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A Writing Guide for Social Work

Social Work Writing Beyond College

In studying for a BSW, an MSSW, or a PhD in Social Work, we will have to write a variety of papers, responses, and other assignments, not just to demonstrate our mastery of key concepts (or to earn a grade), but to hone our skills for the writing situations we will face in our careers. Each assignment should prepare us to address one or more of the following “real world” writing situations, by giving us the “real world” skills we will need.

The present section summarizes such situations and identifies the key skills that each situation will require. The next section will start us off analyzing specific assignment types common to social work education.

Common Writing Situations in Social Work

  • Case Notes: In direct-practice situations, we will need to take notes on each case quickly and efficiently. That means knowing how to identify and describe key elements such as client goals, strengths, weaknesses, and large-scale contextual factors.
    • Key Skills: Effective descriptions use active verbs, specific details, and succinct phrases.
  • Reports: Whether we work in direct-practice or community organizing, we will need to submit occasional reports to our supervisors, or to various government or non-government agencies, describing what we have done, why we have done it, and how we went about doing it. That means being able to make an argument that not only identifies, but also explains our actions.
    • Key Skills: Effective explanatory arguments use specific details, make specific points, and support their assertions with references to specific situations, and to established authorities (this is what evidence-based practice means).
  • Research Reading: Again, whether we work in direct-practice, community organizing, or an academic context, we will need to be able to read, understand, and evaluate research papers and reports from government agencies. We will need to understand how the researchers designed, conducted, and analyzed their studies, in order to evaluate our own activities.
    • Key Skills: Reading effectively means being able to use and interpret APA citation style, understand how the parts of a research paper work (e.g. the abstract, literature review, methods, conclusions, and discussion sections). It also means being prepared to think critically, evaluating the authors’ claims and deciding whether they match up to the available data.
  • Grant Writing: Many of us will be required to at least participate in the grant-writing process, finding sources of funding, evaluating the application process, and developing an application that best suits the funder’s requirements. We will need to understand what funders want to see, what resources we have available, and how best to portray those resources in our application.
    • Key Skills: Effective grant-writing requires close attention to application instructions, funder needs, and a solid command of our institutional bureaucracy. Written grant-applications need to make specific arguments for the value of their proposal, and for its value here, now, and run by us. They also need to demonstrate a command of research already completed (see Research Reading, above).
  • Research Writing: Many of us, in practice situations as well as in academic positions, will need to conduct, document, and write up our own original research. We will need to understand the research that has already been completed, and make a clear argument that our research contributes significantly to the existing body of knowledge.
    • Key Skills: In addition to mastery over a given field, research writing requires clear, succinct sentences that make and support a clear argument, with clear references to our own data, and to existing research conclusions. We will need to master APA documentation, and to integrate others’ arguments and conclusions into our own prose (see Research Reading, above). We will also need to do a lot of self-evaluation, making sure our arguments and methods are free of faulty logic or unwarranted assumptions.

As this list should demonstrate, regardless of our specific role in social work, we will need to be able to make effective arguments, use clear and specific language, use and interpret APA documentation, and integrate others’ conclusions into our own work. How? The next sections will show how writing assignments in social work education help us cultivate these skills, and how to make the best use of those assignments.

« Introduction What Can I Expect? »


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