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Why Writing Matters

Why Writing Matters in Criminal Justice

"Leadership ability and program development are closely related to writing skills."

~Carol Zimmerman, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice


Why Writing Matters in Criminal Justice

Writing proficiency is imperative in Criminal Justice. Most careers in this field exist in the context of bureaucracies. In these formal organizations, policies, procedural guidelines for specific practices, memoranda, press releases, research reports, and communications with judicial and legislative bodies are all forms of written media. Thus, leadership ability and program development are closely related to writing skills.

Typical Writing Assignments

CJ 201 Introduction to Criminal Justice may not always include a writing assignment. All other courses require writing projects. Such assignments may take the form of formal research papers, essay exams, and in-class writing tasks.

The department is also committed to working with the SVSU Writing Center to realize its goal of graduating students with excellent writing skills.

Qualities of Good Writing

The goal of the department is to teach students formal (e.g., professional and/or bureaucratic) writing style. Students should avoid writing in "op ed" informal style, creative writing style, or fictional/novel style if they intend to work and thrive in formal organizational settings. In Criminal Justice, students must learn to write formally as the contextual situation demands. Government documents, law review articles, and statistically-oriented journal articles are exemplary writing models here.

It is also important to note that scholarly writing in the criminal justice field is often argumentative or designed to be persuasive. Positions are argued, ideological positions are compared and contrasted, and policies are advocated or critiqued. Of course, in scholarly discourse, such arguments go beyond editorial essays. In academic criminal justice, well-documented arguments are preferred, evidenced by many citations in the text.

Criminal justice is highly political in nature. Some courses emphasize the distinction between "political" reality and "actual" reality; this is relevant to some writing assignments. This may be illustrated by students in their writing by their comprehension of comparative ideologies: conservative, liberal, libertarian, postmodern, etc. Students should understand that academic criminal justice sometimes or often (depending on who is asked) contradicts materials written by career practitioners in the field. Indeed, much of this discrepancy has to do with disparities in ideology and level of analysis (macro versus micro).

Finally, empirical or statistical research constitutes a significant segment of the field. If the paper deals with this type of research, then the student must show an understanding of research methods and design: probability theory, sampling, reliability and validity, data presentation/tabulation, computer-based data analysis, and clear expression of findings. Most undergraduate assignments will not require students to actually perform these functions. However, some advanced assignments may require them to have some appreciation and understanding of these topics.

Appropriate Types of Evidence & Support

Criminal Justice uses books, anthologies, textbooks, monographs, journal articles, government documents, web sites, appellate cases, statutes, legislative histories, constitutions, treaties, news media, administrative rules/regulations, statistical reports, and public intra-agency communications/memoranda.

The field is inter-disciplinary in that it draws from the social sciences (sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, and geography), history, philosophy, theology, statistics, and biology. It also derives much of its material from law and its variations (legal realism, sociology of law, and legal historiographies). Published sources in all these areas may constitute "documentation" in criminal justice and may be useful in research papers.

It is important for students to recognize in their writing the distinction between criminal justice (government definitions, perspectives, and responses to crime) and criminology (theories of causation). Students must also be cognizant of the differences between general public policies and specific agency practices (macro and micro). Moreover, there should be an understanding of connections (or lack of connections, as the case may be) between theory, research, policy, and practice. Note these differences:

  • Criminal Justice: Administration and leadership, human relations, policy, practice, official decision points
  • Criminology: Causal theories, researched-based correlations on explanations of crime, incidence of crime, and typologies of offenders
  • Law: Substantive and procedural, administrative, statutory, court-made or appellate decisions
  • Research Methods: Qualitative and quantitative.

Citation Conventions

APA and MLA citation and bibliographic styles are common in the field. The Uniform System of Citation (Blue Book) style is common for legal materials and assignments.

Special Comments

Whenever the professor offers the opportunity to hand in an outline and summary of the assignment before the final product is due, students should take advantage of such feedback.

To write effectively in CJ,

  • Work from outlines.
  • Divide the paper into segments with subtitles.
  • Establish a core contention or thesis that remains constant through the paper.
  • Avoid redundancy in terms of both word usage and substance (with the exception of the introduction and conclusion).
  • Demonstrate that an enormous amount of research was done to support the contentions in the paper (extensive documentation and a large, diverse bibliography); the more controversial the statement, the more strong documentation is required.
  • Make sure the conclusion is closely tied to the content in the body of the paper.
  • Avoid stringing verbatim quotations together; instead, paraphrase whenever possible with documentation.
  • Avoid quoting long lists of items in a short paper; again, paraphrase and cite.
  • Have some competent person read your paper and provide feedback on coherence and clarity.

References and Resources

There are prepared lists of criminal justice sources. The department recommends Robert O'Block, Criminal Justice Research Sources. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishers.


Faculty Perspectives 
on Writing:

Carol Zimmerman

Writing for Power and Credibility

My Journey to Becoming A Better Writer

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