Some years ago a large public safety organization asked me to help solve an unusual problem. Because of retirements and population growth in their service area, they needed to put some mid-level employees on a fast track to promotion. Could I do a one-day writing workshop to prepare these employees to the administrative writing tasks that lay ahead?
I agreed to the challenge, and the participants—after some initial wariness—plunged in with enthusiasm. Afterwards many of them asked for more writing workshops. (There was no time.) One officer stopped to chat with me at the end of the day. “You know, this workshop wasn’t half bad,” he mused. “Some of that stuff we did today is going to help me out in my job.” Of course that was the whole point of the workshop!
His comment started me thinking. There’s a widespread (and mistaken) assumption that writers have to master the abstract language theory and grammatical classifications taught in many English classes: adverbial clauses, antecedents, modifiers, and so on. The problem is that English courses are usually based on academic traditions stretching back for centuries. As a result, instructors don’t always have time to deal with practical topics like punctuation, pronouns, and sentence errors.
I have a unique perspective on how writing is taught because I was an English professor myself for over 30 years—as well as an instructor in a criminal justice academy. I’ve often heard officers, instructors, and supervisors talk about the need for a practical pathway to better writing skills. Here’s what I recommend:
- Think usage, not grammar.
English grammar is a huge compendium of complex terminology and language theory. Labeling the parts of a sentence and circling grammatical constructions will not—contrary to popular belief—make you a better writer. I’ve known students who can expertly diagram a sentence but have no idea how to use a comma.
The foundation for good writing is English usage—practical rules about punctuation and sentence structure. Here’s a list of writing skills that every professional should know:
- three comma rules
- four sentence patterns and their variations
- two apostrophe rules
- four pronoun rules
- five subject-verb rules
- one semicolon rule
Add a few guidelines for capital letters and other minor issues, and you’ll be ready for almost any writing task. A recruit or officer who’s serious about writing can master this content in a matter of months (sometimes less). Repetition, practice, and persistence are the key.
- Don’t overreact to diction errors.
Children often pick up language habits from their friends. If those habits persist, years later those children may become adults whose speech is riddled with diction errors like don’t got none, him and me was, I ain’t, and we seen. Instructors and supervisors sometimes panic and prescribe an intensive review of grammar theory—a detour that doesn’t address the fundamental problem. (Would you teach a reckless driver how to take apart a car and put it back together again—or would you teach the principles of safe driving?)
The solution to most of these problems is accountability. I can speak from experience because I spent most of my career teaching remedial writing classes in a rural college. I found that students who really wanted a college degree quickly adapted to the stricter requirements of college writing. The desirable sentence patterns were already stored in their heads, thanks to years of exposure to good role models via school, TV, movies, church, and other settings. So why were these students still using poor diction? No one had ever asked them to change.
How do you create accountability? When students used poor diction in my college classes, I used to say, “Can you make that sentence sound more professional?” Supervisors can set a high standard for their agency and follow through. Often a brief counseling session or two is all that it takes to persuade a recruit or officer to practice better diction.
- Encourage officers to revise their writing.
Over many years of teaching, I discovered that many times I was wrong about students I’d labeled as poor writers. The problem wasn’t a lack of writing skills: It was their slapdash attitude. They wrote their assignments at top speed and then rushed to hand them in. And I soon realized that I was making matters worse when I corrected their errors with a red pen: I was conveying the message that they were incapable of doing quality work on their own.
Writing well is both desirable and doable, even for busy officers in a busy agency. Here are some suggestions:
- Have officers write reports on a word processor and run them through the spellchecker and grammar checker before pasting them into their laptops.
- Use the buddy system. Pair a weak writer with a strong one to talk about writing issues and revise reports before submitting them.
- If you’re a supervisor, use a highlighter to streak problem areas and then send the report back for revision. Don’t make the corrections yourself.
- Have weak writers take a diagnostic test (you can find these tests online and in instructional books). Use the results to make a list of topics to review and then work through the appropriate chapters and exercises in an instructional book (preferably one that emphasizes usage skills and is free of grammar jargon.)
- Refuse to be intimidated.
When I talk to supervisors about promoting good language habits, they often respond with apologies and disclaimers: “I’m not an English teacher.” “I don’t know a whole lot about grammar.” Often these are men and women who successfully taught excellent language practices to their children!
I have a niece who used to say doining instead of doing and goining instead of going when she was little. In grammatical terms, she was using a nonstandard present participle. But who cares what the mistake was called? Her parents patiently reminded her that the correct words were doing and going, and soon the problem was solved. (She is now a pharmacist!)
Your brain is a living computer with billions of neurological structures devoted solely to language. Experts say that the hard wiring for language is present before we’re even born—that’s why children learn languages so easily. Those neurological structures become increasingly sophisticated as years go by because we’re exposed to so many language experiences daily. What this means is that even problem writers already have a solid foundation for adding new skills. It also means that supervisors and academy instructors don’t need a degree in English to help others with their language skills.
- Use the resources at hand.
Here’s a true story that makes an important point: A few years ago, someone began sneaking into the sculpture garden at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn at night to correct errors in the informative signs next to the sculptures. A newspaper picked up the story and sent a reporter to interview the art director—who explained that the error-ridden signs had been made by a French assistant who was still learning English. Wouldn’t it have made sense to ask someone who grew up speaking English in the US to double-check the signs before posting them?
Agencies sometimes overlook their most valuable language resource: Their officers and staff members. FTOs are especially important because they can model good speaking and writing practices for new officers. It’s important to select FTOs who use good diction and write reports in clear, everyday English. (Sometimes new officers get the mistaken impression that police reports are written in what’s almost a foreign language!) For example, FTO’s should be careful to avoid these discredited practices:
- police jargon (“It was ascertained” instead of “I saw”)
- outdated expressions (“Wilson advised me” instead of “Wilson said” or “Wilson told me”)
- passive voice, which requires past participles and often omits useful information who performed the action (“The suspect was transported to jail” instead of “I drove the suspect to jail”)
But don’t limit your resources to FTOs! Your agency can create its own informal network to help answer language questions as they arise. Begin by identifying employees who speak and write well. As I suggested earlier, you can pair up a weak writer with a strong one. One useful practice is to have both officers write up a call and then compare both versions. Another helpful practice is to ask an officer whose writing is below par to practice copying effective reports already submitted by other officers. Because copying requires close attention to details, it quickly drives home good writing practices.
Computers are another important language resource. Numerous websites offer free language instruction, and some even specialize in public safety writing issues. Often you can do a Google search to get instant answers to your language questions.
Print resources are usually the best resource for in-depth instruction and practice. Select books that emphasize practical usage, not grammar theory.
Remember too that reference librarians routinely answer questions about spelling and usage, so you should keep the library’s phone number handy.
Stay focused on your goals, whether you’re trying to improve your own writing skills or help recruits and new officers take their writing to the next level. Use the resources at hand, be persistent, and keep your enthusiasm high. You’ll soon be surprised and delighted by the results of your writing program.
Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of ten books, including Police Talk (Pearson), and she publishes the Police Writer Newsletter. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book Criminal Justice Report Writing. Instructors and supervisors can request a free Instructor’s Manual by sending an email from an official account to [email protected]