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A Writing Guide for Social Work

This guide distinguishes between “revising” and “proofreading,” granting each its own separate section. It’s easy to confuse the two, especially when a deadline looms, and we find we want to look over a paper as fast as possible before turning it in. But these are separate steps, and each deserves time. As always, this guide advises us to start early, in order to leave enough time near the end of the process to carry out revisions and proofreading as two separate steps.

In fact, we may find we need to begin revising our argument well before we finish a complete draft. As we “review the literature,” we may find that existing research contradicts the point we’d set out to make, or when we collect data, we may find out that some information is very difficult to locate. That means we’ll need to change our plans for what to do next.

Revision, as a step in the writing process, is most important once we have a complete draft, however. Once a draft is done, we can carry out a complete revision process. Of course, everyone has their own style and technique for revising, so the following instructions are intended just to get us started. This guide suggests four fairly simple steps:


Wait a few days. It’s a strange thing to ask us to do, but once we get used to seeing a paper, report, or other document as we write it, we become blind to how its argument really works. Put down the draft, and focus on other activities for at least 48 hours. With distance, we’ll be able to return to the draft and see it for what it is, rather than what we wanted it to be.

STEP TWO: Re-Outline

Before opening that draft document, it’s a good idea to sit down and sketch out a brief outline of how the paper was supposed to go. Give each section not only a title, but a one-sentence summary. This summary should include the word “because” –or at least a structure that implies a “because.”

  • Example: Homelessness is becoming a serious problem in the greater Miami area because the 2008 financial crisis wreaked havoc with the housing market.

This kind of statement includes both a claim (that this is a problem worth attending to, here and now) and a reason (this is why this is a problem, here and now).

STEP THREE: Check the New Outline

Now we can take a look over this outline and make sure it makes sense. Find areas where the reason (the part after the “because”) doesn’t provide enough support, where the claim is too broad, or where the argument has gotten off-track. These kinds of problems can take too many forms to list here, but be sure to look for the following:

Make sure each claim is clear and narrow, and has sufficient support: Each of our paragraphs should contribute a unique claim to our overall argument. Each paragraph should also support that claim with information from our own experience, from scholarly sources, or from data that we have collected. That means we’ll need to make sure each claim is narrow enough, and has the appropriate support.

  • Broad Claim, with Insufficient Support: Substance abuse is a serious problem because it impedes performance in school or at work.
  • Narrower Claim, with Better Support: Substance abuse is a serious problem in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex because it impedes students’ performance in XYZ (naming specific schools in this area).

This comparison should sound familiar to those who have tried the prewriting exercise, Apply the Why. It’s designed to help us produce narrow claims with clear support. If we’ve done it well, we should have no problem preparing a quick new outline.

Make sure the argument deals with the correct situation, and addresses the correct audience: In the drafting process, it’s easy to lose sight of our primary purpose as we work through each part of our argument and try to incorporate all our sources. Now is the time to look at this new, rough outline, and see whether it fulfills all the requirements of our writing situation. There are too many such situations to list potential problems here, but it might be worth reviewing the common writing situations in social work, in this guide’s Why Write? section, and the purposes and expectations for writing assignments in social work, in this guide’s Expectations in Social Work section. For more information about the academic writing situation in general, see the Purdue O.W.L.’s section on The Rhetorical Situation.

STEP FOUR: Re-read and Revise, with Outline

Now we’re ready to re-read the paper. With the outline in hand, we’ll be prepared to match the statements we make in the paper with the brief summaries we made in the outline, to see whether the paper actually does what we think it does. We should be setting out to make big changes to the argument, not fix little sentence-level errors. These changes should include one or more of the following:

Rework the argument according to the new outline: In re-outlining, we may have already discovered that the sequence of sections doesn’t quite work, or that our claims are too broad. If this is the case, we’ll need to go into the re-reading process already prepared to cut over-large paragraphs, add new paragraphs, beef up supporting information, or add new sections.

Make sure the argument as stated matches the argument in the outline: It may be that we have not discovered serious gaps in the outline, and if that’s the case, then we’ll need to compare what we said in the outline with what the paper actually does. On this “second look” at our draft, we should be prepared to discover that we didn’t finish thoughts, that we forgot to include supporting information, or that our work does not quite express the ideas we meant it to express. Now is the time to make those changes, deleting or re-writing whole paragraphs if they do not serve the argument. Again, there are many potential problems here, so this guide will not attempt to detail them all. However, here are some common problems that a revision can fix:

  • Key paragraphs lack sufficient or appropriate support: We will need to be able to tell which are the most vital claims our argument makes, so that we make sure they receive the support they need. As a rule of thumb, it’s best not to rely on personal experience alone, on only one source, or on non-peer-reviewed sources, to support important elements of an argument. For more information on identifying the vital claims in our arguments, see the Purdue O.W.L.’s section on Logic in Argumentative Writing.
  • Paragraphs don’t stick to one idea: Revision gives us the perfect opportunity to make sure we “package” our ideas efficiently. When writing a first draft, it’s easy to get side-tracked and develop too many ideas at once. Each paragraph should sustain and develop one main idea, and we should start a new paragraph when we find we’re shifting gears. For more information on how to construct effective paragraphs, see the Purdue O.W.L.’s section on Paragraphs and Paragraphing.
  • Important ideas are too broad to be supported: It’s usually easy to catch this problem in the “re-outlining” steps, but we should keep an eye out for claims that are too broad. Each time we re-read one of our major claims, we should keep in mind the interrogative pronouns, and ask ourselves who (or for whom), where, when, how, and why. If the answer is “for everybody,” or “everywhere,” or “since the beginning of time,” then the claim is probably too broad. For more information on creating effective claims, see the Purdue O.W.L.’s section on Paragraphs and Paragraphing.

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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