Words Matter: Using simpler language in psychological and forensic reportsApr 04, 2023
As psychologists, we don’t always take our own suggestions. It’s easy to know what the research or the DSM or our colleagues say about the best practice of something, and another thing entirely to do it. Case in point: do any of you routinely eat healthy, exercise, and get enough sleep?
When it comes to psychological report writing, our field also doesn’t take its own advice. In fact, we actively and intentionally teach students not to do the things that research tells us would be much more effective. Then we regulate each other into the “right” way to write reports, and so we look around and take stock and then perform for each other with dense language and walls of words. Anyone who doesn’t write this way doesn’t get to be in the cool kids’ club.
But let’s peel that away for just a second. Imagine there wasn’t already a set idea about the look and feel of a psychological report. Assume the old way of doing things could give way to better ways of doing things. Horse and buggy to car, train to airplane, DVD to streaming, gas to electric. Innovation relies on research, sure. We have the research already. But that’s not always what makes for change. More than that it takes common sense, to recognize a better way. And bravery, to put it out there and see if it sticks.
At the end of the day, we don’t need a doctoral degree to understand that writing in clear, plain words makes for a better read. And there are multiple parts to this, with each layer being helpful in a different way.
How Can We Improve Our Language Choices in Forensic Reports?
I read many reports where the writer has crunched five ideas into one paragraph. I think sometimes this happens when writers are communicating the flow of an interview, because conversation can move more easily this way. So they may describe how a defendant defines the role of defense counsel in the same paragraph where they’re describing the charges against them. But when we write, there aren’t nonverbals to que us that our listener is lost. So we need to fall back on structure and simplicity, using clear and simple ideas to communicate our points.
The number one change that most of us can make to reduce density is to cut volume. A report with fewer words requires simpler ideas, more direct language, and an automatic distillation of important information to the front. When it’s done well, anyway. If it’s brevity for the sake of brevity than your reader will know the conclusions but not the infrastructure.
It’s slowly trickled into the common expectations in forensic reports that we explain jargon. So many of us deal with this through punctuation, by using commas or parentheses. The more formal among you might use footnotes. I’ll spare you my footnote rant today, and just say that I sincerely dislike them. But I’m going to suggest that instead of punctuating our jargon, that we just go ahead and replace it. Literally just take those words you put inside your commas or parentheses, and just use those words by themselves. A happy addition is that this also cuts both volume and density. Normal people can understand normal words. So figure out how to say someone is hearing voices without the jargon shorthand.
Here at Streamline, we're committed to using our powers of psychology for good. Starting from the science and empirical literature but arriving at the core of what matters. Focusing on what readers and consumers truly want. Keeping sight of what clinicians need. In our blog, videos, and courses, we’re here to serve clinical and forensic assessment psychologists, especially those early-to-mid-career with an eye toward improvement, innovation, and inspiration.
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