Realizing that many of us "grew up" intellectually hearing that every detail needs to be included in reports, and will find it difficult to pair reports down, we sought out a writing coach to offer some tips. We showed Burt Peretsky some examples of typical neuropsychological reports. Burt is a journalist and writing coach who works with NASA scientists and engineers to help them write more effectively to convey critical information in their "risk communications." We figured that if he could help NASA scientists communicate accessibly to their colleagues, he could help us as well.
Below are some strategies recommended by Burt. Many neuropsychologists who have made the transition to shorter reports note that at first, writing shorter actually takes a longer amount of time, as typical long passages are cut down. After a few weeks, the time involved in writing is cut dramatically.
6 tips to make report-writing easier:
1. Summarize your key points in “inverted pyramid” fashion. You may want to begin your report with a bulleted “Diagnostic Summary.” Use bullets to summarize key points in descending order of importance (journalists call it the “inverted pyramid” style of writing).
Then, after you’ve completed your summary, provide your report details in the body copy. By the way, you can repeat your key points at the end of your report, “So, to summarize, my diagnosis and key points are as follows...”
2. “Flag” your key points. You know what’s important, so impart to the reader the points you’re making that are key. You can use bullets, you can use ALL CAPS; or you can underline and/or boldface what’s important. Or, you can simply tell the reader, “This is important…”
3. Write for the eye. Underlining and boldfacing, as above, are visual clues that something’s important. It also helps to keep your paragraphs short, limited even to one or two sentences each. That eases eye-strain on your reader and invites him/her into the body copy more easily, as opposed to long, grey paragraphs that repel the eye of the reader.
4. KISS -- Keep it Short and Simple! Don’t turn referral sources off with a long, rambling report; you’ll be wasting his/her time and yours. Check every sentence to answer whether it is redundant or even necessary. Read each sentence aloud to see if you can complete it with one breath; if not, then that sentence is too long. As Lord Polonius said in Shakespeare's Hamlet, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Within each sentence, consider the length of individual phrases, because often one word can take the place of a phrase. Check these “Write vs. Wrong” examples:
- “Now” vs. “At the present time”
- “Soon” vs. “ At your earliest convenience”
- “Because” vs. “Due to the fact that”
- “For” vs. “In the amount of”
- “Therefore” vs. “Under the circumstances”
- “If” vs. “In the event that”
- “About” vs. “In reference to”
- “Because” vs. “In view of the fact that”
5. Choose clear, familiar words. Here are some more “Write vs. Wrong” examples
- Ease or Help vs. Facilitate
- Sign vs. Indication
- Repeat vs. Reiterate
- Later vs. Subsequent
- Use vs. Utilization
- Explain vs. Articulate
- Try vs. Endeavor
6. Resize Clauses, Phrases -- (Sometimes, who, which, and that aren’t needed.)
- Wordy: The Titanic, which was a huge ocean liner, sank in 1912.
- More Concise: The Titanic, a huge ocean liner, sank in 1912.
- Wordy: The scientists held a service in memory of the passengers and crew members who had died.
- More Concise: The scientists held a memorial for passengers and crewmembers. (Do we hold memorials for the living?)