Which Tense Should I Use In My Reports?

Every company and agency has its requirements for its investigative reports, but there are a few general rules investigators should follow. While most of these are straightforward, one easy practice seems to elude the best of us: Using past tense when writing a report.

Investigators, and their chain of command, want reports to be accurate. This quest for accuracy can lure investigators into writing reports that include past, present, and future tenses. We do this because we want to convey a specific meaning to something we address in our report.

For example, if someone took money from a cash register once in the past, we will write that the subject "took money from the cash register." But, if the subject took money from a cash register several times in the past, we might be tempted to write "the subject had been taking money from the register."

As we write the report, we tend to switch back and forth from past to present, back to past participle, and then forward to the future and back to the present. The whole timeline gets muddled and quickly becomes confusing for the reader.

There are a few problems with writing a report this way.

  1. The reader has limited knowledge about most of the things in the investigation. Consequently, the changes in verb tenses do very little to bring context to the overall timeline of the events captured in the report. The changes in verb tense do not give the reader a clearer picture of the investigation.
  2. If you do any writing at all, from in-depth reports to general emails, then you know all writers make mistakes. Our agency reports go through at least two tiers of detailed report reviews and editing before they get finalized. If an investigator uses several tenses in their report, then they might use the wrong tense, as a matter of error, throughout the piece. Likely, the investigator's error will not be caught in reviews, as the reviewers will not have the ability to detect the mistakes in a long and detailed timeline.
  3. Using various tenses inevitably leads to using "has been going" instead of "went" or "had already been trying to leave" instead of "tried to leave." You get the point. The sentences start getting wordier, and the extra verbiage makes the report more confusing, the exact thing the report writer was trying to avoid by using various verb tenses in the first place.

There are always exceptions to the rule, such as documenting certain events a person tells you will happen in the future. Since the event has not yet happened, it makes sense that we cannot use a past tense verb to express this. But, as a rule of thumb, use simple past tense verbs in 95 percent of your report.

Making this one change in your report writing will make your reports more accurate, clear, and concise. And since most of the reports we write will be referenced at a future date, sticking with the past tense will sound more natural to a reader than the writer.

Stick to your guns and use past tense when documenting your investigation.

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