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Nursing Research Paper Format

Several readers have asked me about providing a step-by-step on writing a theory paper. As every instructor has different criteria, that is a hard thing to do! But I think I can give some guidelines that I would give my students, that may be helpful for your theory paper assignments. Oh, I’m going to say theory paper throughout for simplicity, but these steps will work with conceptual models/frameworks, too. 


So many students lose points on assignments because they don’t follow the directions. They may forget to discuss a critical element the instructor wants covered, or they don’t realize they need to compare and contrast two theories, or they go over the number of pages allowed, etc. How can you prevent these mistakes from happening to you? Refer to specific guidelines from your instructor!

Who is grading your paper? Your instructor! Do what they tell you to do! Almost nothing ticks me off more than to spend hours on crafting an assignment, giving examples for clarity, spelling out the critical elements, and then have students not follow the directions!  So don’t waste the instructor’s time or yours! 

I suggest that you print a copy of the directions and have it next to you as you write your paper.  Check off each element as you complete it if that will help.  Remember that even if an Instructor has required a certain style guide for you to follow (e.g., APA, AMA), they may modify assignments to meet the learning objectives and/or their personal style of teaching, including modifying the style format. For example, they may want references single-spaced with a double-space in between instead of what the style guide tells you (e.g., in APA references would be double-spaced). So if in doubt about how to format or to writing style modifications, etc., ASK!

Read the Directions Through Once and Then Again – Before You Start!

Before you start the paper, read the directions through once thoroughly. Then read them again – make notes, star items, highlight, whatever helps you to remember to include salient points.  

If the instructor gives you a page limit for the entire paper or per section – pay attention! I make it clear in the directions and my rubric that I will take points off the total if the page limit goes beyond the maximum number of pages I’ve set for an assignment. Believe it or not, this is helpful to you because it helps you learn how to be concise – to get your point across without wasting time or pages on filler material. You won’t get a better grade if your paper is longer than someone else’s. Your grade should be based on how well you meet the critical elements

Writing down major points from the directions will help you when you are doing your research for the paper. This exercise should help direct your search for relevant articles. 

Write an Outline for Your Theory Paper – Before You Start!

Take a piece of paper and write an outline of your paper as you go through the requirements.  Most instructors will write the directions in the order they want to see the paper written – you don’t have to guess! The flow of the directions should guide the flow of your paper! 

By the Way: The act of writing – handwriting – has been shown to help the brain process information more effectively and store that information for later use (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Because you can’t write in longhand as fast as you can type, handwriting forces the student to make choices in what they are writing down — so you typically summarize the ideas and write down concepts instead of entire verbatim sentences. Handwriting affects cognitive brain processing, which makes one much more likely to remember what they wrote. 

Use the Grading Rubric to Your Advantage

If your instructor provides you with a grading rubric, print it! Again, put it next to your computer and refer back to it as you write the paper. If you don’t have a grading rubric then just refer to the theory paper directions. 

The grading rubric does several things.  First, it reminds you of all the critical elements that should be included in your paper. So if you somehow didn’t catch an important point, you will see it on the rubric. 

Second, it provides a structure for your outline – the rubric should mesh with your assignment directions. 

Third, it shows you what parts of the paper the instructor thinks are most important! How? Look at the number of points allotted to each element!  The number of points gives you a relative idea of how much time (and number of pages) you should be spending on each section.

For example, let’s say you are writing a paper about a nursing theory that you get to choose. Let’s also have the following point values out of 100 total points: Introduction 5 points, Theory Summary 35 points, Application to Practice 50 points, Grammar and Style 10 points. 

The Introductionis only worth 5 points out of 100, so don’t write 5 pages of introduction! For 5 points, a paragraph or two should be sufficient to introduce your topic and give some supporting evidence as to why you chose it. Oh, and DON’T label this section Introduction! The beginning of the paper is considered the introduction.

The Theory Summary is worth 35 points. You need to spend more time and pages on this element than on the introduction. Pay attention to which subelements the instructor might want in this section.  Does she want you to identify the purpose of the theory? Does he want you to explain how the theorist sees the four nursing metaparadigms? Does he want you to compare your theory with another? etc.

Learn how to paraphrase! (There are plenty of resources on the Internet and you can also download my APA/Plagiarism eGuides to help.) If you just HAVE to quote, then be sure to do that correctly or it will be flagged as plagiarism.  In APA format, the quoted material needs to have quote marks around it and you need to cite the author, year, and page number.  Copy the quote exactly as written. If you need to leave out a phrase or word, use ellipsis marks. The APA manual explains how to do this.

And be sure to credit the authors of the textbook and/or papers you have read correctly for the ideas you are paraphrasing. 

In this example, the Application to Practice component is worth more than the theory component – 50 points. So this element should take up the majority of your paper and your time. 

In my mind, the application of the theory is where I can see the student’s thinking and reasoning skills better. Anyone can summarize a theory, but to explain how that theory could be actually used in practice requires a different skill set. So again, how does the instructor want you to apply your chosen theory? Look at the subelements so you don’t forget to address each one required: to clinical practice? to leadership? to education? to research? to management?

When providing explanations of application try to use the “language” of the theorist – without copying phrases word-for-word. This is a challenge, I admit, but when a student does that in my classes, that shows me they are trying hard to understand how to really use the theory. Even if you don’t completely get it right, the effort means a lot – and you will stretch your brain by trying. Look at how I briefly outlined the use of King’s theory in a research study to test one of her propositions in my post on What is a Theoretical Framework or Conceptual Model?

Hint: Search the literature for research and theoretical articles on your theory/theorist and X (fill in the real-world application). For example, Watson AND Nursing Education, Roy AND Patient Care, AACN Synergy Model AND Critical Care Practice.  When you get the results, pull some of the relevant articles and see how the authors used the theory to guide their curriculum or research study or clinical practice. 

If you read a few of these articles on the same theorist, I will promise you that you will have a better understanding of the theory, in general. And it will open your eyes to real-world application of theory. 

The last section is worth 10 points and is all about grammar, syntax, spelling, and APA format. Ten points can be the difference between a passing grade or not.

Proofread your paper! I’ve found if I read my papers out loud, I can hear the mistakes more easily than if I’m reading silently. Better yet, have someone else read your paper to find areas that are unclear or that don’t flow well. If you have trouble writing, get the same comments about grammar and syntax errors from your instructors, or if English is your second language – please use the campus Writing Center resources (online or face-to-face) to provide editing assistance. You are paying for this service in your fees – so take advantage of their expertise! 

Learn the formatting style your college requires and check your paper for missing quote marks, incorrect citations in text or in the reference page, or weird margins. Do you have extra white space between paragraphs? Did you use a 12 point font for your paper? Does your instructor require a cover page? Did you stay within the page limits?

Be Sure to Interject Your Own Thoughts

Any paper full of quoted and cited material is someone else’s work. If every sentence is cited that tells me you are sharing ideas from the text or literature you read. While the instructor expects you to credit the ideas and words of others, we want to see your own thinking in the theory paper too! Don’t forget to discuss how the theory resonates with your own nursing philosophy, and give personal or professional examples to support your statements. 

Let’s recap the tips:
  • Read the Directions Through Once and Then Again – Before You Start!
  • Write an Outline for Your Theory Paper – Before You Start!
  • Use the Grading Rubric to Your Advantage
  • Be Sure to Interject Your Own Thoughts

These general tips should help you in any assignment for school – not just a theory paper! I hope these are helpful to you. Good Luck! 

What Do You Think About These Tips for Writing a Theory Paper? Let me know in the comments!

How to Cite this Blogpost in APA*: 

Thompson, C. J. (2017, February 21). 5 tips on writing a theory paper. [Blogpost]. Retrieved from https://nursingeducationexpert.com/5-tips-writing-theory-paper  

*Citation should have hanging indent


Mueller P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168.  DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581  Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0956797614524581

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List of Nursing Resources on the Purdue OWL


These resources will help you write on the job and in the classes you will take to become a nurse.

"Writing as a Professional Nurse" provides three general, though important, rules working nurses should keep in mind while writing reports and charts and while communicating with doctors and patients.

"Writing in the Field" discusses three examples of writing tasks nurses perform: flowcharts, careplans, and narratives.

"List of Nursing Resources" provides links to Purdue OWL resources that both nurses and nursing students might find helpful while writing for work or school. Each link provides a brief description of the resource and how and why it will help nurses and students with their writing tasks.

Contributors:J. Case Tompkins, Eden Tompkins, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2016-06-14 21:34:09

As a nursing student, you will write different types of texts, such as research papers and group presentations. All of this writing has common characteristics: to be concise, evidence-based, supported by credible and appropriate research, to be professional, and to follow APA style. This section offers resources that are designed to help nursing students with these and other writing concerns.

American Psychological Association (APA)

APA Style Workshop

APA Citation Rules

APA is used in scientific and social scientific disciplines, including nursing, and standardizes research and citation formats. These links provide information for APA style, with the first link offering an overview of APA style and the second providing specific APA rules and sample APA papers.

APA Paper Sample

This sample shows you how to write and format a nursing research paper in APA.

The Rhetorical Situation

This PowerPoint presentation will help you understand the importance of the context in which you write. There are many factors that influence your writing: you, the writer; your purpose; your audience; your context; and the culture surrounding the context. For example, you will write differently for your professors than you will for your patients. Their varying education levels and different situations, or context, will cause you to use different language and present your topic differently.

Audience Analysis       

This resource will help you with one important part of the rhetorical situation: analyzing your audience and tailoring your writing to fit your audience’s needs. There is also a handout available on this page with a chart to help you with your audience analysis.

Writing Scientific Abstracts

This PowerPoint presentation discusses the importance of writing abstracts and offers tools on how to write them. Abstracts allow you to present information in a clear, concise manner and are part of writing in APA style.

Conducting Primary Research

Primary research is an important component while writing as a nursing student. It allows you to support your argument, or thesis statement, with evidence; this, in turn, creates ethos, or credibility, for you as an author. This link offers many resources about primary research, including how to get started and how to conduct the various kinds of primary research.

Conducting an Interview

This PowerPoint presentation discusses the steps involved in conducting an interview as part of primary research. You may be asked to conduct an interview with clinical nurses, patients, or physicians as part of a writing assignment or research paper. Consult this PowerPoint before contacting your interviewee because it offers tips for how to contact him or her.

Database Research Tutorial from the Purdue Library

Engaging in secondary research, or research that is gathered from existing research performed and published by another author, is an essential part of writing as a nursing student. Using databases is one way to collect information, and this resource links to the Purdue Library’s tutorial on how to use databases.

Searching the World Wide Web

The Internet is a convenient and useful way to gather information; however, nursing professors expect their students to perform research that goes beyond a Google search. This PowerPoint presentation offers strategies for conducting Internet research, and it explains components of using the Internet you may not be familiar with, for example, the visible and invisible web. Use this PowerPoint presentation in conjunction with the database research tutorial for a good overview of how to conduct Internet research.

Evaluating Sources of Information

Not all sources of information are credible or reliable, and it is your job as a nursing student to be able to tell the difference. This resource offers different ways to decipher whether or not a source is credible.

Documenting Electronic Sources

When conducting secondary research, you might come across credible electronic sources that you would like to integrate into your writing. Documenting these sources properly is important because it builds your credibility as a writer, and it shows your readers, i.e., your nursing professors, that you have followed APA guidelines. This resource provides information and links to other resources that will help you properly document electronic sources.

Annotated Bibliographies

Annotated bibliographies, a summary and/or evaluation of sources, can help you organize your research. This resource explains the purpose of annotated bibliographies and provides examples. There are examples for APA, MLA, and CMS on this page; be sure to follow the APA format, as each citation style differs.

Thesis: Establishing an Argument

This page explains the importance of a thesis and how you can create an effective statement. Thesis statements are important to your writing because they control the paper’s overall purpose. These statements are especially important for you as a nursing student because writing in nursing should be logical, organized, concise, and clear; having a strong thesis will help you achieve this type of writing.

Grammar, Mechanics, and a Brief Discussion about Revision

The Grammar and Mechanics section on the OWL will help you learn how to use correct language. Using correct grammar will help your ethos, i.e., it will build your credibility, and it makes your writing appear more professional. One way to help improve your grammar is by reviewing the pages within the grammar and mechanics section and by completing the grammar and mechanics exercises.

Another way to help correct grammar mistakes is by revising your writing. You can fix most of your grammar errors by reading your paper aloud before you turn it into your professor. Reading your paper aloud also offers you a chance to hear your writing, and you may find that some of the ideas you thought were clear are not as clear or organized as you hoped they would be.

Designing an Effective PowerPoint Presentation

PowerPoint presentations are a useful tool to use when delivering individual or group presentations. This PowerPoint presentation defines the basic elements of a PowerPoint slideshow and discusses how you can use these elements in effective and professional ways.

Personal Statements       

Personal statements are an important part of the application process for nursing school. This section of resources offers writing samples and information that will help guide you while writing the personal statement. While using these resources and writing your statement, keep in mind the specific application for which you writing, as different nursing schools ask for different types of personal statements, i.e., the applications may ask you to respond to different types of questions.

Résumés and Cover Letters

Résumés and cover letters are important documents traditionally created toward the end of your nursing education, though it never hurts to start creating them during the start of your education. Use these resources to help you create your résumé and cover letter. You also might find it useful to consult the rhetorical situation and audience analysis resources, as these resources will help you understand the context in which and for which you will create your résumé and cover letter.

Links to commonly used databases and sites:


Databases available through the Purdue Library website:
Academic Search Premier
Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition


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