Easy Strategies for Effective Sentences

Many police officers find report writing a frustrating task–and not just because reports take up so much of their time. A big complaint is that the final result is so unsatisfactory (a problem echoed by their supervisors).

Why do so many intelligent men and women have difficulty with report writing, and what can be done about it?

One easy strategy for effective sentences is to simplify the sentence structure: Start every sentence with a person, place, or thing, and insert a period when you come to the end.

To put it another way: Many officers are much better writers than they (or their supervisors) think. Problems arise when a tired officer coming off a stressful shift tries to write the kinds of elaborate sentences that are best left to novelists.

Here’s an example:

Four CDs were recovered from the defendant, which he had conceal those items by stuffing them inside his jacket. SYNTAX PROBLEMS

Problems abound here: the -ed ending is missing from “conceal,” the which clause is awkward and misplaced (it should come right after “Four CDs”), and the report doesn’t state who took the CDs away from the defendant–an omission that could cause problems later, if the case goes to court.

Recommendation: Write shorter sentences, and start each one with a person, place, or thing. (In a police report, it’s usually best to start with a person.)

When we follow this advice, we come up with something like this:

I recovered four CDs from Johnson. He had stuffed the CDs inside his shirt. PROFESSIONAL SENTENCES

Simple, elegant, and–most important–efficient.

Officers sometimes object that writing “I” and using names violates objectivity. Not true. A dishonest person can write “this officer” and “the defendant” just as easily as an honest person.

Read the sentences below. Can you tell which one was written by a dishonest officer?

I looked through the open door and saw a man with his hands around a woman’s neck.

This officer proceeded to observe the scene through the open door, noticing said victim was standing there with the hands of said defendant around her neck.

Of course you can’t. Honesty, integrity, and professionalism are the result of a personal commitment. They can’t be attained through verbal tricks. (And did you notice that the second version took longer to read? That could be an issue if you’re preparing for a court hearing.)

Here are some simple principles that can make you a more efficient and effective report writer:

1. Start each sentence with a person, place, or thing. (In most reports, you’ll be writing about people.)

2. Use timesaving words like I, me, and the names of suspects and witnesses.

3. In general, put only one fact into each sentence.

4. End each sentence with a period.

Those four principles can help you avoid a host of syntax problems and tangled sentences. Other benefits are less time spent writing reports (and, if your supervisor is a stickler, rewriting them). Most important, you’ll have the satisfaction of writing like a true professional.

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including “Police Talk” (Pearson), cowritten with the late Mary Mariani. Go to http://amzn.com/0578082942 for information about her book “The Criminal Justice Guide to Report Writing for Officers.”

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