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A Writing Guide for Social Work


Writing in any discipline presents us with an imposing experience: Staring at a blank page, just before starting to write. The good news is that, with a little practice, we can face this experience with plenty of confidence—and also some preparatory work that makes it much easier. The present section offers us some simple exercises that can help get past that moment of anxiety, that "What do I do now?" moment. But the best piece of advice is also the shortest:

Writing is a Process: Start early!

If there’s a single most important thing to remember about writing, it’s that writing is a process. Actually typing complete sentences into a blank document is just one tiny step, and it happens somewhere in the middle of the process. If we can follow the other steps effectively, it does not have to be a daunting step. The three basic steps toward a successful paper are prewriting, writing, and revising. We need to keep in mind that each of these steps deserves significant time, so we need to start early. This section has two parts: Part 1 (below) discusses prewriting. Part 2 discusses draft writing.

Before we face that blank page, we should prepare ourselves with three key elements:

  • Preparatory Exercises
  • Appropriate Research
  • An Outline

We have to remember to fine-tune each of these elements as we go, to make sure it suits the writing situation we face. For more information on common writing situations and their explicit and tacit requirements, see What Can I Expect? For more information on types of research, see What Is Social Work Research? This guide provides two exercises to help the prewriting process and get us started on appropriate research:

  • Apply the Why - An easy exercise to turn the kernel of an idea into a more specific research question or hypothesis. Specific questions or hypotheses will help us conduct appropriate research.
  • The Real Outline - An easy exercise to break up an argument into sub-arguments that fit each section of a paper, producing an outline that we can work from.

A Preparatory Exercise: Apply the Why

There are many potential ways to get our ideas started, and we may find that we prefer to diagram things visually, or create lists. Either way, before we can even start researching (or even crack open the textbook, if it's that kind of writing situation), we need to figure out what we're trying to say. One way to do that is to take over our first kernel of an idea—no matter how small or basic—and turn it into a question we'll have to answer, or an argument that we'll have to support. To do that, we need to call upon a handy grammatical category: the interrogative pronouns. Once we have a more specific question or hypothesis, we'll have the search terms we'll need to make our library work manageable.

For this exercise, we'll need a writing assignment, a very basic declarative sentence in answer to the assignment, and the interrogative pronouns: What? Where? When? Who? How? Why? We'll also need about half an hour of uninterrupted time (to do the exercise), and then some more time to conduct our research.

STEP 1: Create a Simple Sentence

To begin with, write down a very basic declarative sentence (or as complex a sentence as we can manage at the moment).

Sample Assignment: choose a serious social issue. Conduct literature review in which you clarify its significance, and then make an argument for a specific course of community action.

Sample Declarative Sentence: Homelessness is a serious social problem.

STEP 2: Recruit Interrogative Pronouns

Start writing in the interrogative pronouns, either beneath (if you're inclined to verbal, textual organization) or around (if you lean toward visual organization) that main sentence.

Sample List-Based Version:

Homelessness is a serious problem.

  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Who?
  • How?
  • Why?

Sample Graphical Version:

Apply the Why Step 2 Graphical Sample Version


STEP 3: Ask Yourself the Questions

Use the interrogative pronouns as questions about your basic sentence. Either simply write down the questions, or supply information that you already know. This is entirely a conversation with yourself, so write in casual language. We can worry about getting more formal later.

Sample List-Based Version:

Homelessness is a serious social problem.

  • What? — What is "homelessness"? Seems like some people are long-term homeless, but others sometimes have trouble, but then find a place to live.
  • When? — When has homelessness already been studied? How long has it been studied? When has it been a serious problem? Is it getting worse?
  • Where? — Seems like mostly an urban problem. Do people lose their housing in rural or suburban areas too? How come I never hear about that?
  • Who? — Who are the people that have nowhere to live? It seems like people with serious untreated emotional or mental disorders are some of the long-term homeless, but what about people who lose their houses to foreclosure?
  • How? — How should we study homelessness? How's it been studied already? And, how serious a problem is it? Are there more serious problems I should be studying?
  • Why? — Why should we pay so much attention to this problem? Why do people lose their housing? Do they get it back?

Sample Graphical Version:

Apply the Why Step 3


STEP 4: Refine and Specify

Using what you know, and what these questions suggest, refine our original statement. We should make it much, much more specific, and maybe even turn it into a question.

Sample Research Question Version:

Is long-term homelessness a serious problem in the suburban/urban areas in the Dallas/Forth Worth metroplex?

Sample Statement (Hypothesis) Version:

Ever since the housing crisis of 2008, chronic homelessness has been an increasingly serious problem in the suburban/urban Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.

Note:Even though it might look authoritative, the statement/hypothesis version isn't something we know. It's a guess that we now need to test by looking for available data, and perhaps even collecting new data of our own.

STEP 5: Start Reviewing the Literature

Now it's time to hit the library databases, our textbooks, and any other sources we can find. We can use the more precise sentence to generate keywords to help us find out what the research community already knows about this specific issue. In the case of the "Question Version," we'll need to find some kind of answer that lets us move forward with our project. In the case of the "Statement Version," we'll need to find information that supports all the parts of the assertion.

For example, using the UTA Library OneSearch metasearch, a search for just "homelessness" in the "Social Sciences" databases turns up about 13,000 results, which is far too many to examine. A similar search using "chronic homelessness" turns up 540 results—a lot less, but still too many. But when we refine the results further, by adding the word "urban" (127 results) and then the word "Dallas" (2 results), we quickly get much narrower collections of articles. Even 127 results is a manageable number, because we can quickly skim titles and abstracts, and discard articles that don't help us.

When we've conducted some research and feel like we're beginning to have something to say, it's time to start organizing our thoughts and preparing to create a draft.

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A Preparatory Exercise: The Real Outline

Even if we already have an argument in mind, and even if we've already done some useful prewriting exercises, the blank page of a word processing program can still look mighty intimidating. An outline can help, but it can also get in the way. Consider the following outline:

Example:

Introduction
Literature Review
Main Argument
Conclusion

This looks like an outline, but really it's a list—a list of section headings! If I need to make a clear argument, the words 'Literature Review' might be just as nerve-wracking as staring at a blank page. In this exercise, we'll take this list of section headings and turn it into a real outline, using a sample argument from the previous exercise, Apply the Why.

STEP 1: Clarify Purpose

For each section, we should write down some questions that show what this part of the argument is going to need to do.  Arguments and purposes vary a great deal, depending on the writing situation (see this guide’s summary of Common Writing Situations in Why Write? and What Can I Expect?), but here are some common examples:

Introduction: Why is this paper about this topic?  Why is the topic important?
Literature Review: What have others already said about this and similar topics?
Main Argument: What does your research tell us about this topic?  What is your new contribution?
Conclusion: What future courses of action does your argument suggest?  What still remains to be done?

STEP 2: Create Sentences

For each section heading, create a short, simple, declarative sentence, OR, if that seems impossible, create a short, simple question, based on your overall argument.  Keep in mind the purpose for each section (here written in bold next to the section).  The examples below are based on a sample argument from this guide’s previous exercise, Apply the Why.

Sample Argument:
Ever since the housing crisis of 2008, chronic homelessness has been an increasingly serious problem in the suburban/urban Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.

Introduction: Why is this paper about this topic?  Why is the topic important?

  • Declarative Sentence: Homelessness is a far-reaching problem.
  • Question: Is homelessness a serious problem?

Literature Review: What have others already said about this and similar topics?

  • Declarative Sentence: Other scholars have already begun research on urban homelessness, chronic homelessness, and homelessness in the state of Texas.
  • Question: I know scholars have been talking about chronic homelessness, but what about specifically in Texas?

Main Argument: What does your research tell us about this topic?  What is your new contribution?

  • Declarative Sentence: The housing crisis of 2008 made housing much more difficult to obtain or keep, and here in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, a lot of people have lost their homes.
  • Question: I know the housing crisis made things tough, but does our area have it worse than other areas?

Conclusion: What future courses of action does your argument suggest?  What still remains to be done?

  • Declarative Sentence: Since this is such a serious problem here, it might be equally serious or even more serious elsewhere.  Also, we should be finding out more about what’s unique about this area.
    Question: How can this argument be applied elsewhere, and what further information about it do we need?

STEP 3: Fill Gaps/Create Lists

Fill Gaps

If we find we've written questions underneath any section heading, now is the time to go back and conduct a little further research, to fill in the gaps that those questions indicate.  When we've found the information, we can come back and turn the questions into declarative sentences (statements that we’ll have to support).

Create Lists

Underneath each statement, make a list of points that support each assertion. These should be more detailed, but at this stage they don't have to be complete sentences. Note: Because this is a sample argument, and not an actual research project, placeholders such as ABC and XYZ indicate where specific sources or information would appear.

Sample Argument:
Ever since the housing crisis of 2008, chronic homelessness has been an increasingly serious problem in the suburban/urban Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.

Introduction: Homelessness is far-reaching.

  • National data XYZ on homelessness
  • Anecdote about chronic homeless persons ABC

Literature Review: Other scholars have already begun research on urban homelessness, chronic homelessness, and homelessness in the state of Texas.

  • Scholars ABC, with conclusions on chronic homelessness
  • Scholars XYZ, with conclusions on urban homelessness
  • Scholar D, study on Houston, Dallas
  • No studies available on Fort Worth, Arlington!

Main Argument: The housing crisis of 2008 made housing much more difficult to obtain or keep, and here in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, a lot of people have lost their homes.

  • Government data ABC on status of housing crisis nationally
  • State government data XYZ on the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex
  • Interviews with service providers
  • Interviews with people without stable housing
  • State government data DEF on housing in Dallas

Conclusion: Since this is such a serious problem here, it might be equally serious or even more serious elsewhere. Also, we should be finding out more about what's unique about this area.

  • Government data ABC on status of housing in other specific areas
  • Information from scholars listed above, showing where there’s more work to be done.

STEP 5: Organize, and Start Writing!

Now it's time to look through the lists we've made, and think about what order would best convey what we want to say. For example, in the introduction, it might be useful to start with a clear, striking anecdote about one person's experience, before we report national data, so we might reorganize as shown in this sample:

Sample: Initial Version

Introduction: Homelessness is a far-reaching problem.

  • National data XYZ on homelessness
  • Anecdote about chronic homeless persons ABC

Sample: Revised Version

Introduction: Homelessness is a far-reaching problem.

  • Anecdote 1 about chronically homeless person A
  • National data XYZ on homelessness
  • Anecdote 2 about chronically homeless persons B&C
  • Statement on what we need to do

Once we’ve reorganized each list, we'll have a very strong blueprint for a well-organized paper. It will be much easier to sit down and write if we already have this complex outline in front of us—instead of that initial list of section headings!

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