‘If it’s not written down it didn’t happen’: Contemporary social work as a writing intensive profession

Lillis, Theresa; Leedham, Maria and Twiner, Alison (2017). ‘If it’s not written down it didn’t happen’: Contemporary social work as a writing intensive profession. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Professional Practice, 14(1) pp. 29–52.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1558/jalpp.36377


Social work writing, often referred to as ‘recording’ or ‘paperwork’, is frequently the target of criticism in reviews and public media reporting. However, despite the many criticisms made and its significance in social work practice, little empirical research has been carried out on professional social work writing. This paper draws on findings from an ESRC-funded study in the UK to offer a baseline characterization of the nature and function of writing in contemporary social work. Drawing on text and ethnographic data, the paper foregrounds three key dimensions: the number of written texts, key textual functionalities and genres; the specific ways in which ‘text work’ constitutes everyday social work professional practice, using case studies from the domains of adults, children and mental health; and the concerns by social workers about the amount of time they are required to spend on writing. The baseline characterization provides empirical evidence for claims made about the increased bureaucratisation of social work practice, signalling contemporary social work as a ‘writing intensive’ profession which is at odds with social workers’ professional ‘imaginary’. The paper concludes by outlining the educational and policy implications of the baseline characterization and calls for debate about the nature of contemporary social work practice.

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