February 14, 2014

Know Your Writes

by Imran Qureshi, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Sinai Hospital of Baltimore

In higher education, writing assignments often serve very broad academic purposes, namely: to assess critical thinking, understanding, and memory.1  As a writer, I’ve come to appreciate that teaching about writing is too often overlooked. The writing skills I obtained from my elementary school days through pharmacy school are used every day - whether it is to write a short story or a SOAP note. Teaching proper writing methods is critical not only because these skills are needed for high-level professional positions but once improper techniques become ingrained, making changes becomes more difficult. As the reader of numerous essays and residency application letters, I’ve grown to appreciate the power writing – how it can help some people achieve their aspirations and devastate others. Teachers can prevent poor writing by teaching the process from a systematic and analytical perspective. However many professionals claim the training they received during their undergraduate years did not provide enough preparation for their on-the-job writing tasks.2

Writing workshops that teach teachers how to teach writing help them make better instructional design choices, improve their own writing skills, and increase their personal desire to write.3  When teachers model the fundamentals of the writing process such as pre-writing, drafting, and editing, students emulate these tasks and begin to embed them into their own writing process.3 Incorporating writing assignments into a discipline specific context is the best way to engage students and making writing assignments more relevant. For example, pharmacy residency preceptors should assign writing assignments to residents during most rotations.4

Audience analysis is an essential component of writing.  This guides the student towards creating a precise message that will be understood by the audience based on the reader’s needs and objectives.5  For example, when writing research grants, it’s important to appeal to the reader in terms of how the study will advance the funding organization’s mission. In this scenario, teaching students to role-play reading the proposal as a member of the foundation’s board will enhance the writer’s ability to align their needs with those of the organization.6

Assessing writing and providing personalized feedback is crucial.  Teachers need to reinforce proper writing habits. Commenting on the content of a student’s written work has to be done in the context of a student’s ability to understand the subject matter.1 For example, asking a resident to explain the rationale for the use of a drug requires the preceptor to assess the resident’s comprehension of the existing body of literature and to provide feedback in terms of the resident’s existing knowledge. Peer review can help writers by providing a method of detecting common errors in writing including simple grammatical and spelling mistakes.7

In healthcare education, reflective writing assignments have become commonplace.  These types of writing assignments are intended to improve healthcare professional communication and patient interactions.8  However many students lack proper writing skills and thus fail to bring forth insight or meaning from their experiences.9

Checklists which provide guidance and prompt the students to address specific questions is one technique for improving writing skills. A checklist is a way for students to prevent mechanical errors and to redirect students when there is a ‘stream of ideas’.10  A checklist can include items specific to a task, however most will include items such as:9
-       Organization
-       Title (word limit)
-       Introduction
o   Statement of Purpose/Thesis
o   Background information
-       Body
o   Fully developed points
o   Proper paragraph development (indentation, introduction, and summary statements)
o   In text citations
o   Appropriate length
-       Conclusion
o   Major points summarized
o   Limitations
o   Recommendations
-       Mechanics
o   Margins
o   Grammar
o   Formatting
o   Proper use of Declarative, Interrogative, Imperative and Exclamatory Statements
o   Reference list formatting

Modeling good writing habits and helping students to understand the intended audience are just two of the many methods to support students as they improve their writing skills. Teaching writing should always include constructive feedback and checklists can help students examine their own work.


  1. Coffin, C, Curry, MJ, Goodman, S, Hewings, A, Lillis, TM, Swann, J. Teaching Academic Writing: A Toolkit for Higher Education. [Internet]. London, England: Routledge, 2003. viii, 175 pp.
  2. Mabrito M. From workplace to classroom: Teaching professional writing. Business Communication Quarterly [Internet]. 1999 09;62:101-5.
  3. Urquhart V. Examining 4 myths about learning to teach writing. Journal of Staff Development [Internet]. 2006;27:30-5.
  4. Brown JN, Tiemann KA, Ostroff JL. Description of a medical writing rotation for a postgraduate pharmacy residency program. J Pharm Pract [Internet]. 2013 Dec 27 (epub ahead of print)
  5. Campbell N. Getting rid of the yawn factor: Using a portfolio assignment to motivate students in a professional writing class. Business Communication Quarterly [Internet]. 2002;65:42-54.
  6. Bush J, Zuidema L. Professional writing in the english classroom: Let's get real--using usability to connect writers, readers, and texts. English Journal [Internet]. 2012;102:138-41.
  7. Crossman JM, Kite SL. Facilitating improved writing among students through directed peer review. Active Learning in Higher Education [Internet]. 2012;13:219-29.
  8. Wear D, Zarconi J, Garden R, Jones T. Reflection in/and writing: Pedagogy and practice in medical education. Acad Med [Internet]. 2012;87:603-9.
  9. Nelson JS, Range LM, Ross MB. A checklist to guide graduate students' writing. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education [Internet]. 2012;24:376-82.

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