Writing, and writing well, has always been important to me important to me. Since 1978, my first year as a security officer, I’ve written hundreds of incident reports. Over the years, of course, I’ve established concrete beliefs on what should, and should not be,included in a report.
One of my beliefs is that your officers are given a writing stylebook – one that provides feedback, direction and reference resources – so they can produce incident reports that are always sound, thorough and informative. And best of all? No matter who is reviewing a report – a fellow officer, a manager, a lawyer – by using the stylebook during the writing process, reports will be genuine, free of clutter and painless to read.
Besides a dictionary, your department should acquire the following three resources.
1.) The Associated Press Stylebook.The AP Stylebook, used by both students and professional writers, is the definitive resource for all questions regarding grammar, capitalization, punctuation, proper names and titles, abbreviations, and much more. If you want your officers to produce quality reports, have them refer to the AP Stylebook.
2.) Thesaurus.I have fun using a thesaurus. First, I’ll carefully review my incident report. Then, I’ll pick a word and look it up. My goal is to find an alternate word that achieves clarity and simplicity – and also avoids redundancy.
3.) “The Elements of Style.”The book, which I’ve reread countless times, is simple to read, comprehend and apply. And although it may be a little book – it teaches a big lesson about writing with brevity. Readers will quickly learn to write reports that eliminate unnecessary words and phrases.
Next, your department needs to answer several important questions.
4.) First Person or Third Person?The timeless question; the eternal argument. Naturally, after decades of writing incident reports, I have a preference. And though I can, and do, write in both first and third person, I prefer writing in first person. However, as a department, please make your own decision. But do make a decision. Years ago I worked for a department, which I nicknamed “The Wild West,” that allowed officers to write in whatever style they wanted – which led to absolute chaos. Most officers wrote in both first and third person – usually in the same report. By deciding on one style or the other, your department will unify officers and eliminate needless confusion.
5.) Ranks and Titles.Again, your department should make a decision about ranks and titles – and stick to it. One department I worked for played it smart – by placing a simple, one page chart over the computer used by officers writing incident reports. The chart was straightforward and clearly stated how ranks and titles were expected to be written. No guess work. Truly, officers appreciated the guidance and support.
6.) Second Reference.This is where report writing gets interesting. Long ago I worked with an officer who, in his reports, would repeatedly refer to himself by his rank – sergeant. That is, over and over again, perhaps 10 times per report, he spelled out the word sergeant. As a reader, it drove me crazy. I would ask him why, on second reference, he couldn’t just write Sgt. He wouldn’t budge. But I didn’t blame him for the mind numbing repetition – I blamed our department. Again, using the one page chart as an example, a department states what report writers are expected to write upon second reference, third reference, and so forth. That basic, easy-to-read chart – battered, frayed and held up by a rusty staple – was a gift from heaven.
7.) Incident Report Writing Committee. Select a committee, perhaps consisting of three officers, that reviews all incident reports. Navigate this process carefully. The committee should have one basic, positive goal: supporting officers so they can write quality reports. Also, it’s important that all officers eventually participate as a committee member. Once an officer begins to read and review dozens of reports, they’ll soon see what does and doesn’t work. Participating as a committee member will be an eye opening, educational experience.
8.) Notes.Encourage your officers to develop thorough note taking skills. Good notes, of course, lead to reliable incident reports. Long ago I learned my note writing skills while serving in the Army National Guard. During part of my service, I worked in the Public Affairs Office – often writing articles about fellow soldiers. My boss, a Lieutenant, worked a day job as an editor for The Associated Press. He was unrelenting when it came to note taking. And he was right in believing that thorough note taking was the cornerstone to writing credible incident reports.
9.) Make Your Report Attractive.It’s vital to me that my incident reports are robust, inviting and visually appealing. That is, I don’t shove the entire report into one big, ugly, confusing paragraph. My incident reports are laid out so they are easy to read and understand. At a minimum, I write three paragraphs – the beginning, middle and end. I want readers to know, with absolute certainty, what happened during an incident. It’s the ultimate compliment when a fellow officer comes up to me and tells me about an incident, in detail – perhaps not realizing they got that information after reading my report.
Even after decades of writing incident reports, the writing process is still never easy. Some days, reports fly off of the computer. On other days, it’s a battle to find the right word or sentence. Further, sound, factual report writing takes time – which isn’t also available when you have a busy shift. However, I’ve found that if I step back, focus, and then apply my training and experience – along with available resources – the process of creating a professional incident report becomes less of a burden and more of a positive and productive experience.