:

An experiment cannot attempt to demonstrate, control unwanted variables, or interpret findings, nor can tables or figures compare (all of these can, however, show or indicate). Use a pronoun or an appropriate noun as the subject of these verbs. I or we . . . can replace the experiment. (p. 38)

In academic writing, aim for precision. When you are referring to research, ask yourself whether the action was performed by the researchers, the study itself, or the article. In most cases, the most logical subject will be the researchers. Consider the following examples:

Incorrect:      The article tested the activity with five participants.

Correct:         The researchers tested the activity with five participants.

Incorrect:      The article concluded that music may affect memory.

Correct:         The researchers concluded that music may affect memory.

Incorrect:      The study recommended that more research be done.

Correct:         The authors recommended that more research be done.

In informal writing, anthropomorphism may be acceptable, especially when it’s used metaphorically. For example , in a module, I might write, “Sentences may suffer from a variety of ailments,” metaphorically attributing the human experience of suffering to sentences. In academic writing, however, you should avoid anthropomorphism.

Revising to eliminate overloaded subjects

Sentences become difficult to read when their grammatical subjects are overloaded. Consider the following example (with the subject in blue and the verb underlined):

Poor: Students’ motivation, learning styles, study habits, time management skills, and reading skills all affect their performance in university.

Revised: Several factors affect students’ performance in university; these include their motivation, learning styles, study habits, time management skills, and reading skills.

In the revision, note how the semicolon joins what could now be two separate sentences.
(A period could also work in that spot, but a comma would be incorrect.)

Ensuring proper parallelism in lists, headings, and sentences

Parallelism is the principle of presenting similar kinds of information in a similar way. Essentially, it’s the principle at work when cabinet-makers craft four identical table legs, using a similar form for a similar function. In writing, parallel structure helps to clarify logical relationships and makes texts easier to read. When writing and revising, you should always check for parallel structure in lists and headings.

Parallelism in lists. Whenever you write a list of two or more elements (whether the list is embedded in a sentence or set out in a list format), structure the list so that all elements are grammatically parallel. Consider the following sentence taken from a student paper in which the student writer effectively used parallel structure (here, highlighted in blue and underlined for added emphasis):

The most common reasons given for restraining patients are to protect patients from injury to themselves or to others, to control behaviour, to prevent disruption of a medical treatment, to compensate for inadequate staffing, and to protect the facility from legal liabilities (Varone, Tappen, Dixon-Antonia, Gonzales, & Glussman, 1992).

Here’s the same sentence presented in a list format to further emphasize the parallel structure of the elements in the list:

The most common reasons given for restraining patients are

  • to protect patients from injury to themselves or to others
  • to control behaviour
  • to prevent disruption of a medical treatment
  • to compensate for inadequate staffing, and
  • to protect the facility from legal liabilities (Varone, Tappen, Dixon-Antonia, Gonzales, & Glussman, 1992).


Notice how the lead-in to the list reads logically and grammatically with each item listed.

Now consider the following sentence taken from another student’s paper on the use of restraints; as you’ll see, the list here is not grammatically parallel:

A common rationale for restraint use includes protection of the patient, other patients, or to control behaviour (Strumpf & Evans, 1988).

Here are two potential revisions that show how the sentence might be rewritten:

(1) Common rationales for restraint use are to protect the patient and other patients
and to control behaviour (Strumpf & Evans, 1988).

(2) Common rationales for restraint use are to protect the patient, to ensure the safety of other patients, and to control behaviour (Strumpf & Evans, 1988).

While both revisions use the infinitive form (with “to” plus the verb), they could also have been written using gerunds (-ing forms), e.g., protecting, ensuring, controlling.


Parallelism in headings.  Whenever possible, try to use parallel structure to format a series of logically similar headings or subheadings. For example, you might use a series of -ing phrases (e.g., Identifying the problem, Formulating a plan, Implementing the plan) or a series of who, what, when, where, why, and how phrases (e.g., What constitutes a learning difficulty; How to diagnose . . .  etc.).  Of course, some headings may depart from the pattern.


Parallelism in sentences:  Parallelism is also a concern in sentences that employ the following pairs, each element of which should be grammatically parallel:

  • not only______ but also_____
  • either________ or _________
  • both_________ and________

Consider the following sentences in which these pairs (in bold type) are followed by grammatically parallel elements (underlined and in red type):

You must not only identify the problem but also formulate a treatment plan.

You can fix a dangling participle either by inserting the “doer” of the action after the opening phrase or by rewriting the sentence to make the action the grammatical subject of the sentence.

Both the provincial government and the federal government have promised more money for health care.

Now look at the following sentence and check for proper parallelism:

The use of LPNs not only affects registered nurses but also the public.

You should see that this sentence suffers from faulty parallelism because a verb (“affects”) follows one of the underlined elements but not the other. Here are two possible revisions:

The use of LPNs affects not only registered nurses but also the public.

The use of LPNs not only affects registered nurses but also concerns the public.

Editing for conciseness

When editing your writing, you should always aim for conciseness. As Strunk and White (1959/1979) put it,

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words,
a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell [count]. (p. 23)

Here are a few strategies you may find useful when editing for conciseness:

  • cut empty sentences that state the obvious or that seem like “filler”
  • eliminate uses of “very” and “really”
  • rephrase sentences that begin with “It is” or “There are”

  Before:  It was easy for the committee to make a decision (9 words)

   After:   The committee easily made a decision. (6 words)


   Before: There were several participants who complained of nausea. (8 words)

   After:     Several participants complained of nausea. (5 words)

   Before:  It is clear that nursing shortages have become chronic. (9 words)

   After:     Clearly, nursing shortages have become chronic. (6 words)

  • use active voice instead of passive voice
  • use single words instead of phrases

Instead of due to the fact that                 write   because

at the time when                               when

                           in spite of the fact that                      although (or “even though”)

                           the reason why… is that                  … because

                           in the event that                                if

                           seems to have                                  has

                           it is clear that                                     …clearly…
it can be seen that                            (cut this entire phrase)


  • eliminate unnecessary “who is” and “which is” phrases

Before:    Christine Webb, who is the editor of JAN, argues that . . .

         After:        Christine Webb, the editor of JAN, argues that . . .

  • look for doubled verbs and nominalizations that can be reduced to one verb

    Instead of    They were able to demonstrate     write   They demonstrated

They made an impression on me             They impressed me

                                    They gave consideration to                       They considered

  • use plural nouns and pronouns (they, them, their) rather than cumbersome
    he or  she, him or her, his or her pronoun pairs
  • think carefully about what bits and pieces are essential in each sentence and cut
    away everything else; you will end up with sentences that focus more strongly
    and effectively on your main points. Consider the following sentence-level
    revision that I made while writing this module:

APA guidelines on avoiding bias in writing must be understood within the social context of evolving language use. (Cut from 31 words to 18 words)

When I look at that sentence now as I’m revising this module, I see that I could make it even more concise by using active verbs (show, evolves) and getting rid of the wordy passive voice “must be understood”:

APA guidelines on avoiding bias in writing show how language evolves in social contexts. (Cut from 18 words to 14 words)

When editing for conciseness, pay special attention to introductory paragraphs, which often contain unnecessary sentences and overly general ideas. As Strunk and White (1979) remind us, your goal should be to make every sentence and every word count. Look for opportunities to cut “filler” sentences or to combine sentences with overlapping content. (But don’t try to pack more than one or two ideas into a sentence.)

Editing for effective sentence and paragraph length

When revising your papers, watch for sentences that exceed 35 or 40 words (about three lines of type); unless structured carefully, such sentences may become awkward, overloaded with ideas, and difficult to read. Also watch for passages with a series of short sentences; while a series of long sentences can make your writing difficult to read and understand, a series of short sentences may make your writing seem choppy and unsophisticated.


In general, you should aim for variety in sentence length (and structure) and an average sentence length of around 17 to 25 words. If you tend to write very long sentences, then you should pay special attention to sentence length when editing.


Always edit carefully for paragraph length too. Avoid paragraphs of less than three sentences; such short paragraphs are rarely long enough to adequately introduce and develop an idea. Conversely, you should avoid paragraphs that are over a page long as they can be challenging for readers. Well developed paragraphs typically range from a third of a page to three-quarters of a page (double-spaced). If you find a very short paragraph while revising, ask yourself whether that paragraph needs further development or whether it should simply be joined to the preceding or following paragraph.


Achieving a professional tone in your writing

Just as you would dress differently for a sick day at home, a casual outing with friends, and a formal banquet, you should adjust the register or tone of your academic writing to suit the occasion. Not surprisingly, formal research proposals and papers call for a more formal tone than do book reviews and reflective journal entries. Nonetheless, in all your academic writing, you should strive for a direct, professional style.


Part of the professional style you should aim for will come naturally as you read more published research and begin to use the specialized terminology of your field. But in your attempts to sound professional, try not to cross the line into wordy or overly bureaucratic writing. A wordy, “bureaucratic” style will make your writing boring and difficult to read. Even worse, if you misuse big words while attempting to impress your reader, your ideas may become lost in a sea of convoluted, incomprehensible, and unreadable sentences.


Table 8.1 may give you an idea of the professional tone and “middle style” you should strive for in your writing.  Can you think of examples to add to this table?

Table 8.1: Achieving a professional tone in academic writing: a few examples


X Overly informal tone


ü Professional tone

 X Overly bureaucratic
or wordy phrasing
Her medications cost a lot …are expensive …pose an undue financial burden on her limited means.
The teacher must find out what difficulties the student is having … identify the difficulties… …establish the existence of the difficulties…
When chatting with the client …interviewing; conversing with; questioning …engaging in communication with
A look at the literature A review of the litera-ture… An examination and review of the previously conducted research….
An anecdotal look at An anecdotal account of An account based on subjective interpretations of first-hand com-munications and contact with …
Lacking areas of self-care Self-care deficits
As well; also In addition; furthermore In addition to the foregoing
I phoned the participants I telephoned… I contacted the participants via telephone
I felt that doing a survey would work best I chose to conduct a survey in order to . . . I came to the reasoned determination that a survey was the best methodological option . . .
The response rate was low, so I called each participant. . . .; therefore; . . . as a result; . . . consequently; Because  . Hence
The problem I just talked about The problem discussed above The aforementioned problem
In this essay, I look at In this paper, I examine In this paper, the writer examines
The articles I looked at said that… Research indicates that…

The literature review revealed that

Upon reviewing the vast literature on this topic, I have come to the conclusion that . . .
Avoiding bias in writing

Most scholars today take the view that language shapes our perceptions of the world. As children, we learn about the world as we acquire language, and as adults, we learn to look at the world through the lens of the specialized terms and concepts within our academic studies and workplaces. But if words shape reality—or at least our perceptions of it—we have an ethical obligation to use words carefully. If we use biased language, then we may be promoting biased views. For example, if we write “she” every time we refer to a nurse and “he” every time we refer to a doctor, we may be promoting the view that all nurses are (or should be) women and that all doctors are (or should be) men.


Before you continue with this module, take some time to review the short section on bias in writing in the APA Manual and in the Basics of APA Style PowerPoint available at the link provided at the beginning of this module. The APA Publication Manual offers these guidelines for reducing bias in writing:
(1) Describe at the appropriate level of specificity;

(2) Be sensitive to labels; and

(3) Acknowledge participation (2010, p. 71-73).

In particular, the Manual suggests using phrases that “put the person first”–e.g., “people diagnosed with schizophrenia”–rather than using group labels like “schizophrenics” (p. 72). The Manual also suggests using active voice when describing the actions of research participants; for example, the Manual suggests writing “the students completed the survey” rather than “the students were given the survey” (p. 73).

Recognizing that guidelines and usage are still evolving when it comes to eliminating bias in language, the 5th edition of the APA Manual offered the following advice:

Call people what they prefer to be called . . . .  Accept that preferences will change with time and that individuals within groups often disagree about the designations they prefer (see Raspberry, 1989). Make an effort to determine what is appropriate for your situation; you may need to ask your participants which designations they prefer. (2001, p. 63)


According to the APA Manual, to test for bias in your writing, read your text while

  • substituting your own group for the group or groups you are discussing or
  • imagining you are a member of the group you are discussing (Maggio, 1991). If you feel excluded or offended, your material needs further revision.

Another suggestion is to ask people from that group to…give you candid feedback. (2001, p. 62).


Eliminating gender bias in writing

Several strategies for reducing gender bias in writing are outlined below.

  1. Use plural noun and pronoun forms whenever possible.

Consider the following sentence from the Strunk and White (1959/1979) excerpt included in the section on conciseness: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline…” (p. 23). Had Strunk and White been writing today, they would likely used gender-neutral writing with plural nouns and pronouns like this: “This requires not that writers make all their sentences short, or that they avoid all detail and treat their subjects only in outline.”

Try to make a habit of using plural nouns and pronouns in your writing. This strategy allows you to avoid ungrammatical shifts in number, gender-specific terms like “he,” and cumbersome pronoun pairs like “he or she.” While the use of the plural pronoun “they” is becoming acceptable with general singular nouns like “everyone” and “everybody,” it is not yet acceptable in academic writing to use “they” with singular nouns like “the nurse,” “a client,” or “a student.” In other words, you should not write “The student should make sure that they get a good night’s sleep before an examination.” Instead, you should write, “Students should make sure that they get a good night’s sleep before an examination.”

  1. Delete gender-specific pronouns if you can

Sometimes, simply deleting a pronoun will work fine to make a passage gender neutral. Had Strunk and White used this strategy with the sentence above, here is how it would have read: “This requires not that writers make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline . . .”

  1. Alternate the use of “he” and “she” in extended examples

When you logically need to use singular pronouns, consider alternating the use of masculine and feminine pronouns. For example, if you are writing a manual describing how a professional psychologist tests a student for learning difficulties, you might use “he” for the psychologist and “she” for the student in one example, section, or chapter, and then switch the pronouns in the next example, section, or chapter. This strategy can work well as long as you give your readers sufficient clues to signal shifts in context.

  1. Use gender neutral terms when possible

Instead of      policeman                 write    police officer

fireman                                  fire fighter

alderman                               city councillor

chairperson                           chair, chairperson, or head

man, mankind                      people; human beings; human kind

man-made                             manufactured; synthetic

man the display                    staff the display

manpower                             staff; employees
Note: The word “midwife” is actually gender-neutral. The word “mid” comes from an Old English term meaning “with,” and “wif” means “woman,” so the “wife” in “midwife” actually refers to the woman giving birth rather than to the person assisting her in the delivery.


  1. Avoid stereotyping by occupation, by characteristics, or by behaviour.

Phrases like “feminine wiles” and “aggression and other masculine behaviours” may imply that women use their gender to manipulate men, and that aggressiveness is a uniquely male trait. In academic writing today, such stereotypes are no longer acceptable.



This module has covered a lot of different strategies to help you improve the clarity, precision, and professionalism of your writing. A helpful learning activity at this point would be to randomly take a page or so from a paper you previously completed and to try to revise it, addressing the issues covered in this module.


ANSWER TO Exercise 8.1  Eliminating dangling participles

  1. By paying attention to feedback on your writing, it can help you to eliminate problems that tend to arise in your assignments.


  1. By paying attention to feedback on your writing, you can gradually eliminate problems that tend to arise in your assignments.

  1. Paying attention to feedback on your writing can help you to eliminate problems that tend to arise in your assignments.

  1. By paying attention to feedback on your writing can help you to eliminate problems that tend to arise in your assignments.


  1. By paying attention to feedback on their writing, students can eliminate problems that tend to arise in their assignments.



Module 8 task: Revising for style (2%,)

due Wed., March 12 with grace period to Fri., March 14, 7:00 pm



Your task: Revise the following passage, eliminating all instances of passive voice plus any dangling participles, lapses of parallelism, and vague, ungrammatical, or awkward pronouns. Try to employ some of the writing strategies covered in the module. For example, if you are having trouble rewriting a sentence, ask yourself “who is doing what here?” and then make the doer of the action the subject of the sentence and follow that subject with the action in the form of a verb.


Grading:  The first “error” is a freebie. After that, starting from A+, markers will deduct one grade level for each

  • use of passive voice
  • dangling participle
  • lapse of parallelism
  • vague, ungrammatical, or awkward pronoun use

Instances of wordiness will not be counted as an error, but you will lose one grade level if your final revision is longer than the original 100 words.



  1. Please write your revision directly below the original on this page.
  2. Cut and paste the original and your revision into a new file, add your name to the top of the page, and include your name in the new file name (e.g., Mod 8 Kim Jones).
  3. Submit this task using the link provided in the ASSIGNMENTS area of Blackboard.



It is clear that stresses will be felt by students as they progress through their post-secondary studies. However, if time is managed properly, stresses and obstacles will be overcome, and success will be achieved. Above all, the following should be made priorities by students:  keeping track of assignment due dates, to work out a schedule for reading and completing course work, getting enough sleep, and consult with their instructors when they need help or guidance. By doing these things, it will be the road to academic success. Above all, a student should know that their instructors want them to succeed. (100 words)







Alexander, J. J., & Wall, J. (1975). Righting the wrongs of writing: copy editors speak out. Personnel & Guidance Journal, 75(53), 768-773.

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington: APA.

American Psychological Association. (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (5th ed.) Washington: APA.

American Psychological Association. (2009). The basics of APA style. [PowerPoint]. Retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://www.apastyle.org/learn/tutorials/basics-tutorial.aspx

Camilleri. R. (1987). Six ways to write right. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 19 (4), 210-212.

Purdue University OWL. (2004). Active and passive voice. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from the OWL [Online Writing Lab] website: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/

Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (1959/1979). The elements of style. New York: Macmillan.

The Writing Centre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2007). Passive voice. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from https://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/passive-voice/

Webb, C. (1992). The use of the first person in academic writing: objectivity, language and gatekeeping. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 92 (17), 747-752. Retrieved from http://search.epnet.com/direct.asp?an=8532499&db=hch

Webb, C. (2001). Editorial. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 10, 417-418.

Module 9: Reading and writing critically      15 pp, updated August 16, 2012

Overview & Objectives

This module, by J. Andre and L. McCloud Bondoc, focuses on summary writing and critical analysis, both of which are integral to academic writing. The module should help you

  • understand the role of critical analyses in academic writing & evidence-based practice
  • become familiar with guidelines and strategies for writing summaries, abstracts, research critiques, literature reviews, and book reviews.


Required reading

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual. Ch.2, Sec. 2.04 on abstracts.

Columbia University School of Social Work. (n.d.) Writing summaries. Retrieved from http://socialwork.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/file_manager/pdfs/2012%2007%2024%20handout%20Writing%20Summaries.pdf

Greenhalgh, T. (1997b). How to read a paper: Assessing the methodological quality of published papers. BMJ, 315, 305-308. Retrieved from http://www.bmj.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/


Other recommended resources (worth taking a quick look at)

Greenhalgh, T. (1997a). How to read a paper: Getting your bearings (deciding what the paper is about). BMJ, 315, 243-246. Retrieved from  http://www.bmj.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/

This article helpfully summarizes various research designs (e.g., randomized controlled trials, cohort studies, cross sectional surveys, and case reports) and discusses their relative merits.

Little, J. W., & Parker, R. (2004). How to read a scientific paper. Retrieved October 10, 2004, from  http://www.biochem.arizona.edu/classes/bioc568/papers.htm#organization

This resource covers the organization of scientific papers and strategies for evaluating them.

Marshall, M. J., & Hutchinson, S. A. (2001). A critique of research on the use of activities with persons with Alzheimer’s disease: a systematic literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 35(4), 488-496. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/

This critical literature review is included here as an example only.

University of Calgary Student Success Centre. (2014). Literature Reviews [various resource links in the “Literature and book reviews” section] Retrieved from the U of Calgary Student Success Centre website: http://www.ucalgary.ca/ssc/node/221

This webpage offers a collection of helpful links to materials on writing literature reviews.

Although good research always begins with inquiry — the process of asking good questions
— it also entails a critical appraisal of previous research on the topic. In order to develop skills in evaluating research, students are often asked to summarize and critique research articles, to review books, and even to write literature reviews on a topic. (As discussed later in this module, a literature review is just a summary of research on a topic.) Before we look at strategies for writing critiques, literature reviews, and book reviews, let’s focus on the simpler tasks of writing summaries and abstracts.

Writing a summary

A summary is a short version of an original text, often 10 to 20 percent of the length of the original. Generally, there are two different approaches to writing a summary. In one approach (the kind used in writing an abstract), you summarize a text as if you were the original writer. In the other approach, you take a more distanced point of view, introducing the work explicitly, referring occasionally to the original writer (e.g., “Harris explains that . . .”), and using quotation marks when preserving wording from the original. When writing summaries in courses, unless instructed otherwise, you should generally take the second approach, in which you keep the original writer in focus, avoid taking phrases from the original without quotation marks, and occasionally refer to the author as you summarize his or her work.


Here are a few strategies when summarizing a text:


  1. Scan the title, introduction, headings, and conclusion to get a sense of the structure and purpose, and main ideas of the source text.
  2. Read the source carefully, focusing on understanding, then reread it to identify the key ideas. Consider highlighting key points and making a verbal or visual outline (concept map or tree diagram) of the key points in the text. (A visual outline will make paraphrasing easier since you won’t be working directly from the original wording.)
  3. Draft your introduction. In your opening sentences, mention the author and title of the work and indicate the nature of the original source (e.g. state if it is a research article).
  4. Working from the key ideas you identified, summarize the source in your own words. When paraphrasing, be sure to use your own sentence structures as well as your own words; keeping the original sentence structure and simply changing a word here and there is unacceptable. If you must incorporate wording from the original, use quotation marks and cite the page number. If you fail to put quotation marks around wording taken from the original, you will be guilty of plagiarism.
  5. When drafting, don’t worry about word limits; you will edit for conciseness later.
  6. Either follow the original organizational structure of the source text or organize your summary from most general or important points. Avoid headings.
  7. Focus on the higher level ideas and claims rather than on details. Include examples only when needed for clarity.
  8. Refer occasionally to the author of the original (e.g. “Wilson argues that…. She…”). Doing so can add clarity, particularly if you go on later to critique the source.
  9. Edit your summary for conciseness. Make every sentence and every word count.
  10. Proofread and revise. Check for flow, accuracy, and emphasis. Make sure your summary preserves the gist of the original. Revise passages that inadvertently include wording from the original, and edit for correct grammar and mechanics.


For a helpful handout on writing summaries, visit the website of the Columbia University School of Social Work (2014): http://socialwork.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/




Writing an abstract

An abstract is a brief (150 to 250-word) summary found at the beginning of a research article. Although abstracts are often structured as a single paragraph, they may have several paragraphs and may even include headings (e.g., Introduction, Research method, Sample, Findings, Implications). For an example of an abstract with headings, visit Marshall and Hutchinson’s (2001) literature review lined to page 1 of this module.


Abstracts can take two forms: Descriptive abstracts simply describe the purpose or focus of a study without summing up its key findings, while Informative abstracts introduce the purpose or focus of a study, briefly describe the research methods, and highlight the key findings and conclusions. Whenever possible, write informative abstracts. Normally, abstracts contain the following components:


  • A statement introducing the context for the research. Though not always needed,
    a sentence providing context for a study is usually helpful. This statement may be in present tense (for general information) or in past tense (if focusing on prior research).
    Note: It’s unusual to cite sources in an abstract, but they may be used to provide context.


  • One or two sentences introducing the topic and research method (using past tense)


  • A summary of the key findings. Normally, the summary of findings will make up most of your abstract as it presents the “news” that readers are most interested in.


  • A sentence summarizing the findings or conclusions and their significance or implications of the findings. (In the sample published abstract below, the writers could have summarized the implications in a more informative way.)


  • A list of key words (descriptors) (particularly if you are submitting a paper to a journal. Of course, you should also use key words in the body of your abstract (APA, 2010).


See section 2.04 of the APA Manual (2010) for more information on abstracts.


Sample student abstract taken (with permission) from an ACWR 303 student’s final paper. Try to identify the key abstract components. Do you see areas for improvements?


Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Cancer Patients:
A Nursing Perspective on the Benefits and Dangers

This paper focuses on the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and other therapies. CAM is beneficial for many individuals with cancer because it promotes the incorporation of holistic care. Numerous studies on the perceived benefits of CAM have been reported and as a result, many individuals use CAM as a way to boost immunity and prevent cancer. Due to a large number of patients with cancer using CAM, healthcare providers need to utilize evidence based research and incorporate unconventional therapies into individual care plans. However, potential hazards associated with CAM use need to be addressed in order to prevent the occurrence of adverse effects. Patients with poor recorded history or health care providers who do not question the degree of CAM usage risk exposing patients to impractical and dangerous treatments. This paper utilizes academic literature to study the benefits and dangers of CAM amongst patients with cancer. In conclusion, although the benefits of CAM are numerous, more research is needed into the efficacy and potential interactions of CAM with other treatments administered simultaneously.

Learning activity: In the sample published abstract below, colour code the sentences, using blue for sentences giving context for the research, pink for statements describing the topic and research method, green for the key findings, and purple for concluding comments on the implications of the study. What colour predominates?


Sample published abstract

Reilly, T., & Platz, L. (2004). Post-adoption service needs of families with special needs children: use, helpfulness, and unmet needs. Journal of Social Service Research 30(4): 51-67. Retrieved November 19, 2004, from Social Work Abstracts.

ABSTRACT: This study was conducted to explore post-adoptive service needs of families adopting special needs children. In addition, the research examined the relationship of post-adoption service utilization to positive adoption outcomes. A total of 249 special needs adoptive families representing 373 children responded to a mailed survey as part of this study. Financial, medical, and dental supports, and subsidies emerged as the most frequently cited service needs. Reports of unmet needs included: counseling services and in-home supports (respite care, daycare, and babysitting services). The receipt of financial supports, other supports such as social work coordination and legal services and informal supports (support groups for parents and children) were significantly associated with higher satisfaction with parenting. Unmet service needs in the form of counseling, informal supports, other supports, out-of-home placement needs, financial supports, and in-home supports were associated with a lower perceived quality of relationship between the adoptive parent and child and a more negative impact on the family and marriage. No differences were found between former foster parents to the adoptive child and new parents to the child or on primary caregiver’s characteristics such as race/ethnicity, age, marital status, and religious practice. Implications for practice and policy are discussed.

DESCRIPTORS: Special-needs; Adopted-children; Adoptive-families; Adoptive-services


In the sample abstract above, note the following:

  • The abstract is 198 words (perhaps to meet a 200-word limit). The findings make up the bulk of the abstract (70% of its length). If more space was available, the writers may have outlined the implications for practice and policy rather than simply mentioning that those are discussed in the article.
  • No first-person pronouns (e.g., I, we) appear in the abstract. Such pronouns may be used in abstracts; they are a better choice than referring to yourself as “the researcher.”)
  • Though the APA Manual (2010) recommends that writers use active rather than passive voice, the abstract contains a mix of active verb forms (e.g., examined, responded, included, emerged) and passive verb forms (e.g., was conducted, were associated, were found, are discussed). Note how the first sentence could easily be revised from passive voice (“This study was conducted to explore…”) to active voice (“This study explored…”).

Note that when you are writing an abstract for a paper, it is acceptable to reuse sentences from your paper, but you should always edit for conciseness and coherent flow.

Critical evaluation in scholarly writing

When researchers submit articles to peer-reviewed journals, their articles are subjected to the critical scrutiny of other researchers, who assess each study’s contribution to knowledge in their field, its research methods, the interpretation of the results, and the conclusions drawn from the study. For a list of reasons why papers submitted for publication are often rejected, see Greenhalgh (1997a).


Taking a critical perspective: questions to ask

When assessing a published research article, start by considering three basic questions:

  • When was it written?
  • Who wrote it?
  • Where was it published?

The first question—when was the article written?—is especially important if the research topic is time sensitive. For example, if your research focuses on community care in Canada, studies more than five years old will be of limited value because of ongoing initiatives to restructure health care delivery in many provinces. The second question invites us to assess the credibility of the author. What are the writer’s professional and educational credentials? Is the writer a researcher, a practitioner, or a journalist? Is her work cited by other researchers? In order to assess potential bias, we might also consider whether the research was funded by a private company, such as a pharmaceutical company that might benefit from the research.


Asking “where was the article published?” also helps us to assess the credibility of a source. The highest stamp of credibility comes with publication in a peer-reviewed journal. But even peer-reviewed articles may have problems with the theoretical framework or the research method, as evident in Marshall and Hutchinson’s (2001) research critique.
Articles in newsletters or in non-peer-reviewed journals may provide valuable information but deserve careful scrutiny as the validity of the information may not have been reviewed by experts. Non-academic articles posted directly on the Internet pose a special challenge. To judge their credibility, consider whether the writer or organizational host is well known, reliable, and unbiased. For example, a site like MayoClinic.com could be considered reliable. If you cannot identify the source of online information, then generally you cannot consider the information credible. For more on evaluating information on websites, see Roger Munger’s tutorial on evaluating online sources, included as a reading for Module 3.


Critiquing the content of a research report

An article’s date, author, and publication venue provide a general sense of the usefulness and credibility of an article, but a full critical analysis requires close scrutiny of the content. Such an analysis will involve questions like those set out by Gierson and Westwood (1999, cited in Westwood & Westwood, 2002):

WHAT claims does the writer make?

HOW does the writer support those claims (how good is the evidence)?

WHAT theories or assumptions are those claims based on?

WHAT are the strengths and weaknesses of the writer’s argument?

WHAT evidence and arguments might refute these claims? (p. 157)

Table 9.1 suggests questions to ask when critiquing elements of a research article. In addition to the questions in Table 9.1, Polit and Hungler (1989) suggest considering the following questions related to the style and presentation of the information:

  1. Does the report include a sufficient amount of detail to permit a thorough critique of the study’s purpose, conceptual framework, design and methods, handling of ethical issues . . . practical issues and interpretation?
  2. Is the report well written? . . .
  3. Is the report sufficiently concise or does the author include a lot of irrelevant detail? . . .
  4. Is the report well organized or is the presentation confusing? . . .
  5. Is the report written in an objective style or are the author’s biases and viewpoints apparent? Are attributions made for any opinions presented in the report?
  6. Is the report written using tentative language . . . or does the author talk about what the study “proved”?
  7. Does the author include a reference for every citation made in the text. . . . (p. 347)


Table 9.1:  Elements of a Research Critique and Questions to Ask

Source: Adapted from Polit and Hungler, 1989, p. 338-346.

Elements of a critique  

Questions to ask

Substantive and Theoretical Dimensions
  • What contribution does the study make to the body of knowledge?
  • Does it improve practice?
  • Does it advance theory?
Methodological Dimensions
  • Is there a good fit between the research question and the method chosen? Is it the best method to answer the question?
  • If a sample population was studied, how large was the sample and how was it chosen? Were the population and sample size appropriate to answer the research question?
  • Did the researchers control all variables that may have influenced
    the outcome?
  • How were the data analyzed? Was the method of analysis appropriate to the research method?
Ethical Dimensions
  • Is there evidence that informed consent was obtained from all the subjects / participants?
  • Is there any evidence that confidentiality was violated in any way?
Interpretive Dimensions
  • Is there an alternate, more plausible interpretation of the results?
  • Do the conclusions go beyond what can reasonably be concluded from the results?


Since the quality of a study depends largely on the kinds of decisions the researcher makes during the research process, a critique should focus on those elements. As Polit and Hungler (1989) point out, different decisions during the research process can result in different answers to the same research question, and decisions researchers make about their research design and method are pivotal. For advice on critiquing research methods, see Greenhalgh’s (1997b) article “Assessing the Methodology of Published Papers.”


Writing a research critique

If you are asked to critique a research article, begin by identifying the article’s title, author(s), date of publication, and publication venue. Then provide an overview of the article. You might briefly summarize the study’s theoretical framework, methods, findings, and conclusions. Proceed with your critique, providing additional information as needed. Aim for an objective, balanced, and well supported critique. Polit and Hungler (1989) offer the following advice:

  1. Be sure to comment on the study’s strengths as well as its weaknesses. . .
  2. Give specific examples of the study’s weaknesses and strengths. . . .
  3. Try to justify your criticisms. Offer a rationale for how a different approach would have solved a problem that the researcher failed to attend to.
  4. Be as objective as possible. Try to avoid being overly critical . . .
  5. . . . be sensitive in handling negative comments. . . .
  6. Suggest alternatives that the researcher . . . might want to consider. . . .
  7. Evaluate all aspects of the study—its substantive, methodological, practical, ethical, interpretative, and presentational dimensions. (p. 340)


Sample student summary-critiques

In ACWR 303, you will be asked to write a paper summarizing and critiquing two research articles on a related topic. Below, you will find two summary-critiques written by previous ACWR 303 students who have generously consented to the use of their papers. As you read these two examples, note how both student writers

  • introduced their papers effectively in one or two paragraphs
  • provided clear descriptions of the research methods of the articles reviewed
  • commented helpfully on the strengths and weaknesses of the studies reviewed
  • drew relevant connections between the articles
  • concluded their papers effectively.


In presenting these samples, I have left in some marking comments (in pink type within square brackets). I thank both students for sharing their papers for use in this module.


Student sample 1:
Comparative Article Summary and Critical Response by Sherry Catroppa

As medication for illnesses and diseases becomes more expensive and produces unwanted side effects, many individuals are turning to the use of alternative therapies to serve the purposes traditional medicine once did. Such is the case with individuals currently living with multiple sclerosis. These alternative therapies range from herbs, to massage to prayer and are employed by over 50% of individuals living with multiple sclerosis (Nayak, Matheis, Schoenberger & Shiflett, 2003). [An excellent introduction to your topic]

Two articles focusing on this groundbreaking topic are “Use of Unconventional Therapies by Individuals with Multiple Sclerosis(Nayak, Matheis, Schoenberger & Shiflett, 2003) and “Unconventional Therapy in Multiple Sclerosis(Sastre-Garriga, Munteis, Pericot, Tintore & Montalban, 2003). Both articles report on studies that employed the use of surveys sent out to individuals living with multiple sclerosis and their caregivers. Although both the sample sizes and response rates of the two studies differed drastically, percentages of individuals using alternative therapies for the treatment of multiple sclerosis were quite similar, 57.1% (Nayak et al., 2003) and 40.9% (Sastre-Garriga et al., 2003). Both articles also noted a correlation between users of alternative therapies expressing a low level of satisfaction with conventional medicine (Nayak et al., 2003; Sastre-Garriga et al., 2003).

Nayak et al., (2003) examine the use of unconventional therapies in 3140 individuals [You might have mentioned this impressive sample size in your critique. Note that in academic writing, it’s conventional to refer to articles by authors’ names only and to avoid including article titles.] living with multiple sclerosis and their caregivers. Information was obtained through a mail-out survey to current members of the MS Foundation with the option to complete via mail or phone (Nayak et al., 2003). Findings revealed that 57.1% of participants had used at least one unconventional therapy, with ingested herbs (26.6%) being the highest (Nayak et al., 2003). Other unconventional therapies included chiropractics (25.5%), massage (23.3%) and acupuncture (19.9%) (Nayak et al., 2003).  Participants noted the main reason for using unconventional therapies as being the desire to employ a holistic model of health care (Nayak et al., 2003).

Nayak et al. (2003) did a good job of presenting information and findings in a concise way. [It’s best to be explicit in topic sentences.] Three separate tables of demographics, reasons for use and variables were presented in logical sequence. The authors also explained in great detail the method used to gather information, and the results found through the survey. The article incorporated an appendix of the unconventional therapies provided in the survey, which further clarified information and reduced confusion for the reader. A detailed reference list with topics relative to practitioners and individuals living with multiple sclerosis was also included.

Within the article, the authors note their own methodological weakness of not pursuing surveys returned because of incorrect or changed addresses (Nayak et al., 2003). To further obtain information, the authors could have also looked at sending surveys to individuals not currently members of the MS Foundation.[good point]  Relying on information within only one foundation could result in similar findings as the individuals may share resources and ideas. Looking outside the foundation may have provided the authors with new therapies and concepts, thus broadening the results of the survey.

The article “Unconventional Therapy in Multiple Sclerosis (Sastre-Garriga et al., 2003) reported the results of surveys sent out to 380 individuals living with multiple sclerosis and their caregivers from two hospital based MS clinics in Barcelona, Spain (Sastre-Garriga et al., 2003). [researchers study; articles report] Findings revealed that 40.9% of participants had used unconventional therapies in the last year, while 39.2% reported use of more than one (Sastre-Garriga et al., 2003). The most frequently employed therapies were massage (24.1%), diet therapy (13.9%) and homeopathy (6.3%) (Sastre-Garriga et al., 2003).

The authors included a detailed chart explaining variables associated with unconven-tional therapies, including age, sex, education level and income (Sastre-Garriga et al., 2003), making the information easily understood by the reader. The authors also increased the reli-ability of their study by drawing similarities to comparable surveys completed in the United States. Further discussion of survey results would have been helpful as there was only a small section covering a quarter of a page. The reference list included in the article was concise and thorough, citing three of the same references used in the previously discussed article.

The authors provide insight into their own limitations by noting that the low response rate of 50.78% could introduce a bias, and noting that the survey was limited to a population using MS clinics (Sastre-Garriga et al., 2003). These limitations suggest that the authors were likely missing valuable information from other sources. The authors could also have utilized other response methods such as telephone or e-mail to increase the return rate and provide alternatives for individuals who have difficulty with handwriting. [Good suggestion] A further recommendation would be to issue a reminder phone call to the survey participants in hopes to increase low response rates.

Both Nayak et al. (2003) and Sastre-Garringa et al. (2003) provide valuable insight into the use of unconventional therapies in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. The authors of both articles did a good job explaining their methodology, noting weaknesses and presenting results. Their findings hold valuable information for anyone considering the use of unconventional therapies in the treatment of disease or illness. In a time where individuals seem to be shying away from traditional medicine, the future of alternative therapies becomes both exciting and controversial. We are then urged to ponder whether our health care system is in need of a paradigm shift, a question that will only be answered as the future unfolds.ü


Nayak, S., Matheis, R.J., Schoenberger, N.E., & Schiflett, S.C. (2003). Use of unconventional therapies by individuals with multiple sclerosis. Journal of Clinical Rehabilitation. 17(2), 181-192. Retrieved from EBSCO host. ßthe 2010 APA Manual says to cite the doi here (not the database). If no doi is available, then cite the url for the home page of the journal on the Internet.

Sastre-Garriga, J., Munteis, J.R., Pericot, I., Tintore, M., & Montalban, X. (2003). Unconventional therapy in multiple sclerosis. Multiple Sclerosis. 9(3), 320-322. Retrieved from EBSCO host. ßsee note above.



Student sample 2:

Comparative Summary (anonymous)


Proper hand hygiene is a critical component in preventing hospital acquired infections; unfortunately, hand hygiene compliance among health care workers (HCWs) is low (Boyce & Pittet, 2002). [An excellent opening] Alcohol-based hand sanitizers appear to increase hand hygiene compliance by HCWs. In this paper, two research studies done using alcohol-based hand sanitizers and hand hygiene compliance are compared and critiqued. The first study is “Introduction of a Waterless Alcohol-based Hand Rub in a Long-term Care Facility” written by Mody, McNeil, Sun, Bradley, and Kauffman, C. (2003). The second study is “Handwashing Compliance by Health Care Workers: The Impact of Introducing an Accessible, Alcohol-Based Hand Antiseptic” written by Bischoff,, Reynolds, Sessler, , Edmond, , and Wenzel (2000).[a very good introduction, but don’t use authors’ initials]

Mody et al. (2003) focused on hand hygiene knowledge and compliance of health care workers in a long term care facility and the impact of the introduction of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. The study also looked at hand colonization of HCWs after the introduction of alcohol based hand rubs in this facility. The method used was a randomized control trial. Two wards were used in this facility, ward A and ward B. After the coin toss, ward A had the introduction of the alcohol based hand sanitizer and ward B was the control group, which continued to use plain soap and water. Prior to the study, all HCWs on both wards were given a questionnaire which asked the number of times they had washed their hands in the hour before the questionnaire. Also the baseline rate of colonization of different pathogenic organisms was taken from the hands of all the HCWs on each ward. Then, during the first 3 weeks of the study an educational program was implemented which consisted of in-services and posters throughout the facility reminding staff of the importance of hand washing. At the end of the 3 weeks, staff were given the same questionnaire and their hands were tested again. For the next 12 weeks, the waterless alcohol-based hand sanitizer was introduced to ward A. All staff on ward A were given an in-service which introduced them to the hand sanitizer. At the end of the 12 weeks all staff were given another questionnaire and ward A staff were given a second questionnaire about the alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Hand colonization was assessed every 4 weeks on both ward A and ward B. The use of the alcohol-based hand sanitizer continued on ward A for another 8 months to assess the impact on nosocomial infections. [Excellent detail in your description of this study]

The results for hand hygiene knowledge and compliance were taken from the questionnaire. There were few changes in the HCWs’ knowledge after the educational programs. However, the majority of staff on ward A reported on the questionnaire they cleansed their hands with the alcohol-based hand sanitizer more frequently than prior to the introduction of the hand sanitizer. The study also showed there was very little difference in colonization rates after the educational study and after the introduction of the alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

The key weakness of this study was that compliance was assessed by the HCWs themselves, through the questionnaire. Direct observation would be a more accurate means of assessing compliance. [excellent point!] The authors did state, however, due to the set-up of the long-term care facility it would be difficult to do direct observation. The study should have focused on the number of handwashing opportunities, rather than the number of times handwashing was performed. More important than the number of times handwashing was performed is whether the handwashing was done at the appropriate times. [good point] This study would be beneficial to practitioners in the health care profession as the study concluded the alcohol-based hand rub was well accepted and tolerated by HCWs.

Bischoff et al. (2000) focused on three different approaches to increase hand hygiene compliance. These were education of HCWs, patient awareness flyers, and the use of the alcohol-based waterless hand sanitizer. This study took place in a teaching hospital on the medical intensive care unit (MICU), the cardiac surgery intensive care unit (CSICU), and one general medical ward. The beginning of the study was the control period to obtain baseline data. As in the previous study, there was an educational program on handwashing for staff in both ICUs. On the medical ward, pamphlets were distributed to the patients which gave information about handwashing and stated that patients may ask the HCWs to wash their hands. The MICU was chosen to use the alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and the CSICU was the control. In this study handwashing was assessed by observation before and after patient care. The staff did not know why the observer was there or what the observer was doing. Observations were conducted at random periods throughout the day. Also, an electronic counter was put on the soap dispenser and the alcohol-based dispenser. The HCWs could not see the counter and did not know it was there.

The results showed there was little change in handwashing compliance after the educational program. The results also showed that compliance did not increase by using the patient awareness program. The results did show, however, that there was much greater handwashing compliance after the introduction of the alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The counter did not indicate an increase in use of handwashing products, even though greater compliance was observed.

The strength of this study is the direct observation of handwashing opportunities, before and after patient care. This study also chose a different approach on the medical ward by using the patient awareness program. The weakness with the counter was it could not tell how many times a HCW used that dispenser for a single handwashing opportunity, and so could not determine compliance. [Good point] As in the previous study, this study would be beneficial to practitioners in the health care profession as the study did conclude the alcohol-based hand rub was well accepted and tolerated by HCWs.

Both studies showed that an educational program on the importance of handwashing does not increase handwashing compliance among HCWs. However, the introduction of waterless alcohol-based hand sanitizers did significantly increase compliance. [Good close]




Bischoff, W., Reynolds, T., Sessler, C., Edmond, M., & Wenzel, P. (2000). Handwashing compliance by health care workers: The impact of introducing an accessible, alcohol-based hand antiseptic. Archives of Internal Medicine, 160(7), 1017-1021. Retrieved from The Nursing & Allied Health (CINAHL) database. ßcite the doi here (not the database). If no doi or no direct link to the article is available, then you should cite the url for the home page of the journal on the Internet.

Boyce, J., & Pittet, D. (2002). Guidelines for hand hygiene in health-care settings: Recommendations of the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee and the HICPAC/SHEA/APIC/IDSA Hand Hygiene Taskforce. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), 51(16), 1-44. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control Website: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ rr5116a1.htm

Mody, L., McNeil, S., Sun, R., Bradley, S. & Kauffman, C. (2003). Introduction of a Waterless Alcohol-based Hand Rub in a Long-term Care Facility. Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, 24(3), 165-171. Retrieved from The Nursing & Allied Health (CINAHL) database.  ßsee the note after  first entry



Handling sources when critiquing research

In the body of both sample papers above, the student writers cited the full titles of the articles they reviewed. While this practice seems reasonable in the context of the summary-critique assignment for a course, in scholarly writing, writers rarely if ever include the full titles of articles in their papers. Instead, they simply refer to the authors by last name (only) and cite the year of publication. You are encouraged to adopt this style (of not including article titles in the body of your paper) in both your summary-critique assignment and your final paper.


For an example of how professionals critique the published literature, see Marshall and Hutchinson’s (2001) article “A Critique of Research on the Use of Activities with Persons with Alzheimer’s Disease: A Systematic Literature Review,” a link to which is provided at the beginning of this module.


Writing a literature review

Literature reviews “are critical evaluations of material that has already been published” on a topic (APA, 2010, p. 10). If you haven’t already done so, take a few minutes now to look at the introduction to the Marshall and Hutchinson (2001) literature review. The introduction to the article comprises a mini literature review, beginning with a definition of Alzheimer’s disease, progressing to an overview of studies that point generally to the value of activities, and narrowing to review conclusions of research on activities for persons with Alzheimer’s disease. As you can see, the authors create a niche—or establish the need—for their own study by noting that “to date the knowledge we have about the use of activities with persons with AD is minimal and fragmented” (2001, p. 489).


In literature reviews, writers must

  • “define and clarify the problem” (APA, 2010, p. 10);
  • “synthesize results into a summary of what is and isn’t known” about the topic (Taylor, 2001, p. 1);
  • “identify relations, contradictions, gaps, and inconsistencies in the literature; and
  • suggest the next step or steps in solving the problem” (APA, 2010, p. 10).


Literature reviews typically conclude by introducing the purpose of the proposed study (Tornquist, 1986, p. 12). According to Tornquist (1986), if you are proposing to use a theoretical model to solve a problem or answer a question, you should structure your literature review as follows:

  • establish the existence and importance of the problem or question
  • discuss the research already done to solve the problem or answer the question…
  • present the conceptual framework for the proposed solution or answer
  • discuss any previous use of this framework or model in your problem area
  • review the flaws or gaps in the research [using this model], and
  • conclude with the purpose [of your proposed research]. (p. 10)


Tornquist (1986) also provided the following general advice for writing literature reviews:

  • “Move from [the] known to [the] unknown, from theoretical work to empirical evidence, from general to particular, from peripheral to highly relevant” (p. 13);
  • Avoid summarizing studies in detail; provide “just enough information to show why others’ findings are useful to build on but not yet acceptable as definitive” (p. 20);
  • Simply mention findings for studies not closely related to yours; “the closer a . . .
    study is to what you plan, the more you must describe its methods” (p. 19);
  • The “final section of your literature review—gaps or shortcomings in the research done to date—is usually the shortest section, since it . . . merely pulls together and discusses the work you have already examined” (p. 14).


Here are a few other helpful strategies for writing a literature review

  • Begin by focusing on the key concepts highlighted in your title or research question. For example, if your topic is nurses’ learning styles as determinants of success in online learning, your literature review might cover several research areas, moving from a review of general research into learning styles to studies of nurses’ learning styles, then research into effective strategies for online learning, studies relating learning styles to online learning, and studies of health care professionals learning online
  • In a brief literature review, in a few sentences indicate what research has been done on the topic, what has been learned from the research, and what is not yet known (from the perspective of your research question).
  • In a longer literature review, focus on five or more studies that are most relevant to your research topic and discuss these in more detail. Explain how researchers in these studies defined the problem, how they studied it, and what they found. Point to gaps or shortcomings in the research that support the need for your study.

Writing a Book Review

At some point, you may be asked to write a particular kind of critique–a book review. Here are a few guidelines that may be helpful in structuring and writing a book review.


  1. Just above your review or in your first paragraph, provide full publication information and, optionally, the number of pages in the book.
  2. Early in the review, identify the nature and purpose of the book and its intended audience. For example, indicate whether the book is an edited collection, an extended case study, a textbook, a self-help book aimed at a general audience, or a report of new research (and if so, what kind of research). A helpful strategy is to check the preface or introduction to see what the author says about the intended purpose or audience of the book.
  3. Consider providing information about the writer’s background and credentials. A quick Google search on the writer may turn up lots of helpful information. Here’s a sample author introduction from a book review by Yvette Getch (2002):

The author, Arlyn Roffman, is a licensed psychologist and a Professor of Special Education at Lesley College who teaches grad level courses in special education and psychology. She has authored a book as well as numerous articles and book chapters on LD, and is the founding director of the Threshold Program for young adults with learning disabilities. (p.52)

  1. If it would be useful to your reader, put the book into its historical, geographical, or cultural context or indicate how its focus intersects with larger economic, educational, political, social, or technological trends. Here’s an example from Alan Sears’ review of Cogs in the Classroom Factory: The Changing Identity of Academic Labor:

The character of academic labour is changing dramatically in the context of capitalist re-structuring and new patterns of corporate globalization, This book tracks the way academic workers have responded to these changes through union mobilization….(2003, p.A7)

  1. Before launching into a part-by-part summary and analysis of the book, describe the book’s general structure and focus (if you haven’t yet done so).
  2. Organize the body of your review logically, working either thematically or sequentially through selected chapters or sections (groups of chapters). Consider the following topic sentences from paragraphs in a sequentially organized review (example 1) and in a thematically organized review (example 2):

Example 1 (sample topic sentences from a sequentially organized review):

Chapter two, “Mental Health” provides an overview of the daily struggles and psychological concerns encountered by persons with LD and….

Chapters three through ten cover the following topical areas: family of origin …, friend-ships and dating, partnerships, parenting,…and general quality of life. (Getch, 2002, p. 52)

Example 2 (sample topic sentences from a thematically organized review):

The contributors raise important questions about the relationship between contingent and permanent workers in the context of academic restructuring….

Many of the chapters show the importance of union democracy and real membership mobilization in the struggles of academic workers….(Sears, 2002, p. A7)

  1. As you review each part of the book, summarize the focus or argument, point out particular strengths or aspects of interest, and provide details, examples, and even brief quotations from the book to support the claims in your review. (If you quote from the work, cite page numbers.) In your analysis, make relevant links to your personal experience or to other research, theories, or perspectives that you have encountered in your course.
  2. Aim for a critical evaluation of the book, considering such matters as the following:
  • The basis for the arguments or claims presented. Consider how much evidence the writer provides, the nature of the evidence, and how strong it is. For example, are the writer’s conclusions based on a single case study or on a survey of hundreds of people or programs? Does the writer use real or hypothetical examples? Does the author interpret the research fairly? Does the writer consider counter-arguments or examples or research that point to other conclusions?
  • The writer’s use of sources. Look at the book’s reference list to see what sources the author relied on. Does the book appear to be well researched? Does the author cite recent sources? Are sources cited in a scholarly way?
  • Explicit or implicit assumptions or biases underlying the writer’s argument. For example, does the writer appear to support lower taxes or more government services?
  • The book’s coverage. Are any parts or features of the book especially useful for readers in general or for particular groups of readers? Are there any obvious gaps or topics the book didn’t cover that would have been useful to include?
  • The book’s organization. Is the organization logical? Are the chapter titles and headings informative? Is an index provided?
  • The usefulness of the book for its intended audience or other groups (and why).
  • The tone, style, and quality of the writing and the helpfulness of visuals.
  1. Keep your analysis concise. One strategy is to add evaluative adjectives, as in this example: “In this well-organized section, the writer provides helpful advice about funding.”
  2. When concluding, sum up the strengths and weaknesses of the book and comment on its value or its contribution to an ongoing debate or to research, theory, and practice.

While some published reviews focus almost exclusively on summarizing and evaluating a work, others focus more heavily on analysis. If you are assigned a book review in a university course, you should try to make relevant connections to themes and topics covered in the course (without referring to the course by name). The higher the word limit, the more room you have to move beyond summary and evaluation into the realm of analysis.  For an example of a published book review, see the review by Getch (2002).

! Module Assignment 9.  
The Module 9/10 online quiz will close March 31, 2014 (inclusive of the grace period).




American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual. Washington, DC: Author.

Columbia University School of Social Work. (n.d.) Writing summaries. Retrieved March 4, 2014, from http://socialwork.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/file_manager/pdfs/

Getch, Y. Q. (2002). [Review of the book Meeting the challenge of learning disabilities in adulthood]. Journal of Rehabilitation, 68 (1), 52-55.

Greenhalgh, T. (1997a). How to read a paper: Getting your bearings (deciding what the paper is about). BMJ, 315, 243-246. Retrieved from http://www.bmj.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/

Greenhalgh, T. (1997b). How to read a paper: Assessing the methodological quality of published papers. BMJ, 315, 305-308. Retrieved from http://www.bmj.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/

Little, J. W., & Parker, R. (2004). How to read a scientific paper. Retrieved October 10, 2004, from the University of Arizona Biochemistry / MCB 568 Web site: http://www.biochem.arizona.edu/classes/bioc568/papers.htm#organization

LoBiondo-Wood, G., & Haber, J. (1986). Nursing research: Critical appraisal and utilization. St. Louis MO: C.V. Mosby.

Marshall, M. J., & Hutchinson, S. A. (2001). A critique of research on the use of activities with persons with Alzheimer’s disease: a systematic literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 35(4), 488-496. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.lib

Munger, R. (n.d.). Evaluating online sources: A tutorial. Retrieved March 4, 2014, from http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/techcomm/content/cat_030/evaluatingsources/1_home.html

Polit, D. F., & Hungler, B. P. (1989). Essentials of nursing research: methods, appraisal, and utilization (2nd ed). Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Sears, A. (2003). Case studies in mobilization [Review of the book Cogs in the classroom factory: The changing identity of academic labour] CAUT Bulletin, A7.

Taylor, D. (2001). Writing a literature review in the health sciences and social work. Retrieved May 28, 2003, from the University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre site at http://www.utoronto.ca/hswriting/lit-review.htm

Tornquist, E. (1986). From publication to proposal: An informal guide to writing about nursing research. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.

Westwood, B., & Westwood, G. (2002). The culture of criticism and argument in health education. Medical Teacher, 24 (2), 156-161.

Module 6: Building Good Arguments & Using Sources Effectively

by Jo-Anne Andre and Linda McCloud Bondoc                                                    13 pages; revised February 11, 2014

Overview & Objectives

This module focuses on developing arguments and using sources effectively in academic writing. It should help you learn

§  How to recognize and develop sound arguments

§  When to quote and when to paraphrase sources

§  How to integrate quoted passages smoothly and grammatically into your papers

§  How to paraphrase without crossing the line into plagiarism

§  What verb tense to use when integrating material from sources



American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication Manual, Chapter 6, pp. 169 to 173.


In the world of research you are expected to make claims that you think are new and important enough to interest your readers, and then you are expected to explain those claims as if your readers were asking you, quite reasonably, why you believe them. Because you anticipate those questions, you support your claims with good reasons and grounds, with evidence. (Booth, Colomb, & Williams, 1995, p. 86)


Effective arguments = claims + evidence

In academic writing, an argument is not a dispute between two people with differing points of view; rather, it’s a claim supported by evidence and reasoning. In a paper, you will normally have a major claim (your thesis or main argument) plus an array of minor or supporting claims, which you will also develop and support.


Claims are the assertions you are making, and the evidence you provide can take many forms, including facts, statistics, research findings, expert opinion (testimony), interpretations, and reasoning. For example, a research paper might include the following claims and evidence:


   Major claim       Provincial governments should make early intervention programs

   or thesis            available for all children with autism between the ages and 3 and 7

  1st Minor claim    Children with autism who get early intervention are more likely to
develop to their full potential cognitively and socially


  • findings from research study #1
  • findings from research study #2
  • information from an interview with an expert in the field
  • anonymous examples from the writer’s professional experience

2nd Minor claim  Despite their high costs, such programs are a good investment in the long term because children with autism who participate in them are more likely to become self-supporting adults, to contribute more in taxes, and to require less social support services than their peers with autism who did not have access to early intervention programs


  • research statistics on the cost and benefits of such programs from study #3
  • a provincial government report supporting this view

3rd Minor claim   Governments have a legal and moral responsibility to provide such programs


  • legal and policy documents promising equality of opportunity for children with different needs and abilities
  • logical arguments based on provincial governments’ educational responsibilities
  • legal arguments based on charter of rights or previous court rulings related to services for children with disabilities

In a paper like this, each section of the paper should provide enough evidence to persuade a doubting reader, and the sections of the paper should work together as a whole to support the major claim or thesis. (Note that a paper does not need to have a particular number of minor claims or arguments developed. While some papers may rely on three key arguments, others may have two or five or more.)


Structuring effective arguments

Below, you will find key writing strategies to help you structure effective arguments and to use sources effectively to support your arguments.


  1. Think about your arguments in terms of claims + evidence.

Make sure that you use your evidence to support your claims and that you support your claims with evidence and discussion. For each key claim you make in your paper, ask yourself whether you have provided sufficient evidence and whether you have interpreted the evidence fairly. As Booth et al. (1995) put it, “When you offer either . . .  [claims or evidence] without the other, you seem to offer either pointless data or ungrounded opinion” (p. 90).

  1. Position your key claims in the topic (opening) sentences of sections and paragraphs. Then, within each paragraph, provide and discuss the evidence supporting the claim. Often, what appears to be a weak paper can be transformed into a strong paper simply by rewriting the topic sentences to foreground the arguments and claims being presented. When readers see the claim immediately at the beginning of each section or paragraph, they can quickly grasp the point you are trying to make and can get a sense of how that claim fits into the overall argument of the paper. In the example above, note how the three minor claims listed would work well as topic sentences for those sections of an academic paper.


  1. Don’t be afraid of citing too many sources or citing too frequently. While quoting too much can be a bad thing (as discussed later in this module), providing too much evidence or citing too many sources is almost never a problem. Because knowledge-building is a cumulative process, citing sources is always, as Martha Stewart might say, a good thing. Keep in mind that sources play several critical roles in academic writing. They help to position your own study within the framework of what is already known about a topic, they provide evidence to support your arguments, and they help to demonstrate your credibility as an informed researcher.


  1. As you review your paper, imagine critical readers and anticipate their potential questions and objections. Ask yourself where readers might ask for more evidence or request a source. Where might readers object to your reasoning or offer a counter-argument? Where might readers become confused and require clarification? By anticipating readers’ potential objections, you can revise to strengthen your arguments by clarifying your claims and reasoning or by presenting more evidence.


For example, suppose someone said to you, “Professional nurses should be replaced by lower-paid LPNs, who would save the healthcare system money.” What kinds of questions would you ask? What challenges might you make to the speaker’s position? What kinds of evidence would you find convincing? Imagining a critical reader can be a powerful writing strategy in the early stages of developing your arguments and again at the revision stage when you are critically reviewing your paper.


  1. Avoid rhetorical questions. Although rhetorical questions may work fine in an introduction if they are used sparingly, rhetorical questions generally do not work well to develop an argument in a paper, and many nursing professors frown upon their use even in introductions. Consider the following paragraph from a student paper:

Nurses report the reasons that they most frequently use restraints are to protect a patient from self-harm or injury to others and to control behaviour. However, is there any definite indication that restraints actually protect the patient? Is the use of restraints in response to a staff member’s fear or anxiety? Is the staff member’s judgement impaired by…fear?

There are a couple problems worth noting about this paragraph. First, it opens with a sentence that appears to sum up a research finding, but no source is cited. Sentences (even topic sentences) reporting information from research should include source citations. Secondly, the paragraph fails to include an explicit claim. Instead, the writer presents a series of rhetorical questions that are left unanswered. Although rhetorical questions may imply certain responses, such questions by themselves constitute neither claims nor evidence, and do nothing to build an argument.


In this case, the writer might have transformed the final two rhetorical questions into a claim like the following:

Nursing staff may overuse restraints on patients if they become unreasonably fearful about the possibility of being assaulted by a patient.

This may turn out to be a good claim and the beginning of a strong argument if the writer can provide evidence from sources. Despite the common sense cause-effect logic evoked by the claim, it probably would not pass the test of a critical academic reader unless it were supported by research findings or perhaps by a reference to the writer’s own professional experience. If no research has been done on this topic, then the writer might rewrite the sentence to focus on the lack of research. Here’s one possibility:

Research is needed to determine whether nursing staff may overuse restraints on patients if they become unreasonably fearful about the possibility of being assaulted by a patient.


  1. Try to use the best quality sources available as evidence. The most credible sources of evidence will generally be studies published in peer-reviewed journals. The peer-review process ensures the quality of the research, and journals allow research to get published in a timely way. Books from well-known publishers are also valuable sources, as are specialized medical encyclopedias, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-IV), government reports, and statistics and policy documents from government agencies or reputable organizations.


In some courses, you may be allowed to conduct research in order to gather information from interviews, surveys, observations, organizational records, and so forth, as long as you comply with research ethics requirements. Such information would then become evidence in your papers. Depending on your topic, you might also use as evidence works of literature, legal or government documents, and historical documents like diaries, letters, and news reports. If you were writing a paper on the image of nurses in the popular media, for example, your evidence might include examples of nurses in movies, television shows, and magazines. And if you were writing about nursing in the First World War, the diaries of nurses on the front lines would be an excellent source of evidence.


Depending on the nature of your paper, certain websites may also be useful sources. For example, if you were writing about early intervention programs for children with autism in Alberta, you could gather information about program objectives and educational approaches from information provided on government or organizational websites. However, such websites would not be good sources of information about research on the outcomes of such programs. For that, you should seek out studies in peer-reviewed journals.


Using sources effectively: to quote or to paraphrase?

As we’ve seen, the use of sources is central to academic writing. Like characters in a play, however, sources take on all kinds of roles. In parenthetical references, sources may stand as silent witnesses supporting claims or standing behind the information presented. They take on a more leading role when they are paraphrased, summarized, and discussed in developing arguments. Sources sometimes play even stronger roles—providing theoretical frameworks, establishing key definitions, and presenting essential information from legal or policy documents. They may also stand at centre-stage when they are being critiqued in a paper.


As a writer, you will need to consider when to simply provide a parenthetical reference for a claim, when to quote directly from a source, and when to paraphrase or put the ideas and information into your own words. Of course, whenever you take ideas, information, or words from a source, you will need to include an in-text citation plus a reference list entry for the source, as described in Module 5, which focuses on the use of APA citation style.

Generally, you should quote a source directly only when the original wording is important in some way. If the idea or information—but not the exact wording—is important, then you should paraphrase (put the information into your own words). In fact, you could write an entire research paper without quoting directly from a source. So when might the original wording be important enough to quote rather than simply to paraphrase? You might want to quote a source directly if

§  you’ve conducted interview, survey, or focus group research and want to include excerpts to let the research participants (or experts) speak in their own voices;

§  you are using historical documents (e.g., nurses’ diaries from WW I) that provide a unique glimpse or first-person account of historical events;

§  you are referring to a legal or policy document whose interpretation depends on the original wording;

§  the speaker or writer is an authority on the issue you are writing about;

§  you wish to present a theory or model as it appears in the original source;

§  you are focusing on a contested concept (e.g., basic education or human rights) and want to compare definitions of the term from various sources;

§  you find an idea or piece of information expressed in an especially effective or memorable way and want to preserve the original wording in your paper.

Most students tend to quote too much, perhaps because it’s less work than paraphrasing or because they think they won’t be able to express the ideas as effectively as they appeared in the original source. Nonetheless, as a student, you should resist the urge to quote frequently rather than rephrase information from sources. When you quote too much in a paper, the overall coherence and flow of your paper may be disrupted by frequent shifts to other voices. More seriously, a paper full of quoted passages may come across as weak or underdeveloped; it may seem like a patchwork or string of quotations lacking a coherent organizing argument to hold it together.

To keep your argument in focus, maintain the flow of your paper, and project a professional tone, you should use quotations only when you have a good reason to do so. In all other cases, you should paraphrase—put the ideas and information into your own words and your own sentence structure, but cite the source as usual. Learning Activity 6.1 below will give you some practice in assessing the effectiveness of a number of quotations taken from student papers (with the writers’ permission). In Learning Activity 6.2, you will have to decide whether a source citation is required for a particular topic sentence.

Learning Activity 6.1: To quote or to paraphrase?

For each passage, assess whether the quotation used was justified or whether the information should have been paraphrased. Check your answers at the end of the module.

Quoted passage taken from a student paper

Was the quotation justified? Why or why not?

1.    The College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO) “protects the public through regulation of nursing” (Mandy, 1993, p. 3).

Source:  Mandy, P. (1993). President’s message: Revised mission
statement now includes concept of public interest. College
Communique, 18
(4), 3-4.

2.    The following is from a student paper entitled “Do Canadian Nurses Have Power?”

Lyman-Blumen (1984) defines power as follows:

The process whereby individuals or groups gain or maintain the capacity to impose their will upon others, to have their way recurrently despite implicit or explicit opposition through invoking or threatening punishment, as well as offering or withholding rewards. (cited in Sweeney, 1990, p. 462)

This definition encompasses the broad scope of this concept. It acknowledges the negative and positive aspects of power. I will use this definition in my examination of this issue.

3.    Nurses feel that “ensuring patient safety by preventing falls has been a primary reason for physical restraints of elderly persons in nonpsychiatric settings” (Ginter & Mion, 1992).

4.    Young identified six components of professionalism: “attitude, ac-countability, role, education, dress and collective action” (1992, p. 54).

5.    Taken from a student paper analyzing whether nursing should be considered a profession or a vocation~

In contrast, nursing can be considered a trade or vocation if the practice does not meet professional standards. A trade is a “regular occupation . . . requiring manual dexterity” (Funk and Wagnalls Canadian College Dictionary, 1989, p. 1418). A vocation is a “calling” to an occupation (Funk and Wagnalls Canadian College Dictionary, 1989, p. 1501).

6.    The policy of the Calgary District Hospital Group on the use of restraints is as follows: “The use of any restraints is confined to patients presenting behaviour which may endanger their own health and/or safety or the safety of others, when alternative interventions are not successful or not available” (1993, p. 2).

Learning Activity 6.2:  Is a citation needed in this topic sentence?

The following topic sentence opened a paragraph in a student paper. Should the student have cited a source in this topic sentence? Why or why not? Check your answer at the end of the module.

Violence and/or disruptive behaviour  towards nursing staff in acute care hospitals, mental health facilities, and nursing homes is rapidly becoming an increasing problem to health professionals.

How to paraphrase without crossing the line into plagiarism

Many students think that paraphrasing (putting a source into their own words) simply involves taking a sentence and substituting a few words or phrases here or there. They assume that as long as they cite the source, they are paraphrasing appropriately. In fact, that is not the case. Using a passage from a source and simply substituting a few of your own words or phrases here and there constitutes plagiarism, even when you cite the source.

Consider the following example of an unacceptable paraphrase and of an acceptable paraphrase of a passage taken from a journal article entitled “Needs of Family Members of Patients with Severe Traumatic Brain Injury” (Bond, Draeger, Mandleco, & Donnelly, 2003). Here is the original passage:

Indeed, all admissions to an ICU are stressful for patients’ families, but the sudden unexpected onset of severe traumatic brain injury, coupled with its unstable nature and strong probability of death, makes the families of patients with such injuries especially vulnerable (Bond, Draeger, Mandleco, & Donnelly, 2003, p. 63).

Here is an unacceptable paraphrase (with wording from the source in blue ):

All admissions to an Intensive Care Unit cause stress for patients’ families, but sudden unexpected traumatic brain injury, with its risks and possibility of death, makes families of patients with these injuries particularly vulnerable to stress (Bond, Draeger, Mandleco, & Donnelly, 2003).

Even though this paraphrase doesn’t replicate the original passage exactly, it would be considered an unacceptable paraphrase because it follows the sentence structure and wording of the original passage too closely. Compare the version above with the following acceptable paraphrase:

Traumatic brain injuries occur suddenly and without warning, and they pose life-threatening medical risks. For these reasons, families who arrive at an emergency room with a family member who must be admitted to hospital for a traumatic brain injury are typically under higher levels of stress than are normally associated with the hospital admission of a family member (Bond, Draeger, Mandleco, & Donnelly, 2003).

This paraphrase does not follow the sentence structure of the original. While it retains the phrase “traumatic brain injury,” that is standard terminology that does not need to appear within quotation marks.  To prevent plagiarizing by paraphrasing too closely or by inadvertently quoting from the original source, consider the following strategies:

§  When taking notes from a source, always put quotation marks around wording taken from the original (and jot down the page number). When wording from original sources isn’t clearly marked in notes, writers can easily forget if the words they jotted down were their own words or phrases from the source. Careless note taking may easily lead to unintentional plagiarism.

§  When working from a source, read the information a few times, look away from the source, and then write your own version focusing on the idea and meaning of the original.

§  Always check your paraphrases against the original to make sure you haven’t unintentionally reproduced the sentence structure and chunks of wording from the original. (If you have, you will need to rewrite your paraphrase.)

How to integrate quoted passages smoothly and grammatically

When you quote a source, try to adhere to the following guidelines to ensure that the quoted passage is integrated smoothly, grammatically, and correctly according to proper APA format:

Formatting quotations

  • Use double quotation marks “like this” around words taken from a source if the passage is less than 40 words long. If a quotation is over 40 words, present the passage in a double-spaced inset block format (five spaces from the left margin) without using quotation marks. Include the page number for the quotation in your in-text citation after the quotation, as shown in examples provided in Module 5.

HINT:  In MS Word, use the WORD COUNT tool to quickly check the length of quotations


  • When presenting a series of quoted passages from participants interviewed for a research project, you may present all fairly long quotations in inset block format (even if some are not quite 40 words).
  • When ending a sentence with a quotation, place the period AFTER the page number citation. For long quotations presented in inset block format, do the reverse: place the period at the end of the quoted passage, BEFORE the citation. (See Module 5 for examples.)
    • Cite a page number for all quoted passages (except for excerpts from interviews).
      If no page number is available, provide a paragraph number like this: (Smith, 2008, para. 2). To specify the location further, include a section heading if necessary, as in the following example: (Smith, 2008, “Our Mission,” para. 2).

Punctuating quotations

  • Before a quoted passage, you may need no punctuation at all, a comma, or a colon; the punctuation will depend on how the quoted words are embedded in your sentence. Here are guidelines and a few examples.
  • Use a comma before a quoted passage after a lead-in like “According to Smith,” or a word like claimed, stated, or said (without “that”), as shown below:

Stone (2002) advised, “Time spent on choosing and refining an interesting, important, well-structured, ethical, and practical research question is time well spent” (p. 267).
According to Stone (2002), “Time spent on choosing and refining an interesting, important, well-structured, ethical, and practical research question is time well spent” (p. 267).


  • Don’t use any punctuation before a quoted passage if the wording flows naturally into the quotation, as it usually does after the word “that.” Here’s an example:

Stone (2002) cautioned researchers that “labour invested in choosing the research methodology, collecting and analyzing the data, and writing-up the results will be wasted” if the research question is not clearly focused (p. 265).


  • Use a colon ( : ) if the lead-in to a quoted passage could stand as a sentence. This is the best way to set up a long quotation in block indent format. Here’s an example:

Stone (2002) gave the following example to show how the formulation of the research question guides the choice of research methodology:

If the research question is “In patients with prostate cancer and metastatic bony pain is diclofenac better than paracetamol in terms of pain relief, opioid-sparing effects and side-effects?” then a quantitative approach (e.g., a randomized controlled trial) is the methodology of choice. If, however, the research question is “How do patients with metastatic prostate cancer cope with, understand, and create meaning in their situation?” then a qualitative methodology (perhaps using purposive sampling and in-depth interviews) would be the most appropriate approach. (p. 266)


Editing quotations for length & clarity

  • Quote only as much as you need to. Use ellipses (three spaced dots) to indicate where you’ve left out words or phrases when quoting. Add a fourth dot if the ellipsis runs over the end of a sentence.
  • Use square brackets [like this] around words inserted for clarity into a quoted passage to clarify a pronoun, an acronym (like MRSA), or an obscure reference. Here’s an example: “she [his grandmother] was a difficult woman.”


Editing for style & substance when quoting

  • Avoid beginning a sentence with a quoted passage; instead, provide a lead-in for each quotation. However, never refer to the quoted passage as a “quote” in a lead in. For example, never say something like “Here is a quote on this topic….”

Typically, lead-ins will place the quoted idea into context or indicate whose words are being quoted. Here is an example from a student paper in which the lead-in to the quoted passage fulfils both these functions:

More than ten years ago, Csapo and Goguen (1989) summarized the general direction of inclusive education across Canada by stating that “the present and future trend is to increase and improve the integration of children with individual needs within the mainstream of the school environment” (cited in Andrews & Lupart, 2000, p. 7).


  • When using a long quoted passage, try to end your sentence with the quoted passage. Note, too, that long quoted passages generally should be followed by an interpretation or discussion to indicate their significance.
  • Edit for grammatical flow into and out of a quoted passage. A good test is to consider whether the sentence would seem grammatical if you were not quoting. If it would not, you will need to revise accordingly.

Example of a weak lead-in to a quoted passage, with a revision

The following excerpt (heading, lead-in, and quotation from a woman interviewed) was taken from a report prepared for the National Action Committee for the Status of Women – BC region (Kellington, n.d.). The original lead-in to the quotation was weak because it referred to “a very small number of women” while the quotation itself presents the words of only one of these women. In the following excerpt, I have suggested a revised lead-in (see the text in purple type within the square brackets).

System referral

Additionally, a very small number of women had come into initial contact with the Ministry of Children and Families [MCF] when they or their child accessed some other facet of the child welfare system, for example health care, and through that process they were referred to MCF. [Here’s how one woman recounted her experience: ]

My child ha[d] been hospitalised for 7 days with asthma and rashes ….The doctor had advised us to stay because he had a severe attack so he brought us to the hospital…..[W]hen the social workers arrived, there was a lady…who offered me assistance because they learned . . . that I belong to a low-income family. . . . [T]hey helped me pay for some of the hospital bills and initial payment for the medicine. (p. 13)


Helpful lead-ins when referring to sources

Whether you are quoting or paraphrasing, don’t be afraid to mention the speaker or author explicitly in your sentence. That’s almost always a good practice. In Table 6.1, you will find a list of verbs that may be helpful when you are referring to or quoting sources in your academic writing. In the table, the verbs highlighted in yellow were found to be among those most frequently used in good student writing (Adel & Garretson, 2006).

Aim for precision and variety when referring to sources. Avoid overusing “said,” “stated,” or any particular verb, and try to be as precise as possible when choosing verbs to use. Consider, for example, the distinctions between saying that someone found, concluded, noted, proposed, argued for, or claimed something.

Note that the verbs marked with an asterisk in Table 6.1 may pose particular problems, as discussed below.

  • “Proved” may apply when referring to discoveries about physiology, but it’s a poor choice to refer to research involving human subjects. In such cases, try more cautious verbs like found, demonstrated, concluded, or
  • “Felt” and “Thought” are typically weak verbs to use to refer to researchers. Instead, focus on what researchers did, using verbs like studied, identified, defined, found, argued, and concluded. The verbs “felt” and “thought” may be appropriate if you are referring to the experiences of research participants, but even then, it may be better to write something like “John reported feelings of sadness” rather than “John felt sad.”
  • “Quoted” is usually misused as a verb of attribution. Unless you are saying that one writer actually used the words of another writer or source, avoid using the verb “quoted” when introducing a quotation.

One final pitfall to avoid is anthropomorphism—illogically using verbs that require a human subject with inanimate objects. For example, “concluded” (in the sense of “came to the conclusion that”) is a cognitive act that requires a human subject. Instead of writing “The research concluded that the program was valuable,” write “The researchers concluded that…” or “the research led to the conclusion that. . . .”  See the APA Manual (2010, p. 69) for further examples of anthropomorphism.


Table 6.1: Verbs of attribution for use when referring to sources in academic writing

according to







attributed… to

attempted to

































focused on

















pointed out





proved (avoid)*


quoted (avoid)*



related …. to…





saw … as



















*Verbs of attribution generally to be avoided.

Note: the verbs highlighted in yellow were found to be among those most frequently used in good student writing (Adel & Garretson, 2006).

What verb tense to use when integrating material from sources

When integrating sources into your academic writing, you will generally need to use the past tense, the present perfect tense, and the present tense. Guidelines and examples are provided below.


  • When describing what a researcher did or found, use the past tense. Consider the following examples (with the verb tense underlined):

Soo (1997) investigated the link between gender and income among social workers. She found that . . .

The link between gender and income among social workers was the focus of
a study by Soo (1997).

  • When referring to topics of research rather than to a specific researcher’s activity, use present perfect tense (has/have + the past participle of the verb):

Learners’ experiences of distance education have been the focus of several recent studies (Lea, 1998; Neff, 1998; Siege et al., 1998).

There has been little research done on . . . .

  • When making general statements about reality (as supported by research), use the present tense:

The causes of homelessness are often surprising (Johnson, 1999).

Spousal abuse appears to have a complex set of causes (Davis & Srinivasan, 1997).

According to Brown (1995), children with FAS often have difficulties establishing relationships with their peers.

Although you should generally aim for consistency in your use of verb tenses, your real guide should be logic; even within a single paragraph, you may have to switch tenses. Always check verb tense when revising. One common problem arises when students copy research method information from their proposal and paste it into their final papers without changing the verb tense. When discussing your proposed research method in a proposal, you will use the future tense; however, once your research is complete, you will have to use past tense to describe your research process.

Handling sequences of citations within a paragraph

When using a single source throughout a paragraph, you don’t need to repeat the authors’ names or provide a citation for each sentence in the paragraph—as long as the pronouns you use clearly refer back to the previously cited researchers. However, you do need to cite a page number whenever you are quoting. Here’s a hypothetical example:

Johnson and Gardenzo (2003) compared the math scores of teenagers who spent four or more hours a week playing role-playing video games to the scores of teens who did not regularly play video games. They found that the teens who played video games regularly scored, on average, 17 points higher on a standardized math test for their grade levels. [no citation needed here as you are clearly referring back to Johnson and Gardenzo] They also noted that longitudinal studies are needed to determine whether video games actually strengthen mathematical ability or whether “video games simply appeal to teenagers with logical minds who are also drawn to math” (p. 4). [page number needed here for the quotation]

When handling a series of citations, use pronouns to refer to authors only when the authors have been mentioned by name in the preceding sentences, not including mentions within parenthetical citations. Consider these examples:

ü   Smith (1998) found that dogs make better pets than cats. She concluded …

X    Dogs make better pets than cats (Smith, 1998). She concluded…

ü   Dogs make better pets than cats (Smith, 1998). Smith (1998) concluded…

In the second example, note that if the parenthetical citation were removed from the first sentence, the pronoun “she” in the second sentence would be unclear to the reader. A good test for grammatical pronoun use in such cases is whether the pronoun would work if the parenthetical citation were not present.

Learning Activity 6.1: Solution

Was the use of this quoted passage justified?  Why or why not?

1.    Probably not. This quotation might be justified if Mandy is the president of the CNO, as the reference suggests. However, the quoted passage doesn’t phrase the information in a particularly effective way. The idea could easily be paraphrased using different words. Of course, a source citation would still be required.

2.    Yes. In this paper, power is a key term, and the quoted definition provides the theoretical framework by which the writer proceeds with her analysis.

3.    No. There is nothing remarkable about the original wording that warrants quoting. Only the information is important, and it could easily have been paraphrased. Of course, a source citation would still be required.

4.    Yes. This list of six components would be difficult to paraphrase, and they are key to the definition provided by the source and later used in the writer’s analysis, so it would be best to present the list as a quotation.

5.    Yes (probably). Generally, it is not a good idea to quote from a regular dictionary, but in this case, the quoted passage can be justified. Whenever your impulse is to quote from a regular dictionary, ask yourself if you should instead be quoting from a specialized source like the DSM-IV or a medical dictionary, or if you can simply state how you are using a term in your paper without citing a dictionary definition.

6.    Yes. Citing from an official policy document may capture essential details and emphases that may be lost in a paraphrase.

Learning Activity 6.2: Solution

Violence and/or disruptive behaviour  towards nursing staff in acute care hospitals, mental health facilities, and nursing homes is rapidly becoming an increasing problem to health professionals.

Yes, a citation is needed for the claim in this topic sentence. Even though the idea may seem like common knowledge, the only way we can be sure of an increasing or decreasing trend is through the evidence that comes with research. If no source is cited, readers might assume that this statement merely reflects the writer’s opinion, perhaps one based on nothing more than recent stories in the media. In fact, in this case, a reference citation was essential, for the rest of the paragraph contained no further evidence or source citations to support the claim.

When revising your papers and you aren’t sure if a source citation is needed for a particular claim, try to imagine if a critical reader might write “source?” in the margin. If you can imagine your reader doing that, then error on the side of caution and cite a source, even in a topic sentence.



The Module 5/6 task is a 4% online quiz due Monday, February 24, at midnight, with no further grace period. Access the quiz via the ASSIGNMENTS area of Blackboard. The quiz is open book. However, you are expected to complete it without working with any of your fellow students. The quiz is not timed. You can open it, do part of it, save your work, and complete and submit it at a later date (but don’t forget to submit it).


Adel, A., & Garretson, G. (2006, September). Citation practices across the disciplines: The case of proficient student writing. Paper presented at the conference of The European Association of Languages for Specific Purposes, Zaragoza, Spain.

Bond, A. E., Draeger, C., R. L., Mandleco, B., & Donnelly, M. (2003). Needs of family members of patients with severe traumatic brain injury: Implications for evidence-based practice. Critical Care Nurse 23 (4), 63-72.

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (1995). The craft of research. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Kellington, S. (n.d.) “Missing voices”:  Mothers at risk for or experiencing apprehension in the child welfare system in BC. Retrieved from http://www.nac-cca.ca/

Stone, P. (2002). Deciding upon and refining a research question. Palliative Medicine 16, 265-267.