Battered by words

Reading poorly prepared reports laden with jargon is enough to make anyone keel over. Graham Hopkins offers advice on how to achieve clarity

Social care is awash with reports – court reports, inspection reports, complaints investigation reports, reports for Cabinet and so on. Many undoubtedly do their job. But, many do not, being unfocused, poorly structured, unclear, jargon-filled or pompous.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In 1906, the seminal guide to English usage, The King’s English, declared majestically: “Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.” Report writers must take heed.

So, first up, plan well. Know why you are writing your report. Know your purpose, know who your audience is so you can tailor the style to suit and know what outcome you want.

Then think about structure. You need a cover or title page. Your title should be as short as possible but long enough to let the reader know what’s coming.

In long reports a summary is essential. It should be at the very front of your report and not skulking at the back somewhere. Keep it short – one page at most. Don’t include methodology or background information. Just tell us what, in essence, your report is saying. And although your summary should be the first thing we read, it should be the last thing you write. You don’t have to write reports in sequence. It is better to write the sections you feel most confident about first and the rest will follow.

Long reports demand a contents page. But keep it simple. Follow this with your introduction and any relevant background material. Then crack on with the main body of the report – using a logical sequence – and complete your report with conclusions, recommendations and any appendices.

The way you present the report and your choice of words are vital. The more white you see on a page the easier it will be to read. Break up your text with headings, bullet points and illustrations. Highlight text sparingly: the less bold you use the more effective it is. Also picture your report in portrait, never landscape.

When choosing your words, stick with plain English. It’s easier to translate into other languages. Be precise and banish empty evaluative words such as “inappropriate” and “inadequate”; they don’t actually tell us anything. Use everyday words, be concise, average about 15 words a sentence, and resist jargon. Clichs are fine if used once in a blue moon.

However, don’t think that simple writing undermines your professionalism. Even court reports will be better received if simple. District judge Gordon Ashton, deputy master of the court of protection, has said social work reports that over rely on “professional language” make him suspect that the worker is trying to pull the wool over his eyes.

Court reports are often guilty of being repetitious, particularly when vast tracts of case records are diligently reproduced unedited, and lacking focus, structure and judgements. “Many managers tell me that their staff are becoming more and more unwilling to reach conclusions,” says independent child care consultant Patrick Ayre. “They are good at gathering facts, but the facts do not necessarily speak for themselves. It is our job to speak for them. We spend a lot of time being trained not to be judgmental but we have to remember that we need to make judgments. That’s what we are paid for.”

Report writing is all about communicating. How you choose to communicate depends on your style. “People think that I can teach them style,” said Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet and critic.
“What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”

The secret’s out.

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