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A Writing Guide for Social Work


This section introduces common assignment types, and the (sometimes completely unstated!) expectations they include. The list organizes assignments in order of ascending complexity, and we should assume that with this complexity comes a greater time investment.

As we approach one of these assignments, it's important to start off by assessing how many distinct components the assignment has, what we'll have to do in order to create those components, and how long each component will take.

More information on getting started can be found in the How Do I Start? - Part 1: Prewriting section. For now, it may be useful to take a look at the following types of assignment:

More information about research activities can be found in the next section, What is Social Work Research?

Journal/Log Assignments

Common Assignment Titles in Social Work: Case notes, service participation journals, reading journals, reading logs, field placement journal/log assignments

These assignments ask us to write periodically about a specific kind of event or activity. We might have to jot down our actions and reactions each day, each week, or simply each time we participate in a specific activity. These assignments can have a lot in common with what's often called a narrative essay. For further discussion, se the Purdue O.W.L.'s section on Narrative Essays.

  • Usually Stated Expectations: Most assignments include a length requirement, and a number of entries. It will be important to keep up your journal or log as you go. The best journal-keepers make notes in the moment, but quickly return (within the day) to outline, and then write out the full journal entry.
  • Usually Unstated Expectations:
    • Language: Although these assignments are sometimes called "informal," it's generally understood that you should proofread them just as carefully as you would a "formal" paper. As in an employment environment, unprofessional gramatical errors do not put your work in its best light.
    • Specifity: The best journal entries really try to describe exactly what we witnesses or felt. The more specific the better: "I assisted with filing" is vague, but "I helped Dr. X and Ms. Y organize their case-notes" is more specific.

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Reading / Viewing / Participation Response Arguments

Common Assignment Titles in Social Work: Reaction essays, response essays, reading-response assignments, viewing-response assignments, service-learning reflection assignments, field placement reflection assignments

These assignments ask us to respond to someone else's work, often by placing it in a specific context related to a course's content.

  • Usually Stated Expectations: The assignment will commonly specify the course concepts that should provide the context for our reactions. It will be important to use these concepts correctly, and consider their details and ramifications carefully.
  • Usually Unstated Expectations:
    • Description: In order to explain why and how a course concept is relevant, we will need to describe specific details from the reading, viewing, or participation experience. We can't always assume that anyone else has picked out the same salient examples—so it's a good idea to describe the details before explaining how they suit a given course concept.

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Report Assignments

Common Assignment Titles in Social Work: Reading summaries, reading reports, analysis of assigned readings

Sometimes assignments will require us to conduct more sustained reading (e.g. selected articles beyond our textbook) or practical activities (e.g. service with an organization, or conducting a session or mock-session with a client). Even these assignments should make an argument, usually that a specific theme, debate, or conclusion unifies the experiences or readings. We won’t be collecting data, but we will be drawing our own conclusions based on all of the available material, not simply repeating what was already said. These assignments have a lot in common with what’s often called a descriptive essay. For further discussion, see the Purdue O.W.L.’s section on Descriptive Essays.

  • Usually Stated Expectations: These assignments usually specify a series of activities or readings, and also the general kind of unification we'll be expected to give them (the theme, debate, or topic of inquiry they all address, for example).
  • Usually Unstated Expectations:
    • Argument: As we'll see in the section What is Social Work Research?, even a report based on reading a set of articles has to make an argument. If all we had to do was say again "what they said," then why would we need to do any writing? A simple citation would suffice! We should look for implicit disagreements among authors, common claims, or common methods. How can we go beyond what each individual article asserts?
    • Specificity: In order to explain how the series of experiences or readings hang together, we will need to describe specific details from each reading or participation experience. We can't always assume that anyone else has picked out the same salient examples—so it's a good idea to describe the details (or quote brief excerpts) to help us explain how they agree, disagree, or work toward the same (or different) goals.

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Critical Explication / Analysis Assignments (Research Assignments without Primary Data Collection)

Common Assignment Titles in Social Work: Term paper, research paper, the integrative seminar paper, clinical assessment paper

When an assignment asks us to venture beyond readings selected by the instructor, we're entering the realm of "Research Writing." For these assignments, we'll need to begin thinking about how to locate further information on a specific topic, so we'll need to budget a good deal more time than in the preceding assignments. The next section, What is Social Work Research?, discusses this research strategies in much more detail; for now, we should just keep in mind that all of the skills in the preceding assignments come into play here.

An "Explication" assignment asks that we conduct some basic research to find out the size and shape of a specific topic, problem, or issue, but does not require that we develop a practical prescription for action. Keep in mind, though, that "this is how it works" is a claim, and needs to be supported by reasons—which is to say, "explication" = "argument." To complete such an assignment, we’ll need to collect articles and other sources to support our assertion that, for example, "homelessness is a pressing problem in contemporary urban areas," or "cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for depression." As we go, these kinds of claims should get more specific (see below).

These assignments have a lot in common with what's often called an expository essay. For further discussion, see the Purdue O.W.L.'s section on Expository Essays. There is also more information on research in the Purdue O.W.L.'s section on Conducting Research.

  • Usually Stated Expectations: Most assignments in this category provide a great deal of information about the exact tasks we’ll need to undertake. More than ever, we will need to read the assignment sheet carefully, distinguishing learning objectives from tasks, and sorting out the kind of research exploration we’ll need to launch. Most assignments will also specify the kinds of sources we’ll need to dig up to support our argument, and most will also ask that we document those sources in APA style. For more information about this, see the section Why Cite? Finally, we shouldn’t forget that our instructors will welcome the opportunity to help us decide on the best topic, and maybe even the best place to look for resources.
  • Usually Unstated Expectations:
    • Sources: Almost without fail, instructors assume that our sources will be peer-reviewed journal articles, or books. Websites can often offer excellent starting points, but we'll need to dig deeper to find a reliable, useful information. We can think about it this way: If I can already find it on Wikipedia, do I really need to restate it in my paper? Note: If my primary claim can be supported exclusively with information from Wikipedia or similar online source, then the claim is not specific enough. Revise the claim by asking the interrogative questions, who, when, where, how, and why? For further discussion see the next section, What is Social Work Research?
    • Specificity: Even more than the previous assignments, instructors expect high specifity. The sample claims given above—"homelessness is a pressing problem in contemporary urban areas," or "cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for depression"—usually aren't specific enough. Again, we'll need to revise these claims by asking the interrogative question, who, when, where, how, and why? The first claim might add "homelessness among adolescents," or perhaps "urban areas in the U.S. Midwest." For further discussion see the next section, What is Social Work Research?
    • Section Headings: Some assignments specify the exact section headings that we'll need to use, but nearly all instructors assume that we'll break up a paper into labeled sections. Check with your instructor, if it's left unstated.
    • APA Style: Instructors always assume that we already know what APA style is and how to use it, so they often won't issue specific instructions beyond "use APA style." If we don't know already, now's the time to find out! See the section, Why Cite?

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Critical Practical-Argument Assignments

Common Assignment Titles in Social Work: Term paper, research paper, position paper, clinical strategy or recommendation paper, client service strategy paper

When an assignment asks us to venture beyond readings selected by the instructor, we’re entering the realm of “Research Writing.” For these assignments, we’ll need to begin thinking about how to locate further information on a specific topic, so we’ll need to budget a good deal more time than in the preceding assignments. The next section, What is Social Work Research? discusses this research strategies in much more detail; for now, we should just keep in mind that all of the skills in the preceding assignments come into play here.

A practical-argument assignment not only asks us to understand the shape and size of a given problem (e.g. homelessness), but also asks that we develop a recommendation for a specific course of action. That means we’ll have to do all the work to, first of all, make an argument that “this is how things work” (an explication argument), and then, second, make an argument that “this is how things should work,” and finally, that “this is the best way to get from how things work to how things should work.” Short of collecting primary data, this is the most complex type of assignment we’ll be given. A primary claim for this kind of project might start off by asserting, “We need to mobilize popular opinion to get legislators to provide the necessary resources to end homelessness”—but that’s not specific enough! Again, we’ll need to revise these claims by asking the interrogative questions, who, when, where, how, and why? How can anybody “mobilize popular opinion”? Where is this problem most acute? Or, how big of a problem is homelessness in my geographic area? When is the best time to lobby legislators, and who would be good legislators to target? How much do we need in terms of resources? What kind of resources might be useful to end homelessness? What kind of homelessness are we talking about—chronic or periodic/acute? Who are the currently homeless people, and how do we know?

These assignments have a lot in common with what’s often called an argumentative essay. This guide does not use that name, because it implies that other essays don’t have to make an argument, but it’s commonly used, nonetheless. For further discussion, see the Purdue O.W.L.’s section on Argumentative Essays. There is also more information on research in the Purdue O.W.L.’s section on Conducting Research.

  • Usually Stated Expectations: Most assignments in this category provide a great deal of information about the exact tasks we’ll need to undertake. More than ever, we will need to read the assignment sheet carefully, distinguishing learning objectives from tasks, and sorting out the kind of research exploration we’ll need to launch. Most assignments will also specify the kinds of sources we’ll need to dig up to support our argument, and most will also ask that we document those sources in APA style. For more information about this, see the section Why Cite? Finally, we shouldn’t forget that our instructors will welcome the opportunity to help us decide on the best topic, and maybe even the best place to look for resources.
  • Usually Unstated Expectations:
    • Sources: Almost without fail, instructors assume that our sources will be peer-reviewed journal articles, or books. Websites can often offer excellent starting points, but we’ll need to dig deeper to find reliable, useful information. We can think about it this way: If I can already find it on Wikipedia, do I really need to restate it in my paper? Note: If my primary claim can be supported exclusively with information from Wikipedia or a similar online source, then the claim is not specific enough. Revise the claim by asking the interrogative questions, who, when, where, how, and why? For further discussion see the next section, What is Social Work Research?
    • Specificity: Even more than in the previous assignments, instructors expect high specificity. As demonstrated with the sample claim above, we’ll need to revise our primary claims several times, by asking the interrogative questions, who, when, where, how, and why? For further discussion see the next section, What is Social Work Research?
    • Section Headings: Some assignments specify the exact section headings that we’ll need to use, but nearly all instructors assume that we’ll break up a paper into labeled sections. Check with your instructor, if it’s left unstated.
    • APA Style: Instructors always assume that we already know what APA style is, and how to use it, so they often won’t issue specific instructions beyond “use APA style.” If we don’t know already, now’s the time to find out! See the section, Why Cite?

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Research Assignments (Collecting Primary Data)

Common Titles in Social Work: Term paper, research paper, program evaluation paper, master's thesis, dissertation

The most complex type of writing work we can undertake in any academic realm, primary data research involves a far more sustained expenditure of time and energy than any of the previous categories. Often we’ll need to start on these projects early in the semester, and some (like the master’s thesis or dissertation) will stretch well beyond a single semester. They’ll require that we: a.) do all the work for an expository essay, using research to establish “how things work” with a specific problem, topic, or area of inquiry; b.) do all the work for a practical-argument essay, using research to establish “how things should work,” and that “this is the best way to change how things work to how things should work”; c.) conduct an intervention or a data-collection in the field, to find out whether “our way of changing things works”; and finally d.) analyze the data collected and explain what the results mean for the study—and for the whole problem or situation—to show that “our way of changing things works.” Whew!

This kind of research entails far more writing work than it may seem, and this guide will help us tackle some of that work in the next section, What is Social Work Research? There is also more information on research in the Purdue O.W.L.’s section on Conducting Research, particularly in the section on Conducting Primary Research.

  • Usually Stated Expectations: Most assignments in this category provide a great deal of information, but they often allow even more leeway for us to choose a topic and a method for analysis. That leeway is both a boon and a challenge, because most of the topics or issues we’ll think of right off the bat will be far too broad, and we’ll need to refine them with multiple rounds of interrogative pronouns (who, what, when, where, how, why) to produce a workable method for data collection. We shouldn’t forget that our instructors are experienced in these processes, and for projects like this, they will welcome the opportunity to help us decide on the best course of action.
  • Usually Unstated Expectations:
    • Sources: We should not forget that we will need to support three different arguments with our research: an argument about how things work; an argument about how things should work; and an argument about the best method for getting there. Almost without fail, instructors assume that our sources will be peer-reviewed journal articles, or books. For further discussion see the next section, What is Social Work Research?
    • Specificity: Even more than in the previous assignments, instructors expect high specificity. We’ll need to revise our primary claims several times, by asking the interrogative questions, who, when, where, how, and why? For further discussion see the next section, What is Social Work Research?
    • Section Headings: In almost all data-collection writing assignments, we will use one set of section headings: Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Data Analysis, and Conclusion and Discussion. We should check with our instructor if the assignment leaves the sections unclear.
    • APA Style: Instructors always assume that we already know what APA style is, and how to use it, so they often won’t issue specific instructions beyond “use APA style.” If we don’t know already, now’s the time to find out! See the section, Why Cite?

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