Focus on Written Communications
Effective Professional Writing
By Jean Reynolds, Ph.D.
What constitutes effective criminal justice writing? Correct spelling, punctuation, and usage certainly top the list. It is much harder to describe appropriate sentence patterns, vocabulary, tone, and style. Many law enforcement professionals think back to their English classes in high school and college when they try to define the form. They remember assignments with minimum word counts (often 250, 500, or even 1,000 words), plus requirements for elaborate sentences, complex syntax, and a sophisticated vocabulary.
Those long-ago instructions often continue to shape current practices, but academic assignments differ from workplace communications. What works in a classroom may not transfer to a police department. Unlike school projects, which aim to impress a teacher, professional writing has a concrete objective. Writers must adjust their style, sentence structure, and word choice to the situation at hand. For example, an article about a recent court case should be more formal than a retirement announcement, which calls for a human touch.
Perhaps an example offers the best opportunity to explore these principles. Chief Parnell, wanting to build a stronger relationship with the community, decides to host an open house and sends out this invitation:
Having established a goal to build a stronger connection to the local community, Chief Parnell has scheduled an open house at the Smithville Police Department for Sunday afternoon, February 17, from 1 to 4 p.m. Refreshments will be served, and agency personnel will be available to answer questions. Tours will be offered. Children may accompany their parents to this event. If there is sufficient interest, the open house will become an annual event.
Does this invitation meet the requirements for effective writing? Not quite. It does include all the facts citizens need about the open house, but Chief Parnell is trying to reach out to the community, and the invitation ignores that purpose. There is no you anywhere—no welcome and no warmth. The chief has missed a wonderful opportunity to showcase interest in community members, their thoughts, and their concerns.
In contrast, the writing in this invitation matches the function of the open house:
You are invited to a community open house at the Smithville Police Department on Sunday afternoon, February 17, from 1 to 4 p.m. Please come for refreshments, tours, and a chance to talk with the men and women who protect and serve you. Be sure to bring your children to enjoy the special activities we have planned for them.
The revised invitation is shorter than the original, and the message is more direct. Efficiency is important in any busy workplace; no one wants to waste time struggling with excessive verbiage and clumsy syntax.
A common-sense approach sometimes clashes with the desire to sound smart to a supervisor—as much in the criminal justice field as any other workplace. It is not unusual to read a police report that sounds as if a novelist wrote it: “As I was driving behind Clarkson and observing him, he pulled over onto the shoulder. Upon seeing this, I followed Clarkson and parked my vehicle behind his with the intention of investigating what had happened.” It would be more useful to write a sentence like this: “When Clarkson pulled over onto the shoulder, I parked my vehicle behind his.” Attempts to impress cause many police reports to be twice as long as necessary.
“The quest for showy language results in clumsy writing that distracts and detracts from its message and purpose.”
Vocabulary choices present a particular challenge in professional writing. Many people mistakenly believe it is wrong to use said, but, is, are, do, go, and other small, everyday words. The quest for showy language results in clumsy writing that distracts and detracts from its message and purpose. “The mayor said she was worried about the budget cuts” becomes “The mayor expressed that she was worried about the budget cuts.” Likewise, “Speeding cars are a problem on Friday and Saturday nights” turns into “Speeding cars happen on Friday and Saturday nights, causing a problem.” No one uses syntax like expressed that or cars happen in normal speech and writing, but these odd constructions begin appearing when employees are unsure what quality workplace writing looks like.
One remedy is to develop an interest in the practices of successful authors. Thoughtful attention to books, magazines, and newspapers can help inexperienced writers learn which practices work and which to avoid. A helpful exercise in writing workshops is for participants to count the number of times that said, is, or but appears on a newspaper page. When the number reaches 50 or 60, the group realizes there is no need to search for fancier words. Similarly, they might examine articles by skilled writers who have won Pulitzer Prizes or analyze past presidential addresses. The students discover that even the best writers prefer plain language. Confidence grows as they learn to trust their natural instincts about words, sentences, and other writing decisions.
The good news is that there is no need to abandon normal communication habits when picking up a pen or sitting down at a computer keyboard. A bulletin explaining a new piece of legislation automatically suggests legal terminology and carefully nuanced sentences, while an announcement about a stress-reduction workshop will evoke personal experience and a human voice. If a sentence or paragraph does not seem quite right, it takes only a few minutes to ask a coworker, friend, or family member for feedback. Better writing is right at all professionals’ fingertips, if only they adopt common-sense guidelines for the writing tasks they tackle on the job every day.
“The good news is that there is no need to abandon normal communication habits when picking up a pen or sitting down at a computer keyboard.”
Dr. Reynolds, an author and retired professor, manages a website on writing police reports. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.