‘If it’s not written down it didn’t happen’

Contemporary social work as a writing-intensive profession


  • Theresa Lillis The Open University
  • Maria Leedham The Open University
  • Alison Twiner The Open University




bureaucracy, ethnography, professional writing, recording practices, social work genres, text work


Social work writing, often referred to as ‘recording’ or ‘paperwork’, is frequently the target of criticism in reviews and public media reporting in the UK. 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 of 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 bureaucratization 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.

Author Biographies

Theresa Lillis, The Open University

Theresa Lillis is Professor of English Language and Applied Linguistics at The Open University, UK. Her writing research centres on the politics of production and participation. Authored, co-authored and edited works include Academic Writing in a Global Context (2010, Routledge), The Sociolinguistics of Writing (2013, Edinburgh), Theory in Applied Linguistics (2015, AILA Review), The Dynamics of Textual Trajectories in Professional and Workplace Practice (2017, Special Issue of Text and Talk).

Maria Leedham, The Open University

Maria Leedham is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at The Open University, UK. Her main research expertise is in writing, drawing on two decades of experience in teaching English language, English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and teacher training. She is the author of Chinese Students' Writing in English: Implications from a Corpus-Driven Study (2015, Routledge) and has published articles in journals including Journal of English for Academic Purposes and Journal of Academic Writing.

Alison Twiner, The Open University

Alison Twiner is a Research Associate at The Open University, UK. Her research interests focus on the use of language and other tools in making meaning in teaching and learning interactions, young people’s perspectives on health and wellbeing and the context of writing in everyday social work practice. She takes a sociocultural approach to research, emphasizing the importance of context and interpretation in building understandings.


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How to Cite

Lillis, T., Leedham, M., & Twiner, A. (2020). ‘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), 29-52. https://doi.org/10.1558/jalpp.36377