I was surprised at how difficult it is to write a forensic report in plain-English for non-technical readers. It’s easy in technical-English but not so much in plain-English. Translating a foreign language – from technical to plain – is difficult.
Writing in technical-English just sails along because you’re reporting a thorough and objective investigation using words suited to the task, and there’s lots of guidance (Refs 1, 2 and 3):
- You identify each task – and many of these are standard tasks carried out in all forensic engineering investigations, including those when you follow-the-evidence,
- Describe the task,
- State why you did it,
- The data you got,
- Your analysis of the data,
- The light it shed on the cause of the failure or accident,
- Note how the findings of each task support, or otherwise, the findings on cause of other tasks, and,
- Finally, how the findings support your evolving hypothesis as to cause.
The investigation goes deep inside as you do your work. And then comes out easily when you sit down to write your report.
It’s easy to write technically because you’ve lived your investigation for days or weeks, and you’re writing for kindred souls, other technical people, in words that roll off your tongue. But, putting it in jargon-free, plain-English is another story.
A tight deadline makes writing in plain-English even more difficult. Like, you were retained months or years after the failure or accident, and the deadline is just around the corner. Nor when you get mini-briefings from your client as you write. The mini-data is good but it’s got to be analysed, checked against other data and included in the report – in plain-English.
I had all three during a forensic investigation a few months ago – late commission, tight deadline and mini-briefings. I also had non-technical readers so I decided to write in plain-English. That’s four.
I was reviewing my report weeks later after submitting it in preparation for trial and saw the odd phrase and word that I might have restated. No change in opinion just that the wording might be tweaked. I thought afterwards that I must write for the technical reader in late/early situations like this. Never mind plain-English. Too risky.
I also thought that all forensic reports should be written then put aside for a while and read again later before submitting. That’s how I draft my blogs, over a period of a good many days, or sometimes several weeks. It’s worked for blogging for nine years. It should work for forensic reports.
Forensic reports in plain-English for non-technical readers is a challenge for the writer but good for the client when you’re retained early and the deadline is way down the road. It’s bad, a nightmare, when the deadline is just around the corner.
I will continue to write my reports in plain-English but I’m alert to the difficulty – learned during the last few forensic reports I’ve written. One of these was submitted as a preliminary report because the deadline was so tight. I’ll write in plain-English because I enjoy reporting to the interface between engineering and other professions. This is also the reason I enjoy blogging on the nature and methods of forensic engineering investigation.
- Mangraviti, Jr., James J., Babitsky. Steven and Donovan, Nadine Nasser. How to Write an Expert Witness Report, 2nd ed., 2014, SEAK, Inc., Falmouth, MA (A massive 560 page, 1.25″ thick, 8.5″ x 11″ tomb)
- Zinsser, William K., On Writing Well, 7th ed., 2006, Harper Collins Publishers, New York (The best on the market for writing non-fiction. Note that it went to seven editions before the author died and sold 1.5 million copies)
- Nova Scotia Civil Procedure Rule 55 Governing Experts, 2010, and similar rules and codes elsewhere in the country (Hard-nosed guidance to ensure the expert reports all reasoning, including that possibly leading to a different opinion)
(Posted by Eric E. Jorden, M.Sc., P.Eng. Consulting Professional Engineer, Forensic Engineer, Geotechnology Ltd., Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada June 11, 2021 firstname.lastname@example.org)