Increased emphasis in recent years on writing for professional journals led faculty teaching the senior "trends and issues" course in this baccalaureate program to believe that students need to be familiar with the process involved in getting an article published. We therefore designed a major written assignment which required students to go through the procedure of writing a query letter as well as a potentially publishable article.
Many nurse educators have recognized that their students have difficulty writing coherent, well-organized papers (Pinkava & Haviland, 1984). Students seem unable to transfer what they have learned in freshman composition to other courses. This assignment provided practice in writing skills within the context of becoming familiar with the publication process.
In one two-hour lecture period we talked about the reasons for the assignment and introduced the process. We included (1) the history and growth of journals devoted to nursing; (2) relationship of this growth to increased professionalism of nurses; (3) relationship of the printed word to power and influence; and (4) the function of scholarship and publishing in both academia and practice. The sources of ideas for articles were reviewed. Since both faculty members had published, we were able to act as role models and share our own experiences with students.
The assignment consisted of several parts. First, students chose a topic. They were encouraged to select a new idea or area to explore, but were also permitted to revise a paper previously written for another course, if the topic was appropriate. Since the purpose of the assignment was primarily to learn the process and improve writing skills, we believed that rewriting a paper would also meet the objectives and possibly result in a publishable manuscript.
The second step was to select three journals for submission. This required a decision about the target audience and determined the writing style to be used. It also required students to check the journals of choice for several years to see if an article on the same or a similar topic had been published.
Next, a query letter was written to the editor of the first choice journal. In the introductory lecture the purpose, as well as the pros and cons, of query letters were discussed. Students were told that for the purpose of this assignment query letters would be used, and were referred to several books on writing for publication, on reserve in the library, for an appropriate format. Query letters were handed in along with the list of three journals and rationales for their choice.
The course instructors answered each query letter as the journal editor might do. Tb simplify this step, a word processor was used to vary a form letter. Students were thanked for their letters and ideas and were either (1) encouraged to submit the manuscript, (2) informed that the journal was not appropriate for the topic, or (3) told that a similar article had recently been published. If the idea was suitable, the student was given suggestions for direction of the topic or for expansion or focus of the idea.
Students were also expected to obtain the guidelines for authors from the journal they selected and to follow these in preparing the manuscript and the references. The completed assignment included a cover letter, a copy of the journal's guidelines, and two copies of the manuscript.
In order to end this effort in an upbeat fashion, students whose manuscripts were satisfactory received an acceptance letter from the "editor" along with one copy of their manuscript. For some students, the letter went on to state that the reviewers had raised a few questions which could be dealt with by the author; questions and reservations were listed. Manuscripts were corrected for grammar, spelling, and style as part of the teaching process.
Reaction to the assignment was for the most part enthusiastic. Since choice of topic was so individual, getting ideas did not seem to be a major problem. Writing the query letter was somewhat of a task. Several students had not written many business letters and were unaware of such basics as including one's return address. Others confused the editor with the publisher of the journal, and needed to redo their letters.
Selection of three appropriate journals was not problematic. The best known were chosen most often, although the most popular specialty journals were also used. Several persons selected health publications for laymen and directed their articles toward this readership.
Following the "editor's reply," the course instructors were available for consultation and assistance with developing the idea. Several students also consulted faculty with special expertise in the subject area. A few found it necessary to change either the topic or its direction when they began to write.
When the completed assignments were handed in, the majority were at least satisfactory. A few were returned for rewrite: one for changing to an inappropriate topic, and the rest for incorrect or missing documentation. Several had real possibilities for publication, and the authors were encouraged to submit them to journals. Examples of topics chosen are:
* Coping with feelings when caring for a patient having alcohol withdrawal;
* How to do a spiritual assessment;
* College students' attitudes toward birth control;
* Sibling presence at birth;
* Should school nurses be certified?
* Coping with the drug dependent nurse colleague;
* Role of the nurse in the political arena.
At the time of the course evaluation, students were asked to do a separate evaluation of this assignment. They were first asked to state its purpose; all except two mentioned the process nature of the objective, rather than the actual publication of a paper.
They were then asked to rank the steps of the assignment in order of difficulty. From most to least difficult they were:
1. Developing the idea.
2. Writing the paper.
3. Writing the query letter.
4. Finding the references or source materials.
5. Getting an idea.
6. Finding appropriate journals to query.
7. Following the journal's directions.
The fact that the three most difficult parts of the assignment were related to writing correlated with evaluation data from other courses in the curriculum and with observations of other nurse educators. The frequent vmting of nursing cafe plans in outline and abbreviated sentence form probably does not assist students in developing a literary style.
As part of the evaluation, students were asked to strongly disagree, disagree, agree, or strongly agree with each of the following statements. Results are shown as percent of positive (favorable) response.
1. Ninetytwo percent agreed that prior to this course they did not know how to go about getting an article published.
2. Sixty percent agreed that doing the assignment had made them more interested in publishing than they were before.
3. Seventy-five percent agreed that doing the assignment had not discouraged them from wanting to publish.
4. Eighty-six percent agreed that having completed this assignment, they would now know how to go through the publishing process.
5. Sixty-six percent agreed that the work required to complete the paper was what should be expected in a senior level course at I. W.U.
6. Sixty-four percent agreed that this was an appropriate assignment for students at their level.
In answer to a question about what additional help they would like to have had in doing the assignment, most students mentioned more detailed guidelines. In other courses they were accustomed to a list of point values for each part of an assignment, and had difficulty coping with the greater freedom (and ambiguity) of this assignment. The instructors believe, however, that holistic assessment is more realistic for a senior assignment as well as one which simulates the reality of the editorial review process.
The faculty believe that the goal of the assignment was attained; graduates of the program, who have been prepared for professional practice, now have the knowledge and skills to follow through on the submission process and the real possibility of the satisfaction of sharing professional accomplishments with their peers through publication. To what extent they will be motivated to do so remains to be seen in their future. Datò will be gathered from graduate follow up questionnaires to try to evaluate the long-term effects of this assignment.
- Pinkava, B., & Haviland, C. (19841. !teaching writing and thinking skills. Nursing Outlook, 32(5), 270-272.