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A Writing Guide for Social Work

If we start off by doing some Prewriting, we can start the actual writing with confidence, knowing we have an outline, a road-map for where our argument begins, and where it’s going.

If we start the whole process early, we'll be able to do the writing with even more confidence, knowing that we'll have time to come back later and fix problems. That means that we don't have to write everything perfectly the first time around. All the same, we can make things easier on ourselves by paying careful attention to a few things right now, as we write:

Best Practices for Efficient Writing

There are a few things we can do to help us work efficiently as possible, and save us more work later on: tracking our sources as we go, and making basic grammatical decisions before we write.

Tracking Citations

It's always important to keep track of where information came from as we write. It may seem like a pain to enter an in-text citation in the middle of the writing process, but that's nothing compared to how difficult it is to look back after we're done, and figure out where we got something. Many cases of plagiarism happen because we included data, but forgot to provide the source. If, in the moment of writing, I can't remember exactly where I got a specific piece of information, I tend to leave myself a note, such as: (CITATION from JONES GOES HERE). That way, I won't forget to attribute the information to Jones. For more information about citations, see the next section, Why Cite?

Basic Grammatical Decisions

It's important to figure out the most basic elements of our writing before we start. Some elements, like pronouns, can be fixed later, but others, such as verb tenses, are very difficult to edit effectively.

Tense: It's important to decide when everything has happened as you write, so that your verbs all communicate the correct information to the audience.

  • The Past Tense: Use the past tense when you want to describe events that happened at a specific time, but are over now.
    • Past research activity, which was completed at a specific point. Example: "In the 1980s, researchers found that AIDS cases in the continental US were on the rise."
    • You own data collection. Example: "Fourteen subjects participated in the focus group."
    • Past theoretical models, when you want to contextualize them (e.g., when they're no longer accepted as valid). Example: "Freud thought that girls pass through a stage involving 'penis envy'."
  • The Present Tense: Use the present tense to indicate what continues to happen now, and what your work is demonstrating.
    • Events that began in the past, but continue to be true today. Example: "The Centers for Disease Control manage reports of outbreaks all over the USA."
    • Conclusions that you reach in this project. Example: "These data show that the intervention should be successful in comparable cases."
    • Theoretical models that you are discussing as abstract models. Example: "For Seymour Chatman, narrative comprises both the story (what is told), and the discourse (how the story is told)."
    • Theoretical models that have not been invalidated. Example: "According to Lacan, human self-consciousness begins at the 'mirror stage.'"

Person: It's also important to decide how we will refer to our own work. Some specific contexts require the use of passive voice, while many (particularly in social work) require us to refer to our own experiences, using the pronoun I.

  • Passive Voice: Generally, passive voice constructions are weaker, and make reading more difficult. That means they should be avoided, except where required, and even then, there are correct and incorrect usages. For further information, see the Purdue OWL page on Passive Voice.
    • Passive Voice Used Incorrectly: "That means they should be avoided." Yes, this guide itself is not immune. For some examples that demonstrate how to change passive to active voice, see the Purdue OWL page.
    • Passive Voice Used Correctly—to describe data-collection activity: "Fourteen subjects were interviewed." For more examples of useful passive-voice moments, see the Purdue OWL page on Using Passive Voice.
  • The First Person: For a long time, most people have assumed that we should not use the first-person "I" in academic work, but that's no longer true, especially in social work. When we need to refer to our own practice experience, or our interactions with clients, we make our work much easier to read by simply using "I." When preparing to write a paper for a class, it’s appropriate to ask the instructor what s/he prefers. Many instructors have their own personal preferences.
    • Rule of Thumb: Use "I" only when you really need it—to refer to your own actions, or to specify a conclusion or interpretation as subjective.
  • The First-Person Plural: In rare cases, it's appropriate to replace the first person "I" with a "we." We have to do this carefully, because, (as in this writing right here), we risk over-generalizing.
    • Correct Usage: Multiple Authors. When a paper by multiple authors needs to refer to their own work in the first-person, then the plural is correct. Example: 'We found that the intervention was successful."
    • Incorrect Usage: Generalized Statements. Example: "We all experience loss, and we all know what a profound impact it can have." This is a risky statement, because the reader may not have experienced this kind of loss, and may feel excluded.

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How Should I Use My Sources?

Most of the time, we’ll need to support our argument by referring the reader to the sources for our information.
Integrating Sources: Summary, Paraphrase, Quotation

Integrating quotations is a skill that takes a great deal of practice to pull off effectively, but right here, in the moment of writing, we’ll need to choose from three important tactics:

Summary: If I need to suggest the conclusions of a variety of studies, or of one important study, very quickly, then I will need to summarize the whole study.

  • If I summarize, I’ll only need to provide the author’s name and date. For more information, see the next section, Why Cite?
  • For more advice about summarizing, see the Purdue OWL page on Summary.

Paraphrase: If I need specific information from a study, but it’s either difficult to integrate into my text, or full of jargon, I should probably paraphrase one or more sentences. That means I’ll transform difficult words into easier words, and change the language structure so that it better suits the specific sentences I’m using.

Quote: If I need a definition, or a specific piece of information that I can only use in the author’s original words, then I need to quote a sentence—or maybe just part of it.

What’s this doing here? – Occam’s Quotation Razor: It’s also important to ask ourselves exactly how much of a source’s information we actually need for the task at hand. Whenever I’m about to add a quotation to my paper, I always ask myself: what’s this doing here? and how much of this do I need?

Based on long experience, here are a few tips to help us follow “Occam’s Quotation Razor,” an axiom that says: “The simplest and shortest quotation is usually the best.”

  • Large block-quotations of three sentences or a paragraph are almost never a good idea. Unless I’m using a quotation from a literary text (a story or a poem), and intend to provide several pages of my own analysis of it, I probably don’t need the whole block, and should pick just one or two vital points.
  • Isolated quotations are almost never a good idea. I should not quote an entire sentence and let it stand by itself among my other sentences. An isolated quotation is rough on the reader, and sometimes produces jarring clashes of tone and diction. Instead, I should choose only the most important part of the sentence, and introduce just that part with my own argument.
    • Effective Example: Against the idea that education is meant to get us a job, Hart argues that “the goal of education is to produce the citizen” (citation would go here).
    • Less-Effective Example: “It’s not the perfect, not the nuclear family they were born into, or the happy ending they might have asked for. But maybe it is enough” (citation). Since the divorce I have watched my parents grow as people. I recognize that they are human and make mistakes.
      • Improved: Since the divorce I have watched my parents grow as people, and I can see now that they are human and make mistakes. Like Matthiessen, I see our family as “not the perfect, not the nuclear family,” or “the happy ending [we] might have asked for. But maybe it is enough” (citation).
  • Quoting someone’s summary of someone else’s argument is almost never a good idea. If I need that specific piece of information, I need to go find the original article, to make sure I understand the context and interpret the information correctly.
  • Inserting a quotation I don’t fully understand is never a good idea. Sure, it may “sound good” to me, but if I don’t know what it really says, then I can’t be sure it actually supports my claim. It might say the exact opposite of what I wanted to say.

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What If I Get Stuck?

We should always bear in mind that our writing has to make an argument. That means we’re making claims, and supporting those claims with reasons. In turn, we’ll be choosing reasons that we know will make sense to our audience. As we write, it’s worth paying attention to the kinds of claims we’re making, by asking the following questions (particularly when we’re “stuck”):

Is this claim based on common knowledge that my audience will share?

  • If so, do I really need to make this claim in detail, or can I assume the audience will already know something about it?
  • If not, do I need to provide some more support for the claim?

Do I have anecdotal information (my personal experience, or the personal experience of someone I’ve interviewed) to support my claim?

  • If so, is it convincing enough to support my claim?
  • If not, do I need to interview someone, or find some more data?

Do I have the data to support my claim?

  • If so, what would be the best quotation or summary to use here?
  • If not, do I need to find some more data?

If it seems I need to find some more data, will my whole argument change if I don’t find what I need, or if what I find contradicts my point?

  • If the whole argument will change, it’s best to stop writing until I find some more data.
  • If the whole argument will not change, it’s best to make a note to myself, right there in the text (for example, (Demographic data GOES HERE)), and keep writing.

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What is a Claim?

A claim is any statement we make in a paper that isn’t derived from another source, and does not directly report information we ourselves have observed.

Example 1: Most people need external motivation to change their daily habits.
(That’s a claim: I would need to provide data to support it.)

Example 2: The study found that 78% of the subjects who changed their daily habits had external motivation.
(Not a claim: This is a report of experimental results.)

Example 3: Because 78% of the subjects who changed their daily habits had external motivation, it’s fair to say that most people of similar demographics also need this kind of motivation to change.
(Both at once: This sentence integrates the claim from Example 1 with the data report from Example 2, uniting a claim and some support. But by doing that, it creates a new claim: that these data can be generalized. That claim will need—yes—more support.)

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