Academic Writing and Referencing for your Social Work Degree

Academic Writing and Referencing for your Social Work Degree


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781912096237
Publisher: Critical Publishing
Publication date: 07/09/2018
Series: Critical Study Skills Series
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: (w) x (h) x 0.30(d)

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Academic writing: text, process and criticality

Learning outcomes

After reading this chapter you will:

• understand what it means to be part of the academic writing community;

• be aware of the different text types you might need to produce as a student social worker;

• have developed an effective, systematic approach to the academic writing process;

• understand what it means to write critically;

• have learned about the foundations of different academic text types in social work, in particular, the critical essay.

Many aspects of your social work degree will be exciting and enjoyable. However, you will also face a number of challenges. You need to assimilate a great deal of information, and engage in new ideas and intellectual processes. What's more, you need to become proficient in academic writing, and learn how to produce the different types of text that are common in social work.

Academic writing is central to your university studies, as written assignments and exams will be one of the main ways in which you are assessed. This chapter explores the nature of academic writing in universities, and helps you to develop an effective, systematic approach to the academic writing process. All assignments are different, and universities vary slightly in terms of the types of writing assignments they employ. This chapter focuses on some general principles which can be applied to most academic writing, including what it means to write 'critically'. It also discusses some of the most common features of individual text types in your discipline, with a particular focus on the critical essay.

Academic writing at university: a new start?


1) Do you enjoy writing? Why/ Why not?

2) What kind of things have you written in the past (eg essays, reports, exams, articles, blogs, stories, poems)?

3) Do you have recent experience of writing academic essays? (If English is not your first language, were these in English or your first language?)

4) What comments have teachers or other people made about your writing in the past?

5) How do you feel about starting your first/ next written assignment at university?

Social work students in the UK come from a range of backgrounds: some come straight from A levels (or Scottish Highers); some have been away from formal education for some time, maybe working and/ or bringing up a family; some come from other countries to study in the UK. This means that students starting university may in terms of their current writing abilities, their experience of academic writing, and how confident they feel about tackling written assessments.

So where do you fit in?

You may be feeling confident. You may be relishing the prospect of writing your first assignment, seeing it as an exciting opportunity to explore your subject and demonstrate your knowledge and ideas. You may be able to draw on recent experience of academic writing and positive feedback from teachers.

Conversely, you may be feeling rather apprehensive about your first written assignment. Like many students, you perhaps see academic writing as one of the most difficult challenges of university life. There are a number of reasons why you may be feeling apprehensive. You might not have much experience of academic writing. Or maybe you do have experience, but it might have been a long time ago, or in your mother tongue, not English. You may have struggled with writing in the past and received some negative comments from teachers. All of these things can make the prospect of that first written assignment rather daunting.

When starting to write at university, it is important for students to draw on any strengths they have in terms of ability and experience. But it is also important for all students to identify aspects of their writing which can be improved on. At university, you are part of a writing community, comprised of students, lecturers and researchers, and all members of that community are constantly striving to improve as writers, even those who publish in journals and books.

You should commit yourself to improving as a writer throughout your degree programme, and beyond, in your professional life. It is not a question of achieving perfection; it is rather a case of committing yourself to making many small improvements over time, and not giving up when faced with a disappointment or hurdle. University lecturers see many students develop into very good writers after a shaky start. What these students have in common is a positive attitude, an ability to reflect on and critically assess their own work, and a willingness to seek and act on advice.

This book will support you in your development as a writer by helping you to approach writing in a systematic way. It will enable you to:

• analyse and respond to writing tasks;

• plan and structure your writing effectively;

• achieve clarity and coherence in your writing;

• produce writing which is accurate and academic in style;

• write critically in assignments;

• use and reference sources appropriately;

• prepare assignments to a high professional standard for submission.

This chapter sets you on your way by exploring the context of academic writing at university and providing guidance on how to approach writing assignments during your social work degree.

Academic writing for social work undergraduates

Undergraduate social work students may be asked to produce a number of different types of academic writing, including essays, written reflections, exams, reports, reviews of journal articles, and dissertations. This chapter sets out a general approach to academic writing that will help you with all types of assignments. It also provides specific information on essays, written reflections, exams and dissertations. Advice on practical writing tasks in social work is provided in Communication Skills for your Social Work Degree.

Essays. There are different types of essays. The main one, sometimes called a 'critical' or 'analytical' essay, requires you to explore a particular topic in depth, usually in response to a question or statement, and to explain your own viewpoint, or 'stance', supported by arguments and evidence. A 'reflective' essay requires you to analyse and evaluate a particular experience, explaining its impact on your understanding and future practice.

Written reflections. Social work students are often required to produce short written reflections on their experience in practice, sometimes as part of a portfolio linked to their practice placements.

Exams. In exams, you may be required to provide short or long written responses to questions or statements. These are usually designed to demonstrate that you have assimilated and understood the core work covered in a particular module. They may require you to recall factual information and/ or to explain and support your viewpoint on a particular issue you have examined as part of your studies.

Dissertations. A dissertation is a long evidence-based or research-focused essay written in the final year of your undergraduate studies.

Each of these types of academic writing will be discussed in more detail later in the chapter.

The writing process

Writing is a process and it involves a number of stages, including:

• 'unpacking' (analysing and understanding) the writing task and any guidelines provided;

• drawing up a provisional plan/ outline;

• identifying relevant material that you need to read;

• reading and gathering information;

• drafting, redrafting, editing;

• revisiting and reworking your plan/ outline;

• formatting your text;

• double-checking the assessment guidelines;

• proofreading.

It is important to fully engage with the writing process, and to understand that the writing process is part of the learning process. Writing is not just a question of getting fully formed thoughts down on paper (apart from in exams); it is a way of clarifying your thinking on a particular topic. Woodford (1967) put this nicely many years ago:

The power of writing as an aid in thinking is not often appreciated. Everyone knows that someone who writes successfully gets his thoughts completely in order before he publishes. But it is seldom pointed out that the very act of writing can help to clarify thinking. Put down woolly thoughts on paper, and their wooliness is immediately exposed.

(p 744)

Top tips

Engaging with the writing process

1) Try to develop good writing habits. Write little and often, especially if you have been away from formal education for a while.

2) Adopt a write-read-edit-read approach to writing (discussed in Chapter 2). When you stop to read what you have written, stand back from the text. Put yourself in the reader's shoes and make sure that everything hangs together, makes sense, and flows smoothly.

3) Try to get some feedback during the writing process. You may have the opportunity to submit a first draft to a lecturer, or you could ask a fellow student to read something and give feedback. If you do ask a friend or fellow student, it's a good idea to ask them to summarise what they think you are trying to say. If you only ask them if they understand what you have written, they may just say yes to be polite!

Your exact approach to the writing process will depend on the particular context of the assignment and your individual way of working, but some essential aspects of the writing process are discussed in the following sections.

Approaching a writing assignment

A writer needs an audience, a purpose, and a strategy, and these things are interconnected (Swales and Feak, 2012, p 10). When approaching a writing assignment, ask yourself:

• Who is reading my work? (your audience)

• Why am I writing? (your purpose)

• How will I achieve my purpose? (your strategy)

Your purpose is to meet the requirements of the assignment, and satisfy the needs and expectations of a particular reader. To determine your purpose, you need to analyse the wording of the task or question carefully. It may specify certain aspects of the topic that you should cover, and the verbs it uses, such as 'describe', 'explain', or 'evaluate', will determine how you treat this content. However, notwithstanding these specifications, there is no single 'right answer': different students will respond to a task in different ways. Your individual approach and strategy will determine:

• the selection of content (information, arguments, evidence etc);

• the way this content is structured and organised.

The person reading your essay must be able to discern why you have included particular content and organised your essay in the way that you have. The question of the 'reader' is a tricky one. Of course, the actual human being reading your assignment is your university lecturer – probably the one who set the task and taught the module. However, lecturers often ask (or expect) you to imagine a 'hypothetical' or 'target' reader. This is usually someone with a similar level of knowledge to your own, or someone with a similar level of education but who is not an expert in social work. Lecturers want you to write for such a reader because they want you to demonstrate your understanding, and you cannot do this if you assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader. It is not uncommon to ask a student about something which is unclear in their essay, only to have them explain that 'the lecturer already knows this'! But this is not the point. The lecturer wants to know that you know this, and that you can explain it to other people, including non-experts, in a clear way. Always ask yourself:

• What can the target reader be expected to know?

• What does the target reader need me to explain?

A good writer anticipates the reader's questions, and does not ask them to guess, fill in gaps, or work out how one thing relates to another.

Analysing a writing assignment

One of the most common – and perhaps surprising – reasons for low marks in written assessments is the failure on the part of the student to read the assignment title or question thoroughly enough. A student may go on to produce something which is interesting and of a good standard, but if they do not directly address the specific task, they will not meet the actual requirements of the assignment and so will end up failing. It is therefore essential to start any assignment by carefully analysing the assignment title or question.

You should read the title or question several times to 'unpack' it and get absolutely clear in your mind what is expected of you. It is helpful to highlight key terms, including verbs commonly occurring in academic assignments such as 'assess', 'discuss', and 'compare and contrast'.

Assignments usually come with a set of assessment guidelines and marking descriptors detailing the various criteria that you need to meet in order to achieve success. These criteria relate to areas such as:

• task achievement;

• content and organisation;

• relevance to social work practice;

• writing style;

• referencing.

Be sure to read and digest these guidelines and descriptors as they are the very same ones that assessors will use to mark your work.


Unpacking essay titles and questions

Look at the essay titles below. What are the key terms? What are you expected to do in your essay? What will be your purpose in writing? What type of content and organisation could help you to achieve this purpose? (Make some notes before you look at the model analyses provided.)


Given the many factors that might influence the future of a young person leaving the care system, consider the question, 'Can social workers really influence outcomes for young care leavers?'


'The core skill of social work is the ability to communicate.' Using appropriate evidence, explore the arguments for and against this proposition.


Always begin an assignment by considering the constraints of the task: how long it should be and how long you have to write it. You could then draw up a provisional schedule which allocates time to the various sub-tasks. This schedule should leave sufficient time for you to read through and proofread the whole text several times before submitting.

A good piece of writing starts with a good plan or 'outline'. This should be primarily based on your analysis, or 'unpacking', of the task, but it should evolve as you engage in the reading and writing process. Your outline is therefore much more than a list of items related to the assignment topic: it is a developing conceptual representation of your response to the task. For example, in relation to the essay titles analysed above, your outline would reflect your position, or 'stance', in relation to the given topic, ie:

• A: the extent to which you believe, supported by your investigation of the arguments and evidence, that social workers can influence the outcomes for young care leavers

• B: your assessment of the evidence you find to support or challenge the main proposition that communication is the core skill of social work

An outline should identify key sections of the text (with possible subheadings), and, in a critical essay, the arguments and evidence that would feature in each one.

As discussed earlier in this chapter, different students will approach the same task in different ways. Sometimes an essay title will specify broad organisational requirements. For example, in B above, you are asked to 'outline the arguments for and against' the proposition. However, you might decide either to look at all the 'for' arguments in the first half of the essay and all the 'against' arguments in the second half, or, alternatively, to examine the proposition from both angles with reference to a series of different areas of social work. In other essays, you may have more leeway. One common approach is to examine different positions one by one, finally making a case for the one which the majority of the evidence seems to support. Another approach is to make a strong case for one particular position right from the start, while acknowledging and examining alternative (but in your view, weaker) viewpoints along the way.

Top tips

Aligning your outline and the task requirements

When your outline is well developed, go back to your initial analysis of the task to make sure that you have addressed all the points that you originally highlighted, and that you have achieved the required balance in your response.


Excerpted from "Academic Writing and Referencing for your Social Work Degree"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jane Bottomley, Patricia Cartney and Steven Pryjmachuk.
Excerpted by permission of Critical Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, vi,
Meet the series editor and authors, vii,
Introduction, viii,
Chapter 1 Academic writing: text, process and criticality, 1,
Chapter 2 Coherent texts and arguments, 32,
Chapter 3 Referring to sources, 60,
Chapter 4 Language in use, 81,
Chapter 5 Preparing your work for submission, 107,
Appendix 1: English language references, 122,
Appendix 2: Grammatical terminology, 124,
Appendix 3: Key phrases in assignments, 127,
Appendix 4: Academic levels at university, 129,
Answer key, 130,
Index, 140,

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