Writing Guide for Social Workers

Social workers serve as a link between clients and community resources, providing vital human services that assist underserved populations. Writing is a key part of the job; social workers frequently write documents such as assessment reports, case notes, letters, emails, and support plans. Often, social workers are responsible for procuring and providing services for clients, and their writing skills must be strong to enable the best support possible. The social work field has a reputation for bureaucratic red tape and paperwork, but it's up to skilled social workers to navigate these systems and secure the most useful resources and social services for their clients.

This guide examines the ins and outs of professional writing for social work practice, exploring the main types of writing you'll likely encounter while studying social work in college. Along with a breakdown of common types of writing, you'll also find information on style and citation formats relevant to academic writing. Additionally, this guide includes common writing mistakes to avoid, resources to help you improve your general writing skills, and writing resources specifically for social workers.

Types of Writing Social Workers Will Do in School

Personal Statements


The personal statement is a written representation of your interests and abilities, giving colleges a sense of who you are and why you're interested in social work. Specific topic requirements vary between schools, but the statement of purpose typically calls for you to describe your personal and professional experiences and relate them to the goals of a specific social work program. Schools also use the statement as a social work writing sample, gauging your career motives as well as your creativity, self-awareness, critical thinking skills, and overall writing ability. Common prompts may include describing your background, the development of your interest in social work, your experience with diversity, or your work experience in the field.

A strong personal statement answers all required prompts in a cohesive narrative. The essay should explain your experiences and how they relate to your aspirations while avoiding clich├ęs and overly generalized statements. Almost everyone who goes into social work wants to help people; distinguish yourself from other applicants by explaining precisely why and how you want to help, and what makes this desire unique. Some schools don't require the statement of purpose, but you should always complete one if you have the option, as it gives the admissions committee a clearer sense of who you are as a student and a social worker.

Exams


In many social work programs, exams take the form of essays completed during class. Professors rarely announce the essay topics in advance, but you can prepare by examining the syllabus and determining major course ideas and themes. You may also be able to anticipate potential essay topics by examining previous course materials and looking for patterns in the type of questions the professor assigns. A study group can also help you prepare for essay exams by reviewing the course curriculum and devising possible essay topics with other students.

Before you begin writing an essay, you should first determine exactly what the prompt asks, which ensures that you're fully prepared to answer the question. Next, compose an outline with a thesis and at least three main points that support your idea. Ideally, you should spend 10-20% of your allotted time devising your main ideas and drawing up an outline. Essay exams must follow the same logical progression of ideas that characterizes conventional expository writing, so be sure to organize your supporting paragraphs properly. While writing the essay should occupy most of your exam time, try to give yourself a few minutes at the end of the exam to proofread your work and make minor revisions.

Research Papers


Of all social work writing, the research paper ranks among the most common. You'll likely complete several extensive research papers throughout the course of your studies, requiring you to examine and synthesize many information sources on a specific topic. While a research paper is similar to an essay, several key factors distinguish the two forms: an essay typically expresses your own perspective, while a research paper uses the work of others to draw new conclusions on a topic. Research papers are typically longer than essays and require a greater depth of knowledge on a topic. Potential topics for social work research papers vary as much as the field itself and may cover subjects like substance abuse, child and family services, community organizing, or education.

Most research papers either make an argument on a topic or explore overall perspectives on a topic, and some do both. Like other forms of writing, a research paper needs a thesis and supporting information, though the thesis often changes as further research occurs. Since research papers call for substantial information gathering and presentation, outlining and organization are particularly important, and a topic must be complex enough to sustain significant research.

How Do You Write an Essay?


Regardless of your area of study, you'll likely complete several types of writing throughout the course of your degree. Different essay styles call for different approaches, and the following section outlines the most common essay forms you're likely to encounter, along with tips for writing them.

  • Narrative: A narrative essay allows you to tell a personal story, typically with more freedom than most forms of writing. However, the narrative essay must fulfill certain requirements, such as telling a cohesive, interesting story with a beginning, middle, and end. A narrative essay must also serve a purpose; readers need to understand why you're telling your story and come away with a message or lesson.
  • Expository: The expository essay requires you to explore a topic and make a compelling argument based on your research. An expository essay begins with a clear thesis statement, moves into body paragraphs that support your argument, and ends with a conclusion that sums up your main ideas. Expository writing encompasses many styles, including comparative writing and cause-and-effect writing.
  • Persuasive: Similar to the expository essay, the persuasive essay requires you to research a topic and make an argument based on your assessment. However, persuasive essays differ in that they require more extensive research and often entail more writing. Expository essays may occur as in-class assignments or as parts of exams, while persuasive essays often function as final assignments with more time to complete. A persuasive essay still requires a strong, evidence-based thesis and extensive supporting details in its body paragraphs.
  • Comparative: A comparative essay examines the similarities and differences between two or more items, which could be anything from political systems to literary texts. After analyzing these items, you must develop a thesis that makes an argument about their similarities or differences. Some comparative essays focus more on similarities to develop a thesis, while others focus on differences. Like other essay forms, the comparative essay needs well-organized points that support a thesis.
  • Cause and Effect: This essay type examines a certain event or pattern and attempts to analyze the factors that caused it, making an argument about why the event occurred in such a way. For example, an essay on the Great Depression and the stock market crash of 1929 might examine the various economic and social factors that led to the depression, making an argument about how these factors functioned together to create the situation.

Citations Guide for Social Work Students

Citation plays an important role in all forms of academic writing, as it ensures that writers properly attribute their research sources and avoid plagiarism. Failure to cite your sources properly can cause major problems in your academic career, and even unintentional plagiarism can result in heavy penalties in the academic world, particularly at higher levels of study. This section outlines the major citation styles used for academic writing, highlighting key differences and presenting examples of each style's citation format.

American Psychological Association Style


APA style is the citation method of choice in most social science courses, and this format generally serves as the default social work writing style. Since research in the social sciences constantly changes, APA emphasizes the dates of sources to help readers determine their recency and relevance. For in-text citations, APA style uses the author's name, the date of publication, and the page number. Book citations used in a reference list typically include the author's name, year of publication, book title, city of publication, and the publisher.

Example

"If the manner of a man's dying seems arbitrary, his morality is inescapable" (Anderson, 1983, p. 10).

Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities. New York, New York: Verso.

Chicago Manual of Style


The Chicago style ranks among the most comprehensive and complex of formatting choices, and it often serves the needs of high-level academic writing, particularly in the field of history. Unlike most other styles, Chicago calls for the use of either footnotes or endnotes for in-text citations. Numbered in-text citations correspond to notes that indicate the author's name, book title, publisher information, publication date, and page number. Chicago style formatting also typically includes a formal bibliography at the end of the text.

Example

"If the manner of a man's dying seems arbitrary, his morality is inescapable."[1]
[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 1983), 10.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 1983.

Modern Language Association Format


MLA formatting most commonly occurs in humanities and liberal arts writing, such as English and philosophy. This format emphasizes authorship, with in-text citations that indicate the author's name and page number at the end of each quotation. For reference lists, MLA format calls for writers to include the author's name, the title of the work, the publisher, and the year of publication.

Example

"If the manner of a man's dying seems arbitrary, his morality is inescapable" (Anderson 10).

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso, 1983.

Associated Press Style


AP style isn't commonly used for academic writing, but you may find yourself using this style if you're writing a more journalistic piece. Created for newspapers and other forms of mass media, the AP style emphasizes consistency, clarity, accuracy, and brevity. Since it's not academic, there aren't concrete rules for citing particular types of texts, but generally the style calls for the citation of a source directly before or after a quote, often using the words "said" or "stated."

Example

"If the manner of a man's dying seems arbitrary, his morality is inescapable," said Anderson.

The Best Writing Style for Social Work Majors


Social work combines many academic disciplines, but typically, social work courses call for assignments to be formatted in APA style, though this may vary between schools, programs, and individual professors. Your faculty will likely indicate which format they prefer in the course syllabus, but it never hurts to ask. Always be sure to follow formatting instructions exactly, as professors may penalize you for disregarding specific formatting requests.

Common Writing Mistakes Students Make

Active vs. Passive Voice


One of the most common mistakes among developing writers is the use of passive voice, which makes sentences wordier, less immediate, and less clear. In the active voice, the sentence's subject performs the action. Using passive voice, the subject receives the action. Passive construction occurs everywhere in writing, but there are easy strategies to help you locate it and convert your sentences to active voice.

Certain keywords and phrases, such as "by," "was," and "it was" often indicate the use of the passive voice. When revising your writing, look for these words and determine if they form part of a passive sentence. For example, if you notice the word "by" connected to the subject of the sentence, see if you can alter the construction so the subject occurs closer to the beginning of the sentence.

Punctuation


Improper comma usage often leads to confusion in writing. One of the most common errors is the comma splice, which occurs when a writer connects two independent clauses using only a comma. For example: "I don't like accounting class, it's too difficult." Both "I don't like accounting class" and "it's too difficult" are independent clauses, meaning they can stand as separate sentences. To link these clauses correctly, a comma isn't enough; you can often correct a comma splice by either creating two separate sentences, using a semicolon to link the two clauses together, or using a coordinating conjunction like "because."

Incorrect semicolon and colon usage also causes problems for many writers. While they function similarly, these two punctuation marks serve different purposes. A semicolon links two separate, but related, thoughts: "I'm glad I'm going to Europe; I really need a vacation." A colon typically sets off a list or an example: "I always bring three things on vacation: my camera, my suitcase, and my sunglasses."

Grammar


Grammar mistakes hinder writers of all skill levels. In an abstract sense, grammar forms the entire structure of a language and its usage, but in practice, many simple rules exist to help you keep track of and avoid common mistakes. For example, many writers struggle with the use of there, their, and they're, but the differences in the words are quite pronounced. There indicates a location. Their is the possessive form of they. Finally, they're is a contraction of "they" and "are."

Another common grammatical mistake hinges on the confusion between its and it's. The word its is a possessive that indicates ownership. On the other hand, it's is a contraction of "it" and "is."

Writing Resources for Social Work Students

  • Purdue OWL: Purdue University's Online Writing Lab offers support for all types of writing, with a wealth of instructional material that covers general writing strategies and the specific facets of academic writing.
  • WiSP: Writing in Social Work Practice seeks to examine the role of writing in the field of social work, with the goal of improving the overall efficiency and effectiveness in social work writing practices.
  • Foundation Center: Grant writing plays a major role in social work, and the Foundation Center offers resources to connect social workers with philanthropic organizations and improve grant writing skills.
  • Grammar Girl: Casual and conversational, Grammar Girl offers general writing tips for all types of writers. Most articles highlight common writing mistakes and offer strategies for recognizing and fixing them.
  • Council on Foundations: Another major resource for grant writers, the Council on Foundations offers online learning and mentorship services that help social workers develop their grant writing and public policy knowledge.
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