Words can be very powerful tools. Think of the subtle differences between disguise, mask, camouflage, and conceal - all so similar, yet they conjure different images in our minds, conjure different emotions. As a writer word choice can be both conscious and unconscious, we want to draw our readers into the story as deeply as possible, but we want to guide their emotional journey. We use words as signposts as to which characters to love, which to hate, what situations are about to be dangerous.
However, it's not only fiction writers that understand the power of words, even in writing designed to be cleansed of all emotional response word choices have power. One place where that can be made clear is the police report, as evidenced here: The Art of the Police Report.
Police departments have strict rules governing reporting writing (and a report must be written on every incident). "Crime reports are written in neutral diction, and in the dispassionate
uni-voice that’s testament to the academy’s ability to standardize
writing. They feel generated rather than authored, the work of a single
law enforcement consciousness rather than a specific human being."
"An incident report tells only what happened: where, when, and to
whom. It offers multiple perspectives of the same event from often
contradictory points of view of cop, victim, suspect, and witnesses.
An incident report lists the inventory of all
physical evidence collected and booked. Anything from shell casings and
rape-kit underwear to a three-legged dog in a custody dispute.
In structure, an incident report is a strict chronological narrative. It
begins with a Source of Activity section, which tees up the story. It’s
where the narrator introduces himself and offers his credentials for
telling this tale: On 4-6-10 at approx. 1922 hours, my partner Ofcr.
Brown (badge #13312) and I (Ofcr. Martinez badge #14231) were in full
uniform traveling westbound on Gage Avenue when we received the radio
call of an LUAC in progress at 82nd St./Central Ave."
You get the picture...
In the article the author, who reads hundreds of incident reports a day,
talks about how one cop uses words to evoke an emotional response
through inflection and narrative voice (It's worth reading the full article). "Officer Martinez writes incident reports that technically follow the academy’s
guidelines. He avoids modifiers and descriptors. He traces the physical
action of an event without opining or speculating. He offers accounts
that contradict his own findings. He’s succinct and factual. He tells
the literal and empirical truth. He writes in the dispassionate
narrative uni-voice that conveys objectivity and distance. So why is
Martinez instantly discernable on the page from a hundred other cops?"
Let's go through an example:
"At a Lewd Acts on Child crime scene, Martinez’s partner, Brown, writes,
“The Victim sustained multiple injuries.” Martinez would tell us, “The
baby was bleeding from three orifices.” There’s a world of difference
here. Brown gives us a victim; Martinez gives us a baby. Brown offers a
fact; Martinez paints a picture. Brown’s statement moves us forward; Martinez makes us stop dead and
envision the horrific crime that caused such injuries. Both statements
are neutral on the surface, but the specificity of Martinez’s language
makes the reader see and feel.
At the same crime scene, Brown
says, “We placed the Suspect in a felony prone position and took him
into custody without incident.” Martinez would write, “We cuffed the
father.” Martinez’s version reminds us of the unnatural aspect of the
crime, that a father (presumably) committed it. He edges near the
academy no-fly zone with father in place of suspect, but
gets away with it because the sentence describes police action—the
cuffing—rather than any actions of the suspect. Also, nobody disputes
the fact that the suspect is the father; it’s the type of father he is that’s at issue.
the same crime scene, Martinez might note that there’s “no food in the
apartment.” This is an empirical fact, so technically admissible. It
doesn’t speak to the specific crime of Lewd Acts on Child, but it does
subtly add to the moral charges against the parents. Martinez inflects
the barren apartment and makes it speak. Details bring scenes to life.
Sometimes the image can tell everything.
In the witness section of
the report, Brown might say, “Victim’s mother gave no statement.”
Martinez would tell us, “Mother refused to cooperate.” This carries a
totally different emphasis and meaning. Martinez doesn’t speculate if
she’s protecting her husband at the expense of her child. He doesn’t
need to. What kind of mother refuses to speak when her baby is bleeding
from three orifices?
Examine these two versions of the same
incident, side by side. They admit the same facts. They’re both
truthful. But one—Martinez’s—is also persuasive. Why? It’s subtly
inflected in every line to signal its agenda. Though it labors under the
constraints of the report format, it uses emphasis and diction to
suggest how we interpret what it tells us. It may look impartial, but
it’s aimed like a weapon."
And there you can see the power of words. So next time you're writing something down, fiction or simple a report for work, think about your word choices.