On writing (an expert’s report) well

I posted five blogs in the past three years on writing expert reports. (Refs 1 to 5)  And referenced two excellent texts. (Refs 6 and 7)  These are guidelines for experts, as well as for those of you practicing law and insurance claims management and consulting – to help you recognize well written, technical reports.  I emphasized the need for well written reports because of the intent of civil procedure rules governing experts – like Rule 55 in Nova Scotia, to expedite the settling of disputes.

However, missing from my blogs were guidelines on composing a report – selecting the words, assembling them into sentences, the sentences into paragraphs, and the paragraphs into report sections.

William K. Zinsser’s book “On Writing Well” solves that problem. (332 pages for $19.99 at Chapters) (Ref. 8)  This is one of the most informative, engaging and humorous books on writing non-fiction – e.g., expert’s reports, that I’ve seen.  And his book is well written, as you might expect, pulling you right along page after page.

Mr. Zinsser’s book has been in print for 39 years - longer than most of us have been practicing.  It was first published in 1976.  The 7th edition came out in 2006.  I learned about the book when I read his obituary in the Globe and Mail in May. (Ref. 9)  By then it was recognized as a classic, like Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” which it complemented. (Ref. 10)

Strunk and White’s little book noted the dos and don’ts of writing.  Zinsser’s big book applied those principles in 25 chapters to the different methods and forms of writing non-friction.  Chapter 15 on writing for Science and Technology is most relevant to expert report writing.  It is based on a simple principle: Writing is thinking on paper.  Another chapter on Clutter is also good – getting rid of jargon and useless words.

Zinsser says that in making scientific and technical material accessible to the lay person – the purpose of an expert’s report – “Nowhere else must you work so hard to write sentences that form a linear sequence (sequential writing).  This is no place for fanciful leaps (of faith) or implied truths.  Fact and deduction are the ruling family.”  Put another way, “Go from what you know to what you don’t know”. (Ref. 11)

He tells us to imagine technical writing as an upside-down pyramid.  Start at the bottom with the one narrow fact the reader must know before he can learn any more.  For example, the technical issue in a case or claim.  The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond the facts into analysis, interpretation, conclusion and opinion – the reason the man slipped and fell, the cause of the bridge failure, the location of the plume of contamination, why inadequate foundations, the source of the flood water.

Does “sequential writing” resonate with expert report writing?  This phrase appears often in Zinsser’s book in chapters on all forms of non-friction writing but nowhere is it more relevant than writing for Science and Technology – expert report writing.

Civil procedure Rule 55 requires experts to state the basis of their opinions.  Writing “sequentially” – thinking on paper, ensures we do this.

I recommend that you buy this book and give it to the next expert you retain.  Those of you practicing law, and insurance claims management and consulting, will also benefit from reading it.

References

  1. Civil procedure Rule 55 will improve expert’s reports and forensic engineering investigation. Posted August 21, 2012
  2. Writing forensic engineering reports. Posted November 6, 2012
  3. New civil procedure rule will result in the writing of better expert reports. Posted May 20, 2013
  4. Thinking on ”paper”, and well written, easily defended expert’s reports. Posted March 6, 2014
  5. Guidelines for writing an expert witness report. Posted May 17, 2014
  6. Babitsky, Esq., Steven and Mangraviti, Jr., Esq., James J., Writing and Defending Your Expert Report; the Step-by-Step Guide with Models, SEAK Inc, Falmouth, Massachusetts, 2002 
  7. Mangraviti, James J., Babitsky, Steven, and Donovan, Nadine Nasser, How to Write an Expert Witness Report, SEAK, Inc., Falmouth, MA 2014
  8. Zinsser, William K., On Writing Well, the classic guide to writing nonfiction, 7th ed., Harper Collins, New York 2006
  9. The Globe and Mail, page S6, May 15, 2015
  10. Strunk, Jr, William and White, E. B., The Elements of Style, 2nd ed., The Macmillan Company 1959
  11. Maharaj, Jeremiah R., Personal communication years ago.  Jerry was a former teacher in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and my classmate at the College of Geographic Sciences, Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia.  Jerry’s comment stuck in my mind over the years as I’m sure it did for others.  It is relevant to Zinsser’s advice on writing for science and technology.

 

We’re surrounded by technical issues, the kind that show up in civil litigation and insurance claims

To some extent, all I could see were technical issues when I was out west earlier this month.  Technical issues like we investigate in civil litigation, forensic engineering and for insurance claims.  The size of Vancouver impressed me – so much built environment, so many potential technical issues.  I had similar thoughts in Edmonton a few days later and in Toronto after that.

They say in Edmonton that they have two seasons, a winter season and a construction season – building more built environment everywhere you look.

How many technical issues you might ask?  I have no real idea.  But the engineer in me thought 10% to 20% – a range that crops up often enough in matters to do with human nature.  Technical issues can often be traced back to the people involved in design, construction and maintenance engineering.

Percent of what?  How about the 1,000s of structures and their infrastructure and the 10s of 1,000s of components comprising these structures?  It’s the structures and their components that fail giving rise to the technical issues that we investigate.

***

I was in Vancouver to attend the birthday party of a close friend, Sheilagh Simpson, a writer.  I stayed with another close friend, John Hughes, also an engineer.

The mountainous scenery in the Vancouver area overwhelms, particularly on the drive to the Whistler ski resort and also to Princeton in the interior.  A different and quite beautiful scenery in Edmonton – flat, treeless grazing land, and farm crops as far as the eye can see.  And in Toronto?  Dense urbanization – structures and infrastructure everywhere.

***

Being struck by the potential for technical issues is different when gazing on beautiful scenery.  Not quite what you would expect.  Some examples might justify my view.

1. John referred a friend to me.  His friend has an environmental spill problem in Vancouver. The spill’s plume of contamination needs to be located.  (Liquid contaminants sometimes flow through the ground in the shape of a bird’s feather – a plume)  Hopefully the plume is still on the owner’s property and hasn’t migrated to adjacent property where it could be a technical issue.

2. I saw near-vertical rock faces cut into the hillside during construction of the new highway to Whistler.  I know how these rock slopes are assessed in geotechnical engineering – to an acceptable degree of risk like in all engineering, in this case the risk of a rock slide. But a risk nevertheless, and a potential technical issue.

3. I told you earlier this year about the Groat Road bridge failure in Edmonton. (Refs 1, 2 and 3)  I visited the site while there and it’s been fixed.  But there are hundreds of bridges in the Edmonton area and new ones are being constructed every day.

4. Steel bridge beams can fail as we saw but so can the deep bridge abutment fills – in the sense of not performing as they should.  Abutment fills are those deep layers of soil that support the road up to the bridge.  They were several 10s of feet deep in the new construction I saw in Edmonton.

Layers of soil fill settle a little or a lot depending on the degree of compaction they get during construction.  The soil is compacted with construction equipment to make it denser, more rigid, and less compressible.  For certain, the fills are being well compacted almost all the time so there is minimal settlement at the road surface.

But still there is risk.  A little less compaction than needed in one of the abutment fills resulting in settlement and deterioration of the road surface – poor performance, and we have a technical issue.  Car drivers sometimes experience poor compaction and fill settlement when they hit a bump at the end of a bridge deck.  Also when they drive across those little depressions in the road surface.  We experience the depressions almost every day on our highways.

5. I also drew your attention last year to the many dozens of ways a building and its components can fail – collapse or perform inadequately. 209+ ways to be exact. (Ref. 4) Buildings are just one of dozens of different types of structures in the built environment. So it was okay for me to think technical issues when driving back and forth in the dense urban environment of Toronto. They are there.  Some unknown, others known but accepted, and a few the technical issues in civil litigation.

***

With so much built environment how could the forensic engineer in me not see technical issues when I was out west?  But for the most part the built environment works.  The engineering design has been constructed properly, and only a small percentage will show up as technical issues in civil litigation.  I’m sure much less than 10% to 20%.

References

  1. Wind, construction crane  and inadequate cross-bracing caused Edmonton bridge failure: An initial hypothesis.  Posted March 27, 2015
  2. Why, in a recent blog, didn’t I seem to consider foundation failure as a possible cause of the Edmonton bridge failure?  Posted April 3, 2015
  3. Bridge beams that fail are sometimes like balloons filled with water – squeeze them and they pop out somewhere else.  Posted May 20, 2015
  4. How many ways can a building fail, and possibly result in civil litigation or an insurance claim?  Posted July 10, 2014