I was recently working with a group of registered nurses who were starting a one-year Master’s degree in specialist public health nursing. I had been briefed that they were academically able but tended to be anxious about writing critically. ‘The minute critical writing is mentioned, they write a nice descriptive account,’ said their tutor.
What did they most need? Solid practical advice, certainly, plus an understanding of how critical writing – about theory, policy and their own practice – could be useful to them. But I felt neither of those things would be much use if we didn’t try to deal with their anxiety. I sensed from experience, both the students’ and mine as a writer, that anxiety started with a dearth of confidence about beginning to write. What do your tutors want? Where do you start? How does composing a piece of writing start to happen?
I called the session ‘Critical, But Not Life-Threatening’. They saw the joke, and I can vouch for the pleasure you’ll get when you make 50 nurses laugh. I told them about two kinds of criticism: the critical evaluation of ideas that’s central to academic writing, and the self-criticism that can sap your confidence.
To succeed at one you have to overcome the other. As Peter Elbow brilliantly said, ‘Writing calls on two skills that are so different they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticising’. If we let our conscious critical mind judge us, it can stop us getting started with the composing process. We become prone to telling ourselves that we, in the form of our sentences, are inadequate or useless.
We do better if we save the criticism for later by writing a first draft relatively quickly and not trying to solve every problem as we go. We can help to feed our unconscious creative mind by doing something associated with writing every day — a short activity such as re-reading our notes.
The session became lively. Hands went up; students admitted their anxiety. One volunteered that she felt more relaxed at the thought of writing like this, and another, an experienced nurse, summed up very well how this sort of composing can become a sequence of activities we can all learn.
‘I really didn’t know you could break down the process of writing into steps like that,’ she said. I like to think I could hear her confidence growing.