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A Writing Guide for Social Work

In social work education, instructors tend to assign several distinct types of writing assignments. Although individual instructors have their own unique expectations—especially with regard to the kind of course concepts we should use—assignments within each category nearly always share certain kinds of expectations.

Common Expectations fo All Writing Situations

Regardless of the specific assignment, we're guaranteed to need to meet a small set of "core" expectations for academic writing.


Although some assignments are couched as "informal," we should always use correct grammar, style, and spelling. It's just as important to proofread a journal entry as it is to proofread a research paper. Remember: How you say what you say is what you say. Errors in grammar and mechanics can distract our readers.

Purpose (What We're Doing):

The purpose of academic writing is not to earn a grade. Sometimes even instructors forget this, so it deserves repetition and elaboration: The purpose of academic writing is not to earn a grade, or impress the instructor; rather, any assignment should accomplish an intellectual (and often also practical) task.

In order to prepare to respond to an assignment, it's important for us to distinguish between tasks and course goals or learning objectives. We should pay attention to which parts of the assignment tell us what to do, and parts that seem to be telling us how we'll benefit by doing what we'll do. Our writing should always perform the task, and not talk about the learning-objectives.

  • Task-Oriented Language: Specifies what we'll need to do: Choose 5 concepts...; describe...; explain...; identify...; summarize...; prepare a literature review...; create a "methods" section...; include an introduction/conclusion...; use APA style...; use section headings...
  • Learning-Objective-Oriented Language: Specifies the benefits or skills we'll acquire by doing the task, or the skills we'll show that we have (by doing the task): demonstrate your understanding of...; show that you are aware of...; attain greater command of...; learn the benefits of...; learn how to...; improve your skills in...;

Assignments often include course objectives such as "demonstrate your awareness of social work ethics and values." In any assignment, we "demonstrate" by doing the task well—for instance, by describing in detail and explaining how our specific examples raise (or answer) ethical concerns.

  • Statements such as "I am aware of social work ethics and values" just assert awareness. They don't demonstrate awareness. They also don't accomplish the actual task.
  • Statements such as "this paper will demonstrate my awareness..." describe how we'll meet a course goal, not how we'll carry out a task.
  • A more task-oriented statement might say, "This paper shows how (Organization X) meets the ethical standards set by the NASW." By doing that task well, we'll also be demonstrating our knowledge—so we don't need to say that.

Argument (How We're Accomplishing Tasks):

Not every piece of writing makes an argument, but most academic writing does, and even academic writing that doesn’t have to make an argument (e.g. when not required by an assignment) will probably work better if it makes one anyway. An argument, in its simplest form, is just a claim, supported by one or more reasons. We’ll often find that reasons also turn out to be claims too, which in turn require support. As we’ll see in the section What is Social Work Research?, sequences of claims often help structure a piece of writing.

Often, assignments will pre-specify a primary claim.  For example, the task, "Show how 3 theories we've studied in this course apply to your client's situation," gives us some big clues about what our primary claim will need to be.  It had better mention a specific client, and it had better mention 3 specific theories.  But it had also better assert, specifically, how and why those theories matter to this case.  A good starting place for a claim might be something like, "Cognitive behavioral therapy should be useful in Robert's case because..."  So, there are two basic strategies to developing a good argument in response to any writing situation:

  • Apply the WHY: Our main claim should answer a "why" question, even if it's never explicitly stated. We can turn a claim into a thesis statement for an argument by asking, like a small curious child: "Why?"
  • Produce a BECAUSE: Although the "because may never appear in our actual essay or paper, we'll imply that it exists. The "because" is the sign of a transition from a claim to a reason.

Further Resources:

«  Why Write? Common Assignments in Social Work Education  »

A Writing Guide for Social Work
Created in 2011-12 by Christopher D. Kilgore for the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington