Writing Guide

Effective communication is vital no matter what you study, including criminal justice. In fact, law enforcement officers do far more writing than many people think. Criminal justice report writing plays a central role in the field. Cops write arrest, crime, incident, and evidence reports, and they compose social media posts, community outreach posters, and internal memos. Like everyone else, they also communicate using electronic correspondence, including emails and texts.

Because of the authoritative nature of police work, law enforcement communications must use clear, concise, and articulate language.

Because of the authoritative nature of police work, law enforcement communications must use clear, concise, and articulate language. These documents might appear in trials or be used to obtain warrants, making accuracy and clarity absolutely essential. Good communication skills can also lead to promotion opportunities.

Writing skills are just as important in other criminal justice professions, including teaching, law, forensics, and emergency management. Criminologists write studies and research papers, teachers pen several types of documents, and emergency management professionals compose community reports and preparation studies. Likewise, lawyers write countless communications, and forensic experts prepare reports on their findings. Anyone who wants to continue on to a master’s, too, benefits from effective writing skills.

Types of Writing Criminal Justice Students Will Do in School

Personal Statements

Many colleges require applicants to write a personal statement. These short essays reveal the goals and intentions of students and can improve your odds of getting accepted into a preferred school. Admissions staff can quickly tell how well a student writes, how much effort they put into their statement, and whether they can answer simple questions. They can also compare an applicant’s ambition and imagination with their peers.

Many students find that writing about their own experiences, especially as they relate to their educational aspirations, leads to a successful essay. Criminal justice students, for example, could write about how volunteering with young, at-risk kids opened their eyes to the ways some children fall into a life of crime. Others write about how reading the police blotter in their small town inspired them to invent a solution to a common problem. Keep in mind that college counselors read thousands of these essays, and carefully think about why they should choose you over others. Think about the average applicant and consider what sets you apart. Put some time into your essay. Write an outline in which you lay out your points. Proofread what you write and consider getting professional help prior to submission.

Colleges look for statements that reveal the character of an individual. According to a survey of admissions counselors by the Guardian, they appreciate honesty, simplicity, introspection, and direct and confident language. They do now, however like punctuation errors, waffling, or overblown language. If admissions lists the personal statement as optional, make sure to set yourself apart by writing one.


Criminal justice programs often use long-form essay questions on exams. These writing prompts ask students to compose essays on topics discussed in class. Students must create thoughtful and clear answers using points of evidence along the way — showing that they understand the material. Students often do not get the questions ahead of time, which means they must not only study for the exam but answer on the spot.

Students must create thoughtful and clear answers using points of evidence along the way — showing that they understand the material.

Students can make essay questions must easier by taking simple steps. First, make sure you read the question closely and understand it’s requirements. Jot down a one- or two-sentence thesis that answers it. Afterward, compose a brief outline, sketching out your three main points and making sure that they address the question clearly. Fill in each point with a few pieces of evidence. This will keep you focused as you write.

Reread the essay after completing it. While editing, look for grammatical or thematic errors, keeping the specifics of the question in mind as you read. Your first draft will almost always have mistakes, so make sure you leave enough time to proofread!

Research Papers

At some point, almost every college student needs to write a research paper. These long-form reports generally require you to thoroughly explore a topic, investigating it from a variety of angles and writing about your findings. Research papers share similarities with essays, and some can take the form of an essay. However, research papers differ in that they typically involve articulating someone else’s point of view. The thesis of an essay tends to take a personal note and is chosen beforehand, but a research paper presents the end result of the exploration, analysis, and evaluation of an idea or theme. The Purdue Online Writing Lab suggests that you think of a research paper as a living document that will grow and change as you interpret your data.

A good research paper begins with the selection of a topic. People list differing ideas about how to write a criminal justice research paper, but there is no shortage of topics. Ideas could include the relationship between mental health and crime or drugs and recidivism. You might look at the ethics of mass incarceration or study police brutality. Your paper could investigate whether data-driven policing serves as another form of profiling or explore changes to the Fourth Amendment in law enforcement.

Once you decide on a main idea, you need to research several primary and secondary sources. After thoroughly investigating your topic, draw an outline, laying out your primary points logically. A research paper usually has an introduction, a review or discussion of methodology, a section on results, and conclusions you can draw from the research. At the end, list your sources and references. After writing the outline, compose the first draft. Write thoughts as they come within each section, knowing that you can go back and edit for clarity and simplicity later. Make sure you present sound arguments and qualitative research. Many people find it easier to write the introduction after writing the body of the paper.

How Do You Write an Essay?

Like other forms of writing, essays come in several forms. Most students, for example, write a personal essay for their college application and later write persuasive essays in their classes. Professors might ask for narrative essays or comparative ones, or any of the types below — each of which requires a different way of thinking and writing.

Citations Guide for Criminal Justice Students

Students should cite the works that they use in their papers. Citing shows the reader that you’ve done your research, and gives them the tools to check your facts. It demonstrates that you used sources knowingly and acknowledge the work you reference. Not only do colleges require this of students, but students themselves can immunize themselves from plagiarism through citation.

Plagiarism, whether intentional or not, puts an ugly stain on one’s academic career. It can lead to probationary status or even expulsion, and it can make getting into another school difficult. It’s your duty to know where your information comes from and to make sure you cite your work properly.

American Psychological Association (APA) Style

A group of psychologists, anthropologists, and business leaders designed the APA style in 1929. They wanted to set clear and straightforward standards for scientific writing so that academic writers used the same format. Everyone would cite things the same way, using common punctuation, numeration, tables, and figures.

APA style caters to fields like psychology, nursing, and business. Many in criminology and sociology also use APA style. For citations, APA differs slightly from other major styles, such as MLA. For example, when referencing an author, MLA uses last name and first name (e.g. Mayo, Matthew), where APA uses last name and first initial (e.g. Mayo, M.).


The in-text citation looks like this: (Mayo, 2017, p. 90.). Always place the in-text citation after the last word of the sentence but before the final punctuation mark. The reference list at the end of the paper includes the full citation: Mayo, M. (2017). Stranded–A Story of Frontier Survival. Waterville, ME: Five Star Publishing.

Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)

The Chicago Manual of Style dates back to 1891 and the founding of the University of Chicago Press. Typesetters and editors at the publisher created a style sheet, which they distributed to their professors and authors. By standardizing the manuscripts coming in, they could simplify the cumbersome typesetting process. The style sheet became a pamphlet and grew into a book, now in its seventeenth edition.

Business, history, and fine arts departments typically use Chicago style. Many publishers also use this style. Chicago style cites things differently than APA, employing footnotes and often including a bibliography at the end of the publication.


In the text, you place a numerical footnote number after the reference. The bibliography at the end of the paper includes the full citation: Matthew P. Mayo, Stranded–A Story of Frontier Survival. (Waterville, ME: Five Star Publishing, 2017), 90.

Modern Language Association (MLA) Format

The Modern Language Association (MLA) created its style specifically for academic writing. Language studies, comparative literature, English, and media and cultural studies typically use MLA style. The MLA presents its guidelines and standards in its MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.

Like with APA style, in MLA writers cite the author and source in parentheses within the text after each reference and collects the full citations at the end of the paper in a “Works Cited” section.


The in-text citation should look like this: (Mayo 90). The reference list at the end of the paper includes the full citation: Mayo, Matthew, P. Stranded–A Story of Frontier Survival. Five Star Publishing, 2017.

Associated Press (AP) Style

As its name suggests, the Associated Press style serves as the standard formatting guideline used by the Associated Press. Journalism and the media typically use this style, although some publications, like the New York Times, set their own standards.

AP style aims for brevity, simplicity, and accuracy, and, as such, reflects a more modern style. It allows for abbreviations, for example, more often than other styles, and tends to adopt new words and phrases at a faster pace. Because of its journalistic roots, AP style handles citations differently than the other, more academic styles. It does not use bibliographies, choosing instead to reference everything within the text.


In AP style you would simply write in the text: In Matthew P. Mayo’s novel “Stranded: A Story of Frontier Survival,” the young protagonist, etc. . .

What Writing Style Is Used in Criminal Justice

Because criminal justice falls under the broader heading of the social sciences, ALA style is probably the most commonly used style in the field. Some schools make it a point to teach criminal justice students ALA style. Utica College’s law enforcement program, for example, states that it requires students to use the ALA. You should check with your professor to find out the style he or she prefers and use that as your criminal justice report writing guide.

Common Writing Mistakes Students Make

Active Vs. Passive Voice

College students often make the mistake of writing in the passive voice. Passive sentences avoid direct writing and use more words, often muddling the syntax. Using the active voice removes excess verbiage and projects more authority.

How do you tell the difference? In a passive sentence, the subject receives the action. For example: “the sentence was written by the author” or “the girl was scratched by the cat.” In an active sentence the subject performs the action. For example: “The author wrote the sentence” and “the cat scratched the girl.” Be careful when using “by” or “be” constructions in your work. These often lead to passive sentences. Several helpful online apps detect passive voice, making it easy to correct.


Punctuation errors occur in any form of writing. They can completely change the meaning of a sentence when used incorrectly. For example, a film director saying, “let’s shoot people” means something different than “let’s shoot, people.”

Most people struggle with comma usage, employing too many, too few, or splicing them. A comma splice occurs when you connect two independent phrases with a comma. Students also often use semicolons when they should use colons. Semicolons indicate a pause between two independent clauses that communicates a related idea. Colons mark a hard stop, indicating a list, quotation, or the expansion of an idea.

Students should review punctuation rules using a style guide or by visiting the myriad online sites focused on punctuation rules.


Even the best writers make grammar mistakes. Writers get in mental spaces that sometimes block them from looking at their own work objectively. Writers using the wrong word occurs more often than some might think. The English language’s homonyms — words that sound the same — often lead to writers using the wrong word. The most common mistakes are mixing up” two, too, and to” and “their, there, and they’re.”

Other frequent slips include using “its” when you want the possessive “it is,” or using “which” when you mean “witch.” Still other writers slip in and out of different tenses. You can correct all of these problems by carefully editing your work and using one of the many writing guides available, like those mentioned below.

Writing Resources for Criminal Justice Students

  • The Elements of Style Written by William Strunk and E.B. White, many consider this short volume the Bible of college composition. Concise, inexpensive, and available at bookstores everywhere, it features everything you need to know to improve your writing for classes in criminal justice — or anything else.
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab Hosted by Purdue University, “OWL” features more than 200 free writing resources, including formatting guides, tips for avoiding plagiarism, grammar help, vidcasts on writing, citation how-tos, and tutoring.
  • Amherst College Writing Center Amherst hosts a website replete with resources for writers. Broken down by subject, the school’s online tools include help with outlining, revision, editing, common problems, effective rhetoric, and writing in specific genres.
  • Bestcolleges.com’s Writing Guide for Undergrads This site includes an array of writing tips and links to helpful guides. It features assistance with grammar, research papers, essays, and citation.
  • Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing Written by podcast star Mignon Fogarty, aka the Grammar Girl, this New York Times bestseller offers tips for improving communication. These include not only useful grammar ideas but also style guides, word-choice help, and ways to avoid common writing mistakes.