How to Master Report Writing
Whenever anyone talks about report writing, images of my academy class and the boring report writing segment always comes to mind. What I didn't know then, but know now, is just how important report writing really is.
As first responders, we consistently spend more time writing reports than on any other single task in law enforcement. The only thing that beats it is probably driving around patrolling our zones. And yet, beyond the academy, we get very little training in writing, period. We are just supposed to fumble through and learn other aspects of technical writing on our own. Because of this, we need to find a way of writing reports that will serve us well throughout our entire career.
As a report writing instructor, I am motivated by a school seal that belongs to the Philips Academy, better known as Andover. Andover is a prep school that was established during the American Revolution and is one of the oldest boarding schools in the country. The school seal was crafted by Paul Revere and includes the Latin phrase, "Finis Origine Pendet," which translates to the end depends on the beginning. The beginning is the focus of this commentary and it will cover the process of report writing.
Question of Style
We tend to write police reports for economy. "Detailed yet concise" becomes the battle cry for supervisors and at the same time creates a nexus for officers. In reality we write quickly so we can get to the next call only to write again. It's a convoluted method that demands a great deal but also tends to ignore some of the more technical aspects of writing. There is a middle ground, however, where technical writing and economy can meet to serve the greater good.
Experienced instructors know they can't teach report writing. By the time people come into law enforcement they either know how to write or they don't. You can't cram 12 years of school into a 40-hour block of instruction no matter how good you are. But what instructors can teach is a particular style of writing.
Style becomes the structure that helps form a quality report. If you focus elsewhere, and replace it with something more restrictive like an outline, then you miss the point altogether. For example, an outline is too rigid. It restricts your ability to maneuver. Combining elements or sections becomes more difficult. If you have ever worked a busy shift where your reports start to stack up, you understand the need to write in as tight a package as possible.
The problem is it's very hard to write concisely. Thomas Jefferson allegedly wrote a friend once and advised he was sorry for the length of his letter, as he did not have time to write a short one. You no doubt know this to be true from experience. We therefore have to strike a balance between writing a novel like "War and Peace" and Dave Smith persona Buck Savage's infamous short report "Saw drunk arrested same."
We write to inform, not to impress. The first step involves using the journalistic approach. You need to answer who, what, when, where, why, and how. It sounds counterintuitive, but it's where police officers fail the most. And it's not because we don't have the information but because we haven't organized the information we do have to our advantage.
A highly effective report writing structure goes like this: how the officer got the call, what the complainant/witness/victim said, what the officer observed, and what the officer did. Adhering to this structure allows any first responder to tackle any initial investigation with ease.