Webinar presenter Natasha Terk answered a number of your questions after her presentation, "Report Writing for Justice Professionals: How to Write Complex, Multisection Documents for Mixed Audiences." Here are some of her responses.
Audience Question: How do you balance what you share in writing when you have multiple audiences coming from different perspectives? For example, I might be writing an incident report for my sergeant, that note is going to be used by a prosecutor for charging decisions and a defense attorney to try and acquit their client?
Natasha Terk: That is the ultimate challenge. I work with lots of government agencies, and this is not unique, writers struggle with that all the time. If it's impossible to create different versions of that document, which I assume will be impossible, you need to be writing for multiple audiences. That might mean creating a supplementary document for one particular audience so maybe there's a glossary, appendix, map or chart that follows the narrative that gives more detail for that one audience that needs that other detail. Otherwise, you'll need to include all the information that all of your multiple audiences need. That makes it more difficult. It's not impossible but it absolutely makes it challenging because there is a different level of information. You have to complete, you need to meet your audience's needs and do it strategically so that all their questions are answered.
That's where you might get into more sections too. That's something that we've always worked on with CPUC which was creating sections with very clear headings so that if the readers see that section and know that section isn't relevant to them, they can skip over it. It's like giving them permission to skim which is welcome when you have a lot to read yourself.
Audience Question: Is it okay to use the words 'as per'? For example, "as per John Doe, do not print the documents?"
Natasha Terk: I think that that's a word that's been taken from a legal document. I say this all the time, if you're not trained as a lawyer and/or working in a legal capacity, we don't need to use legal language. What we need to use is specific language. I think the 'as per' is a way of referencing a particular document, so you can say 'as cited in this example', or 'as you will find in this document'. But the actual wording 'as per', is a little bit dated and specific to legal use. Focus on what you're trying to do, you're trying to link what you're saying to something specific, so just use everyday words to do that.
Audience Question: When writing police reports you cannot write for different audiences. It is a public record and it cannot be written for an 'audience'. It needs to not have personal inclusions.
Natasha Terk: The piece about not having personal opinions, as I've covered in the webinar, these reports are not about your opinions or your assumptions, they're about the facts. I was trying to answer a question around the audience. You're the only one who knows who your audience is and what they need. I can't tell you which information to include to meet those audiences' needs. You have to do that careful interplay between which information goes to this audience and which goes to this and how do you meet both of their needs in one document. If there's sensitive information that only one audience can see, well, clearly you need to have two different separate documents. Sensitive information shouldn't be shared outside of the intended audience. It is tricky and you have to ask yourself clearly what's the best way to share information with multiple audiences.
And is it appropriate? Often, organizations struggle because they have one document that is supposed to do too many things. That is a process issue. Some of those problems are intractable but becoming aware of them can help at least. But don't share information that's sensitive to people who shouldn't have it. Absolutely agreed.
Audience Question: Is it acceptable to use contractions in a professional report?
Natasha Terk: It's 2018. In a lot of cases, it is inappropriate. But all roads lead back to your audience. When I work in Asia, there were a lot of issues that I considered around my audience that I don't consider working here in the US. You need to understand who your audience is, and their culture. I do a lot of work with helping folks communicate up, into senior management, in whatever organization they're in. Sometimes, they forget that complete sentences are essential because when they're communicating with their peers, maybe that's not essential. You have to understand your audience, do you need to use a salutation like Dear Mr., or Mrs., or Dr. so-and-so. That's about understanding your audience. It all starts there. Contractions, it depends how formal the audience is, and who's the intended audience and secondary audience. If you're unsure, don't use the contraction. But in every day back and forth communication and in lots of reports, it's absolutely pervasive and acceptable.
Audience Question: Can you talk about the correct use of well versus good.
Natasha Terk: I would need to refresh myself on that one and I'd have to see it in context. "I've done that very well, thank you." I certainly wouldn't say, "I've done that very good." But I need the context for that. I'm not sure if there's a universal answer without seeing the context or a refresher myself. I'd love to get back to you on that one.
Audience Question: Can you talk about the appropriate time when to use a colon and how you should handle capitalization?
Natasha Terk: I have shown an example of the colon and the capital letter that follows the colon. That is in fact, appropriate. A colon is an introduction so let's say you're introducing a list, same rules apply. You would have a colon as an introductory statement there. The following narrative starts with a capital letter. I think that's your question but again, remember, in a list, you have introductory statements and all of your bulleted items start with capital letters.
Audience Question: Do you have recommendations for font type and size for bodies and headings and whether they should differ for print vs. electronic reports?
Natasha Terk: In theory, your organization should have established that. I think that most people prefer 11 or 12 point font, headings that are either larger or are in bold. I don't think that there's a universally preferred font. Again, it's really difficult for employees or staff inside an organization when there is no template, or format, or style guide. So I would say go to your, maybe there's a communications person in your organization or somebody who's in charge of HR. Or go up to whoever has authority over that and have them establish some baseline expectations for how you should communicate in your organization. The organizations that have a style guide communicate a lot more effectively than those that don't. You can look online for how to create a style guide. We do offer that service but it's something you can absolutely do yourself. It will just take one meeting where you establish some basic parameters.
I just worked with the city of San Francisco on 'how do we spell certain things, names of certain transportation devices…', other constructs like that. If you can quell some of the common language debates, you're going to save a lot of time and aggravation.
Audience Question: Is there a preference for using first person vs. third person? As an example, 'I did xyz…' versus 'Officer Jones did xyz…"
Natasha Terk: I'm so glad you mentioned that. That was a point I wanted to mention too. Use first person. If you are writing a report about your observations, use first person. 'I walked to the car'. That's my position A and also what I read in a report manual from your own industry. I can't think of a situation when you couldn't use the 'I'. You are the report writer so you should be using your own intelligence and experience, fact-based observations in the first person, I.
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