Practice-Oriented Genres

Writing for social work practice usually involves communicating about specific clients. We need to relate what issues they face, and often some version of their “life story” quickly and efficiently, and without giving the appearance of judging them (either positively or negatively). At the same time, though, we have the obligation to rely on “evidence-based practices,” so we need to be able to use academic sources to support the kind of things we do while working with clients. In order to decide what to use, and how to use it, we need to bear in mind the primary characteristics of practice-oriented genres.



Practice-oriented writing usually addresses other social workers who work with similar cases, co-workers who actually work with our same clients, or supervisors who oversee a staff working with our clients. It is therefore important to adopt a clear, professional tone—we want to avoid “gushing” or appearing to judge the client, and we also want to avoid communicating more than the audience needs to hear. Most social-work audiences are aware of the basic phases of the helping process, are aware that we need to use evidence-based practices, are aware that there exist theories of human behavior and models for intervention, and are aware of other commonplaces of the profession. On the other hand, some practice-oriented genres may address audiences who are not familiar with your specific client, or who may not remember all the details about a specific theory—so we often want to include those kinds of details in our work. Because these are other professionals dealing with many other possibly similar clients or theories, it is always important to be extremely specific and precise. Saying that a client “is in a good place, but needs to put himself out there” conveys your general impression, but does not tell me much about this client. Compare that statement to one that says a client “has become financially independent from his parents, but his current job barely pays above minimum wage, so he is seeking a new one.” Note that this second sentence does not overuse jargon or technical terms—it just says more specifically what the client is experiencing.



Some practice-oriented genres do not make an explicit argument, but appear to report only “the facts of the case.” These genres do, however, articulate an implicit argument: these (and not a thousand more details we might record) are the important facts of the case. Likewise, when reporting what we did with a specific client, we make an implicit argument: these activities are the most likely to achieve the client’s goals. Some practice-oriented genres will ask us to make these arguments explicit, saying that we, for instance, “chose cognitive-behavioral therapy to work on the client’s symptoms of depression, because it has been shown to be effective in these cases.” The logical sequence almost always begins with the exigency (the purpose, the sense of why this is important) of the client’s issues, and works through what response would be best, given the situation, closing off with either a recommendation for future work with the client, or a report on how well an intervention met the client’s goals. So, an introduction often sums up the client’s issues briefly and explains what the paper will accomplish, and a conclusion often provides a summary of the results—and often a recommendation for what should come next.



Given the kind of argument practice-oriented genres generally make, they tend to require more than one kind of evidence. There are a few genres that will require only our own observations of the client’s behavior, or of their reported experiences, but most will also ask us to establish that what we observe—or do—is consistent with evidence-based practices. So, in addition to supporting our assertions about the client’s issues with evidence from their life experiences, we will also need to support our assertions about what these issues mean, or need, with the most reliable evidence at our disposal. Most commonly, this evidence will come from peer-reviewed journal articles or peer-reviewed academic books, and secondarily from textbooks or books based on career practitioners’ experiences. It is almost never sufficient to cite a website for this kind of evidence—if the website cites its sources, find those and read them, and make sure they are up to date. If the website cites no sources… find a more reliable source! The kind of evidence depends on the type of practice-oriented writing we are doing, and generally practice-oriented writing falls into two categories:

Clinical practice-oriented writing

This kind of practice-oriented writing just chronicles some aspect of the client’s experience, and relies almost exclusively on the practitioner’s knowledge and the client’s reports. Case notes and (bio)psychosocial assessments involve clinical-style writing, and may not allow the writer to use “I” or even to refer to the client as anything other than “the client” or even just “client.”

Hybrid practice-oriented writing

This kind of practice-oriented writing asks us to not only summarize the client’s issues or experiences, but also analyze them using theories supported by evidence, or recommend evidence-based interventions to achieve the client’s goals. This kind of writing will need to be able to switch back and forth between reporting information the practitioner has collected, and information from academic sources. It is often useful to use “I” to clarify that some information came directly from the practitioner’s interactions with the client, and it is also usually expected to refer to the client by a fictionalized name. It is acceptable to introduce a fictionalized name merely by putting it in quotation marks: The client, “Betty,” is an African American woman suffering from depression.