Report Writing Made Easier

By Keith Swift, PhD
Vice President, InterNACHI
President, Porter Valley Software
Writing is a craft that takes a long time to learn. It is a relatively recent invention in human history, and for some people it will never be easy but it can become easier. When I was teaching freshman English twenty years ago, it was reported that 27 million adult Americans were functionally illiterate, and that’s a fact of life probably linked to technology. If the predominant media in your life has been books, which is a linear-literary media, as opposed to television, which is essentially a spatial media, you are likely to be literate and write with relative ease. However, before we talk about writing let’s talk about language, and as we do don’t worry about remembering various terms or concepts, because they’re not important. Learning is a mysterious and wonderful thing.
The beginning of language is itself shrouded in mystery, and most of what we know about it comes from myths and sacred texts. For instance, the gospel of St. John tells us: “In the beginning was the Word. And the word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Bible also tells us that mankind once spoke a common tongue, which implies that everyone could understand each other, but because of Man’s arrogance, God confounded it after destroying the tower of Babel. And we’ve been trying to understand each other ever since and sometimes just “babbling.”
Knowing that writing is a craft that can take years to master, let’s see what we can learn in a few pages.  We’ll begin by talking about the building blocks of language, or words. Words have meanings that are found in the dictionary, which we call “denotation,” but they also have additional meanings that evolve through usage, which we call “connotation.” For instance, an attractive woman might be described as being “hot,” but that doesn’t mean that you would burn your fingers by touching her, although you might get your face slapped. Meaning is essential to communication, but it rarely becomes an issue except by people who try to impress others by using big words that they don’t really understand. But let’s first talk about two types of words, “concrete” and “abstract.” And all you need to remember to distinguish them is that “concrete” words name things, like bell, book, and candle, while abstract words name things that are, well, abstract, like truth, love, and justice. You’ll learn why this is important shortly.
Speech preceded writing and the alphabet, and all our words were once concrete words, or words that actually named things, things that can be identified by the senses, although concrete words can still be found at the heart of many abstract words. Take the word “repair,” for instance. If you could take it in your hands and bend it, it would break into two parts “re” and “pair.” “Re” means “to go back to,” and “pair” comes from the Latin word “patria,” which means, “father.” So, to “repair” something means to return it to its primal state or the state at which it began. The word “disaster” reveals the same thing, but implies that our ancestors believed in the influence of the stars. Bend the word “disaster” and it will break into two parts, “dis,” which is generally bad, and “aster,” which comes from the Latin word “aster,” which means “the stars.” Thus, a “disaster” can be thought of as “bad stars,” or even as a twist of fate.
Similarly, every time we eat corn flakes we might be reminded of the great earth Goddess Ceres who provided us with a little harvest of “cereal.” I’m taking your time to tell you this, because I want you see that words can be fascinating and powerful, and concrete words are usually more interesting than abstract ones. I could also argue that words are units of energy capable of nourishing people but I won’t, because that’s an entirely different story. Now, let’s consider inspectors as a group and then we’ll concentrate on learning something specific about writing.
Inspectors write primarily for their clients but, unfortunately, their reports are frequently studied by attorneys, and inspectors should never forget that. And while it’s probably reasonable to suggest that inspectors are not known for being wizards-with-words most attorneys are. Inspectors typically learned their trade by working in construction or with their hands, and are often referred to as being “handy.” But, being handy is not an asset when it comes to report-writing. Although you might be interested to know that “health” and “hand” come from the same root word. Regardless, inspectors are first and foremost human beings, and human beings are primarily sensory animals, and that’s important when it comes to writing. Without sensory stimulation babies sink into a vegetative state and become totally unresponsive, whereas adults can be driven to the brink of madness. However, people can lose touch with the sensory world and, unfortunately, you are quite likely to meet clients who panic when they spot an ant and believe that all natural things should be domesticated or disinfected. Regardless, sensory impressions are what we receive every day on every inspection, and we need to be able to transcribe those impressions in a written form. However, descriptive writing is generally associated with essays or stories, whereas report-writing is more commonly associated with “discursive” or “expository” writing, which is characterized by analytical reasoning. But we’re not going to get into a treatise on the history of writing and rhetoric, but one about communicating effectively.
“Communication” comes from a word that means “to share.” And sharing openly and honestly is really what report-writing is all about. You might think that I could give examples of two reports, one that’s well written and one that’s poorly written, and say: “that’s what a good report looks like; now write like that.” But, it’s not that easy and never will be. So, let me share some examples of writing with you and then we’ll reason together. Here’s an example of descriptive writing. It happens to be about vultures, but that’s of no importance. It could also be about baking cup cakes, because writing is always about writing, regardless of the subject.
The eagles, buzzards, kites, and falcons are already on the wing, quartering the plain fast and low, seeking reptiles and small game. But the vulture sits on a crag and waits. He sees the sun bound up out of the sierra, and still he waits. He waits until the sun-struck rocks and the hard earth heat up and the thermal currents begin to rise. When the upstream is strong enough, he leaps out from the cliff, twists into it and without one laborious wingbeat, spirals and soars.
(Extracted from, “Vulture Country,” by John D. Stewart).
I don’t want to waste your time by talking about descriptive writing, but I hope that you’ll agree that what you’ve just read is effective writing, even though it has been extracted and has no context. Notice the abundance of concrete versus abstract words, or words that name things, and notice how they are actually mimicking the event that they are describing, and notice that you, the reader, find yourself waiting in anticipation, just as the vulture waits and waits, until that transcendent moment when it leaps and soars effortlessly into the sky. But, talking about concrete words, notice the abundance of them. And, remember, concrete words are words that name things, things that you experience with your senses, whereas abstract words do not and often seem dull and lifeless. Let’s consider one more example of writing and the use of concrete words from an essay called “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” by N. Scott Momaday, describing lands in Oklahoma that are scared to his people, the Kiowa:
The hardest weather in the world is there. Winter brings blizzards, hot tornadic winds arise in the spring, and in the summer the prairie is an anvil’s edge. The grass turns brittle and brown, and it cracks beneath your feet. There are green belts along the rivers and creeks, linear groves of hickory and pecan, willow and witch hazel. At a distance in July or August the steaming foliage seems almost to writhe in fire. Great green and yellow grasshoppers are everywhere in the tall grass, popping up like corn to sting the flesh, and tortoises crawl about on the red earth in the plenty of time.
This is also effective writing, thanks largely to the use of concrete words, but let’s look at a type of writing that’s the exact opposite:
On the one side we have free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond is itself nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities.
(Quoted in George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”).
I don’t know what you think about this, but I don’t understand it, or want to for that matter. It seems to me that the writer is living inside his head, and needs to get outside and spend more time in the sensory world. And, I don’t think I need to point out that such writing is deadly dull and lifeless. Furthermore, most of us could only guess what the writer is trying to say. Why? Because it’s a clutter of pompous and abstract words that don’t name things. In short, there is very little that makes sense.
Now, let’s talk about something that can be equally dull and lifeless, and that’s grammar. The word “grammar” is derived from ancient Greek words that mean, “letters of the alphabet.” And, in traditional grammar we distinguish between two “voices,” one called the “active” voice and one called the “passive.” Here’s an example of a sentence in the passive voice, followed by one in the active:
 My first love will always be remembered by me.
I will always remember my first love.
Before we consider the difference between them, let me point out that the active voice is not necessarily always better than the passive voice, but it generally is. However, it’s usually shorter and, in being shorter is more direct. Forgetting about “voice” for a moment, both these examples are similar in that they can be characterized as “discursive” or “expository” writing. In other words, writing that is intended to convey information dispassionately, without necessarily evoking the emotions. In contrast, and simply by way of comparison, a form of “descriptive” writing could be considerably longer and evoke the senses: 
On the weekends, in the middle of winter, he used to emerge from a dreary basement room like a mouse and scurry through the dawn streets for miles and miles, until he arrived at the sea side where the girl of his dreams languished in a Georgian townhouse with her wealthy parents. There he’d stand peering around the corner for hours on end, cold and trembling or whipped by a driving rain, but patiently waiting like the sea itself for a fleeting glimpse of her angelic face.
Which of these examples of writing is best? Well that depends on many things, such as the difference between what is called “showing” and “telling,” and what one prefers is often a matter of taste. We might even avoid the question altogether by playing psychiatrist, and conclude that the person described is timid and frightened, and self-consciously blighted by poverty. After all, he’s equated with a mouse, but that won’t teach us anything about writing, so let’s go back and look at the examples of the active and the passive voice, and consider how they’re formed.
In the passive construction, you’ll notice that the “subject,” of the sentence, the “me,” has changed places with the “object,” of the sentence, the “first love.” You’ll be able to recognize this construction because it’s nearly always formed with a form of the verb “to be,” plus the past tense, the “ed,” as in “remembered,” but this is not always the case. The active sentence, as we saw, is much shorter and, one might say, more vigorous, and that’s all you need to remember, after which you can forget about grammar and being able to recognize the active and the passive voice, and just think about trying to write simply and directly. As a great master of the English language George Orwell says: be “sincere.” But to stay with grammar for a just a moment longer, you might want to make a mental note that the “power” of any sentence is typically found in the verb, and verbs are action words, like “walk,” “run,” “jump,” “swim.” Consider these similar but contrasting sentences and you’ll see what I mean:
He was drunk when got on the plane, but found his seat and fell asleep.
That’s short and easy to understand, but look how it can be invigorated with stronger verbs, a few commas, and four more words:
He stumbled onto the plane, staggered down the aisle, collapsed into his seat, and sank into a drunken stupor.
Regardless, let’s forget about traditional grammar. Its rules were not made in heaven, writers commonly violate them for one reason or another, and it really can be deadly dull. Instead, let’s look at some more examples of writing, and see what we can learn from them. Not all writing has to create images and evoke emotions to be powerful. For instance, here’s an example of writing that is plain but powerful, in the sense that it affords some legal protection. It’s a disclaimer that prints automatically on the front page of every one of my inspection reports, and you’re welcome to it: 
In accordance with the terms of our contract, the service recommendations made in this report should be completed within the contingency period by licensed specialists, who might identify additional defects or recommend some upgrades that could affect your evaluation of the property or its components.
I hope you’ll agree that there are no strong verbs or evocative images, but it’s powerful in its own right, and my reports would seem naked without it. Here’s a contrasting example that I borrowed from an inspector’s contract:
Consultant does not turn on, or otherwise cause to [be] activated, any gas fueled utility, nor light gas-pilots or activate any gas-fueled appliance not functionally in service at the time of observation.
With the exception of the word “be,” which the inspector left out and I added this sentence is exactly as it appears in his contract. I’ve written about it in my book Inspect and Protect, and this is what I wrote:
What does he mean? Perhaps he wants to say: “If the gas is off, I won’t turn it on or light pilots.” And, if that’s what he wanted to say, why didn’t he just say it? Let’s compare both sentences. One has thirteen simple words that deliver the same message with no loss of meaning, while the other is comprised of more than twice that amount, or thirty two words, of highfalutin gibberish. There is little point on commenting on the obvious semantic and grammatical errors in this bloated nonsense, or in trying to understand why the “consultant” would resort to such cluttered communication unless in a really stupid and misguided attempt to make himself sound more important, more intelligent. However, one of the interesting things about language is that it’s “revelatory,” and his use of the language “reveals” quite a lot about him, perhaps even more than he realizes. For instance, he obviously doesn’t want to be an “inspector” he wants to be a “consultant.” And, in an attempt to seem more important and intelligent than he is, he actually shows himself to be a buffoon.
You might feel I’m being too harsh with this inspector, but the truth is he was set to testify against me as a so-called expert witness in a bogus lawsuit, until I informed the attorney that hired him that he had avoided a construction fraud lawsuit by plea-bargaining. Regardless, what can we learn so far from these contrasting samples of “writing?” Think about it but, rather than answer immediately, consider these six basic rules from a master of English language, George Orwell, which appear in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language:”
1.      Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2.      Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3.      If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4.      Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5.      Never use a foreign word or phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6.      Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Orwell’s essay was written more than sixty years ago, and it’s a bit dated now, but he taught me something that I’ll never forget, something that has as much to do with psychology as with the craft of writing. “The great enemy of clear language,” he says, “is insincerity.” Now, going back to that clause in the inspector’s contract for a moment, no one will ever convince me that he is being sincere. He is not. Furthermore, no one will ever convince me that the average lawsuit is written with a sincere desire to communicate. But, let’s get back to talking about words, and the concrete and infamous word “mold.” 
Bob Pearson of Marion Allen Insurance noticed that I was using the word “mold” in my software. Furthermore, it was a word that I favored and wanted to continue using. Now, you have to understand that Bob’s an ex-inspector who has taught me more than I ever wanted to know about litigation. In fact, he gave me the title “Perfectly Legal Extortion,” for one of the chapters in my book, Inspect and Protect, which is a luminous detail. Anyway, he was cautioning me against using the word. He wasn’t saying that I shouldn’t use it he was merely asking me to think about it a little more. Of course, I’d grown up using the word “mold” in the damp and dreary environs of England. “But you have to be careful,” he advised me, “because you’re not a specialist, an industrial hygienist; you’re a generalist, a building inspector.” Well, what do you want me to say?” I asked. “I don’t know; let me think about it,” he replied, sipping his beer. “Look, why, don’t you just say a dark stain, or an unusual substance?” I thought about it, and then said: “What about if I say it’s “a biological organism of unknown origin?” We both chuckled, but you can see where this is going. It’s all about words, and the difference between “concrete” and “abstract” ones, and sometimes it has little to do with truth or commonsense. I ended up compromising and promising to use the phrase “a mold-like substance,” which satisfied him and left me content. I couldn’t imagine pointing under a sink and saying to my clients: “See that? That’s a biological organism of unknown origin, which needs to be evaluated by an industrial hygienist within the contingency period.”
Let’s consider some interesting and, for me, a more frightening use of words. Shortly after being dragged into a “mold” lawsuit, I received four form letters from the insurance company’s adjusters warning me of a real and personal threat to things that I cherish, but a threat that was cleverly muted in carefully chosen words and phrases. Pay attention to the use of abstract words:
If coverage is available to you, the claimant’s demands may be substantially in excess of the limits of liability under the terms and provisions of your policy of insurance, and assuming a judgment or verdict is obtained in excess of said limits of liability, your own personal assets could be looked upon to satisfy any such judgment or verdict.  
“Your own personal assets,” the writer informs me. What a mouthful, what a waste of words and cerebral activity. If they’re my “own” they’re “personal,” and visa-versa. Why not simply say “your assets,” using only two words instead of four, two words that deliver exactly the same meaning? I’ll tell you why. Someone is puffing themselves up, trying to sound important or intelligent. But there’s more going on here as you will see.  And, although I understand that a human being wrote this, it’s not someone that I’d like to spend any time with. Regardless, let me share with you what I wrote about this form letter, in Inspect and Protect:
Lawsuits are all about words, and I happen to be interested in words and pay close attention to them, so let me explain how these phrases were carefully chosen so as not to awaken the primitive animal that lurks just beneath my skin and that of most civilized people. For this reason, professionals choose their words very cautiously. For instance, a doctor might inform you that he intends to make “an incision in your abdomen,” but he certainly wouldn’t tell you that he intends to “slice open your belly.” And legal professionals are no different. Subjects are concealed through the use of the passive voice instead of the active, and the real meaning is hidden in Greek and Latin words instead of the more commonplace Saxon ones. Consider these phrases taken from one of the form letters: “looked upon,” “personal assets” and “satisfy a judgment.” They’re abstract words that don’t name things that exist in the real world in the way that concrete words do. And what they attempt to do is to disguise a very real threat to things that I cherish. Can you imagine what I might do if I was told that someone might take the modest house that I’d renovated with my bare hands, and the classic Jaguar that I’d lovingly restored, or the money that I’d worked hard to save over the years?
By this point, I hope that you’re beginning to notice some interesting things about words and their use that will enable you to become a better writer. Regardless, I’m sure you’re starting to realize that writing, and particularly the writing in lawsuits, is not always about communicating effectively, or about telling the truth. Too often, it’s about deliberately obscuring the truth. But, let’s get back to talking about report-writing. I’ve mentioned Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” but there’s a more modern book by William Zinsser called On Writing Well (Harper & Row, Publishers New York) that owes a lot to Orwell, which I hope is still in print, and which is well worth buying and reading.
In his book, Zinsser says that the secret to good writing is simplicity, and that means getting rid of every word that does not contribute to the meaning, getting rid of what he calls “clutter.” For instance, think how silly it is to say: “In my personal opinion,” or “I’d like to take this opportunity,” or “I might add,” or “It should be pointed out,” and a whole host of similar stale or clichéd introductory phrases. And, it’s even sillier to inflate one’s writing with pompous words. For instance, how silly it would be to say: “We are currently experiencing precipitation,” when one could simply say” It’s raining.” Talk about getting rid of clutter: two simple words delivering the same meaning as five pompous Latinate ones. And this leads us back to one of Orwell’s most memorable observations: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” So, be yourself, be sincere, and say what you have to say in as few simple words as possible.
Now, let’s end this by talking about organization, which is a fundamental principle when it comes to writing well, because it aids in understanding, but it is very often forgotten. It really doesn’t matter which organizational principle you use as long as you have one. For instance, the movement of the writing can be from the general to the specific, from the large to the small, or from the outside to the inside. For instance, here’s one by way of example that I use when talking about roofs in general, and you’re welcome to use it:
There are many different roof types, which I evaluate by walking on their surfaces. If I am unable or unwilling to do so for any reason, I will intake the method used to evaluate them. Every roof will wear differently relative to its age, the quality of its material, the method of its application, the number of its layers, its exposure to direct sunlight or other prevalent weather conditions, and the regularity of it maintenance. As far as leaks go, and regardless of its design-life, every roof is only as good as the waterproof membrane beneath it, which is concealed and cannot be examined without removing the roofing material, and this is equally true of almost all roofs. In fact the majority of pitched roofs are not designed to be water proof only water-resistant. However, what remains true of all roofs is that whereas their condition can be evaluated it is virtually impossible for anyone to detect a leak except as it is occurring or by specific water tests, which are beyond the scope of my service. Even water stains on ceilings or on framing within attics could be old and will not necessarily confirm an active leak without some corroborative evidence, and such evidence can be deliberately concealed. Consequently, only installers can credibly guarantee that a roof will not leak, and they do. I evaluate every roof conscientiously, and even attempt to approximate its age, but I will not predict its remaining life expectancy, or guarantee that it will not leak. Naturally, the sellers or occupants of a residence will generally have the most intimate knowledge of a roof and its history. Therefore, I recommend that you ask the sellers about the roof, and that you either include comprehensive roof coverage in your home insurance policy, or that you obtain a roof certification from an established local roofing company.
This is just one example of an organizing principle, and one that moves from the general to the specific, but you need to keep this in mind when you write. You won’t become a famous writer overnight. So, once again, be yourself, be sincere, stay away from passive constructions, and say what you have to say with short and simple words. You can even write: “The faucet do be dripping,” if you’d like. It’s not Standard English, but who cares? Its meaning is clear, and that’s a virtue. I guess I could have said this in the first few sentences, but then we wouldn’t have shared this time together, which I hope will prove been of some benefit to you as you consider what’s been said and decide how you want to write.
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