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A Writing Guide for Social Work

This guide has attempted to help us hone our teaching by offering best practices, examples, and “tips” for each step in the writing process, but we should remember that the project of “teaching writing” never ends. In fact, as long as the trends toward standardized testing, larger class-sizes, and “basic skills” instruction continue to hamper teachers in secondary education, we can expect to take up more and more of the slack. Unless these trends reverse, students will arrive in bachelor’s-level courses, in particular, with less and less writing experience, so it will be up to us to give effective feedback, and allot class time to teaching the writing process.

On the brighter side, though, integrating writing instruction into our class material actually helps students learn more and retain what they learn. Writing engages the mind in cognitive processes unlike any used in listening to lectures or reading, so “write to learn” exercises can do double-duty, preparing students to put their thoughts into words, and also solidifying their grasp on course concepts and vocabulary.

This guide’s final “tips” focus on broader techniques for encouraging students to take writing seriously, and not simply use it to “earn a grade.”

TIP #16: Encourage Dialogue

Many unfortunate writing habits appear when students feel that they are being asked to “regurgitate” information from the course, or to “report” verbatim information already available elsewhere. We can help students engage by encouraging them to think of writing assignments as opportunities to engage in an ongoing conversation about their topics, in two distinct but related ways:

  • Encourage Student Interaction: Many of us already assign group projects and encourage students to help one another in the writing process, but we can go farther. It’s particularly handy, even for individualized assignments, to identify clusters of students addressing similar topics, and to encourage them to engage in peer review, even if we don’t have a “peer review” assignment. It can also help to have students conduct a “mock conference” with oral presentations, or to ask them to cite one another’s contributions to the class dialogue in their papers. Exposure to others’ arguments—and responding to those arguments—can help students recognized that they are engaged in a process of knowledge production, rather than simply getting a grade.
  • Teach the Research Process: Standardized testing and curricula have the unfortunate side-effect of teaching students that “learning” is a matter of memorizing and repeating information, or memorizing and repeating specific formulaic tasks. As college-level educators, we have to teach our students to unlearn this attitude. No “facts” exist in a vacuum, and all “conclusions” are open to reinterpretation, improvement, or dispute. In our own studies, we derive empirical conclusions through clear and effective argument, and creative experimental design, so these are the skills we should teach our students—and not the rote repetition of uniform tasks. When students understand that they have the power to remake the knowledge-base through careful and creative inquiry, they will be more engaged in the writing process—and its products.

TIP #17: Avail Ourselves of Resources

As suggested above, in today’s university setting everyone teaches writing. That means we have more colleagues than we realize, and more innovative research to draw upon. Indeed, the new liberal-arts disciplinary division of “Reading, Writing, and Linguistics” has begun to generate complex empirical discussions of writing-education, many of whose conclusions may seem counterintuitive to those of us who earned our degrees before the 1990s. No longer is “teaching writing” a matter of grammar and spelling drills, for example, and the notion that there is any one definition of “good writing” no longer applies.

Increasingly, researchers recognize that “good writing” is a task-specific, context-specific, and most importantly discipline-specific concept. But we tend not to tell our students about many discipline-specific expectations that have become second-nature to our own writing. That does students a disservice, since their writing education to-date often inculcates a general competence that needs specific refinements and “focusing.” We should assume that our students are competent writers who still need to be introduced (often in more than one course) to our discipline-specific concerns—our tacit expectations.

With these concerns in mind, this guide offers a brief bibliography of vital articles on the role of writing in the college context in general, and in social-work education, most originating in the USA and the UK, but with several key examples from Australia:

On Writing in Social Work — Foundational Articles:

  • Jarman-Rohde, L., McFall, J., Kolar, P., & Strom, G. (1997). The changing context of social work practice: Implications and recommendations for social work educators. Journal of Social Work Education 33(1), 29-46.
  • Waller, M. A., Carroll, M. M., & Roemer, M. (1996). Teaching writing in social work education: Critical training for agents of social change. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 13(1/2), 43-56.
  • Rompf, E.L. (1995). Student writing in social work: An aggravation or an opportunity for social work educators? Journal of Teaching in Social Work 12(1/2), 125-138.
  • Simon, B.L., Soven, M. (1989). The teaching of writing in social work education: A pressing priority for the 1990s. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 3(2), 47-63.

On Writing in Social Work – Current Empirical Studies and White Papers:

  • Vourlekis, B. & Hall, D.M.H. (2007). Outcomes from a baccalaureate program’s writing improvement initiative. The Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work 13(1), 67-80.
  • Alter, C., & Adkins, C. (2006). Assessing student writing proficiency in graduate schools of social work. Journal of Social Work Education 42(2), 337-354.
  • Rai, L. (2004). Exploring literacy in social work education: A social practices approach to student writing. Social Work Education 23(2), 149-62.
  • Alter, C., & Adkins, C. (2001). Improving the writing skills of social work students. Journal of Social Work Education 37(3), 493-505
  • Dolejs, A. & Grant, D. (2000). Deep breaths on paper. Journal of Teaching in Social Work 20(3-4), 19-40. Doi: 10.1300/J067v20n03_04.

On Writing in Tertiary Education:

  • Elton, L. (2010). Academic writing and tacit knowledge. Teaching in Higher Education 15(2), 151-160.
  • Martinez, C.T., Kock, N., & Cass, J. (2011). Pain and pleasure in short essay writing: Factors predicting university students’ writing anxiety and writing self-efficacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54(6), 351-360.
  • Flateby, T.L. (2005). Assessment matters: Maximizing campus responsibility for the writing assessment process. About Campus, 9(6), 22-25, doi:10.1002/abc.114
  • Lea, M.R. (2004). Academic literacies: A pedagogy for course design. Studies in Higher Education 29(6), 739-756.
  • Lea, M. & Stierer, B. (eds) (2000). Student writing in higher education: New contexts. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Walvoord, B.E. (1996). “The future of WAC.” College English 58(1), 58-79.

National Commission Reports: Retrieved from

  • The National Commission on Writing. (2006). Writing and school reform.
  • The National Commission on Writing. (2005). Writing: A powerful message from state government.
  • The National Commission on Writing. (2004). Writing: A ticket to work… or a ticket out: A survey of business
  • The National Commission on Writing. (2003). The neglected “R”: The need for a writing revolution.

As always, further information about writing instruction is available from the School of Social Work Writing Resource Coordinator, and from the University Writing Center’s faculty administrators.

The Writing Resource Coordinator is also available to meet and discuss best practices in writing instruction, including syllabus and assignment design, writing project design, and providing student feedback.

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A Writing Guide for Social Work
Created in 2011-2018 by Christopher D. Kilgore for the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington