If your document winds up in a court of law, your grammar and spelling will silently testify about the quality of your work. Are you careful or careless? Does your writing display attention to detail or a rush to the finish line?
A manager asked me to create and deliver a class for his team of special investigators; software wasn’t catching several of their most common mistakes. Even such a brief course does two things:
- It underscores a leader’s commitment to quality documentation.
- It helps the team catch future mistakes as they occur.
Capturing testimony and other evidence is a large part of any investigator’s job. Although the rest may feel like “just paperwork,” those printed or digital documents represent hours of effort and reporting.
Clarity also hints at the meticulous way the data was collected, and the federal government wants to improve the readability of its own documents. When I was a financial services lobbyist, I stumbled across the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Plain English Handbook, and that guide is still available. In 2010, the Plain Writing Act began requiring federal agencies to use clear communication “the public can understand and use.”
After examining several sample reports, I tailored my messages and designed a visual aid. Style guides and visual aids, whether online or printed, can be short and simple. If you’re managing a unit whose work could become evidence or want to improve your own writing in any field, review old documents until you spot trends in the errors, then build a short list of common mistakes to help you or your team extinguish those problems. Add other issues to the list as needed.
Even professional writers struggle to spot mistakes in their own work. If possible, ask a colleague to review your documents or hire an editor. Be careful, be correct and be clear.