If you’ve ever attended a writing class, then you know it’s essential to know your audience. Investigators have many skills, but one of the most important is writing reports and writing them well.
It can be challenging for the front-line investigator to know their audience. Several people will read the report in my agency, some of which have to approve it before closing the case. Are these approvers our audience?
When one of our cases is closed, the report will have likely been reviewed several times by the person who wrote the report, a team leader who can offer a peer review, and the unit manager and director, both of whom have to sign off on the report.
In addition, our reports get a legal review by agency attorneys for any sustained criminal or administrative cases that are sensitive or complex. Some of our referrals are made by our state’s governor’s office, in which case investigative reports might be reviewed by executive management.
Because we work for a government agency, investigative reports are often accessible through open records requests. Anyone can make these requests: the person who reported the allegation, the subject of the investigation, or a news reporter who is doing research for an investigative story.
Reports released through open records requests might end up on the evening news, in a criminal court, or a lawsuit filed against you and your agency. State legislators or legislative budget boards also use reports to glean information relevant to their causes. Other offices within your agency are likely to use your reports during the course of their duties. A few sections that come to mind are privacy offices, attorneys litigating actions against employees, or other investigative units.
These readers have a different perspective and are looking for other things in your report. One person might be looking to use the information to terminate an employee, while another uses the same information to sue the agency for wrongful termination. Okay, you get the idea. With all of these people reading your report, who is your audience?
I recommend simplifying this problem by writing your reports for only one person: the first-time reader.
The first-time reader is someone who does not know anything about your agency, statutes, policies, investigative processes, etc. A report written for the first-time reader covers the investigation so that anyone can understand, and it explains anything the first-time reader needs to know to comprehend the report’s contents.
A report written for the first-time reader will provide all necessary information and nothing else. This means the report needs to be complete yet concise. It should adequately document the allegation or complaint, the information or evidence gathered during the investigation, and the rules by which the information is evaluated.
The goals of report writing are clarity, completeness, and conciseness. A report written for the first-time reader should be logical and make sense. When the reader gets to the end of the document, the disposition or finding should be clear and logical, even if the reader is not an investigator or attorney. This clarity means no jargon or technical speak. Lastly, it means the investigator answered all the pertinent questions in the report and added no irrelevant information that would cause a first-time reader to ask more questions.
Initially, the report writer and reviewers will find this writing style difficult as they tend to inject jargon and legalese into their documents. It will take some time to get everyone on the same page, but writing for the first-time reader produces a wealth of advantages for the agency. Writing for the first-time reader does not mean the report is incomplete or exposes us legally. It means that we are including everything we need, but in a way that everyone can understand.
Pick up the last report you wrote or approved and check if your agency is writing for the right audience. Properly written reports win hearings and avoid lawsuits. They show the investigator’s work and put the agency’s professionalism on public display.
Have questions about your agency’s reports? Shoot us an email at InvestigativeCourses@gmail.com, and we can discuss your current report quality and provide tips on how to make your reports better. - Investigator Today