A Pink Balloon

On July 21, Chicago police were called to Lake Michigan because someone in a boat complained that he’d been hit in the chest by a pink water balloon. The man who’d been hit was transferred to a medical center for treatment.

You can read the police report at this link. It’s thorough and objective – but it’s also written according to outdated report writing principles.

One immediate problem is that there are only seven periods in a report that’s 191 words long. That means each sentence averages 27 words – far too long.

Here’s one of those overlong sentences. It’s 39 words long:

UPON ARRIVAL R/OS SPOKE WITH LISTED VICTIM WHO STATED HE WAS HIT WITH A WATER BALLOON BY AN OCCUPANT ON A VESSEL CALLED [REDACTED] VICTIM COULD NOT POSITIVELY IDENTIFY WHO EXACTLY LAUNCHED THE BALLOON THAT STUCK HIM IN THE CHEST.

Another issue is that unwanted words and awkward expressions crept in. (I’ll discuss some of them in a moment.)

Part of the problem is that busy police officers don’t have time for elegant, carefully crafted sentences. But with practice, any writer can start making gradual improvements that – over time – add up.

Let’s try it with the example I gave you.

  • Delete “upon arrival.”
  • Don’t say that you spoke with the victim. If he told you something, obviously you were there, and the two of you were talking. (That’s what cops do!)
  • Just call him a victim. “Listed victim” doesn’t add anything useful.
  • The report says the victim couldn’t positively identify “who exactly launched the balloon.” There’s no difference between “launched the balloon” and “exactly launched the balloon.” Getting rid of unnecessary words makes your writing more efficient and professional. It’s an important habit to develop, especially if you’re hoping for a promotion later on.
  • Call it a boat, not a vessel. Be as specific as you can.
  • The balloon struck (not stuck) the victim.
  • And – of course – you need periods.

Here’s an improved version of the sentence:

THE VICTIM SAID HE WAS HIT WITH A WATER BALLOON BY AN OCCUPANT ON A BOAT CALLED [REDACTED]. THE VICTIM COULD NOT POSITIVELY IDENTIFY WHO LAUNCHED THE BALLOON THAT STUCK HIM IN THE CHEST.

But let’s make it really professional. Here’s my preferred version:

THE VICTIM SAID SOMEONE IN A BOAT CALLED [REDACTED] HIT HIM IN THE CHEST WITH A WATER BALLOON.  THE VICTIM COULDN’T IDENTIFY THE PERSON WHO LAUNCHED THE BALLOON.

The new version is 30 words long – and has every bit of information that was in the 38-word version. It’s almost 30% shorter.

Think about all the reports you write in a year. Suppose you could make each report 30% shorter – without losing any information. Think of the time you’d save! And your reports would sound more professional.

Then consider the time you’d save your supervisor, the district attorney, the defense attorney, and everyone else who might read a report.

Many officers dislike report writing. It’s one of the downsides of an exciting and rewarding career. But there’s an upside as well. You get more writing practice than most professionals in other fields. That means every shift gives you an opportunity to improve your writing skills.

You don’t have to try to be an Ernest Hemingway. (But what a crisp, efficient writer he was!) Start slowly. Make one improvement in each report. Eliminate one piece of jargon. Change one sentence to active voice.

Over time, the improvement in your writing will astonish you. And – trust me – the people who read your reports will notice too…and be impressed.

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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

 

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