Fact: A good cop is a good report writer. It’s through this process that we successfully prosecute those who are guilty of violating the law. To my thinking, a good instructor has the potential to be an even better author, not just in the documentation of crimes, but also by sharing written information with others. After all, Law Officer wouldn’t exist if this weren’t the case. So I want to encourage you to start crafting articles based on your experiences and thoughts. This can be very rewarding and it allows you to reach far more people than you can in a classroom setting alone. By putting together a piece that shares ideas with others, you can truly have a positive impact on our profession.
Frustration Breeds Inspiration
My first creative writing experience came after an on-duty accident. My right hand had been severely injured, and, after reconstructive surgery, the department assigned me to the front desk. While I did my best, I was unhappy. I wasn’t healing fast enough to get me back to full duty, and the reports were piling up every day I sat at that desk.
Out of my frustration came inspiration. At the time, one of my favorite movies was the Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now.” I sat down at the typewriter (yes, it was that long ago) and wrote a police-themed homage, and humorous parody, entitled “Desk Reports Now.” Using characters from our department, it told the story of a desk officer who’d obviously gone insane. He was taking reports from everyone and anyone regardless of where the incident happened or what it was about. When I finished it, this story circulated around the station and received pretty good reviews.
As time progressed, I submitted a few articles to various magazines. My first serious success was an article submitted to the National Tactical Officers’ Association’s magazine, The Tactical Edge. To be part of such a respected publication was an honor for me. These small efforts helped set me on the course that connects directly to this article.
Sure, it can be a challenging task to assemble a bunch of words into a coherent form. Submitting it for publication is another obstacle to overcome. There are a number of dynamics and you don’t want to be embarrassed by what you say or how you put it. So: How do you effectively begin writing for cops and trainers?
Write Like Hemingway?
Now, don’t sit down at your computer thinking you will be “channeling” Ernest Hemingway. Unless you’re an English composition major or a writing phenomenon, it will be difficult. But to help you get to the point where you can write well, here’s some advice.
First, know where you want to go with your words. This means that development of a basic theme is a prerequisite. If you have something to share and especially if you haven’t seen it in print already, then you could be the author for the job.
Next, you must have command of the topic and an intimate understanding of the material. Your piece should be well thought out and defensible if its logic and accuracy are challenged. If that isn’t the case, find another subject.
Occasionally, a questionable article appears. The author proposes a technique or idea that prompts the logical question: “Hey Billy Bob—where the hell did that come from?” If you’re going to tell cops about something, you need to be on solid ground.
Think about the topic in detail. It helps to be passionate about the subject. To help collect my thoughts, I usually jot down ideas as they come to me or record them into a digital tape recorder. That way they’re retrievable. I suffer from CRS (Can’t Remember—Stuff). If you suffer the same, this will help you to keep organized.
As the research and prep work progress, more information is better than less. In addition to self-generated material, seek out input from additional sources. The Internet is great but don’t overlook other options, including fellow instructors and other knowledgeable folks. Don’t forget to recognize them for their help. They deserve it. (To use another person’s ideas without giving them proper credit is plain wrong.) For example, our editor Crawford Coates made some significant improvements to this article with his suggestions. (Editor’s note: You’re welcome, R.K.)
At some point, prioritize what info is a “must have” vs. that which is more “fluff” in nature. Favor essential points first and then add the fun and anecdotes as appropriate. When the “idea file” for an article starts to get full, the next step is to create an outline. This helps organize concepts into a logical, cohesive progression. A cautionary note: Don’t try to write a book when the object is to create a short article on a specific topic. As Mr. Coates pointed out, “Pick a portion of a bigger topic and cover that specific facet in depth. It’s those specifics that are most interesting, not the big general statements.”
Start Your Writing!
Next, start hitting those letters on the keyboard. Putting words together for someone else to read and learn from is a challenge. Accept that it will take a lot of concentration and time. There will probably be—and should be—a number of rewrites before the final decision to hit “Print” or “Send.” Along the way, try to keep the flow of words relatively simple. Write in your own voice, and use the phrases and terms that will help your audience (cops) understand what you’re saying. However, don’t be tempted to overuse jargon because what might be well understood in one area might be totally unknown in another.
Express, don’t impress: You’re writing to express ideas and not to impress folks. If the job is done right, it might be impressive but that should not be your primary goal. It’s also probably best to avoid overly complex phraseologies and terms.
Fact checking is a mandatory part of the process. To accomplish this, as well as for at least a preliminary spelling and grammar check, have someone who will be totally honest proofread for you.
Running on: Nothing turns off readers as fast as long, convoluted sentences. At best, they’re confusing. Instead, write relatively short sentences that convey a single idea. If you find yourself with a lot of “ands,” “buts,” “yets” and other linkages, you can probably do a better job of simplifying your sentence structure.
Tell a story: Police officers are sometimes reluctant to give writing a try due to a fear of being embarrassed by a lack of clarity or accuracy. Remember: Cops like you are often great story tellers. That’s what writing is at its essence. All you’re doing is applying that ability into a written format, rather than verbal. Novice authors may also be concerned with appearing to be a know-it-all or even arrogant. We’ve all come across articles where the author’s ego appeared to be at least a suspicious component if not a prime motivating factor. Avoid this approach and no one will accuse you of such an attitude.
Who are you?
You’ll probably be asked to submit a bio for inclusion with the article. Two suggestions: First, select some relevant points from your resume. Don’t try to cram all of your credentials into the bio. Second, give the readers a way to dialog with you. Sharing my email address has generated many positive comments—which are always nice to hear—but also criticism and suggestions. These are especially appreciated. I know I don’t have all the answers. Getting feedback from people who are on the front lines is a tremendous plus. It provides a means to make future articles—and training—better and more accurate.
Developing a healthy writing style based on some easy principles will make the process easier.
- Employ a simple style, avoiding jargon or big words that aren’t necessary.
- Don’t overlook the opportunity to share stories about your mistakes as well as successes. If your true goal is to educate the readers, then having the humility to lay bare personal lessons learned is a valuable and effective technique.
- When appropriate, a little humor doesn’t hurt either. Remember: Keep it PG to improve your chances of publication.
- The article should be of worth to the readers. Making the content relevant and useful is a good part of the successful writing formula. Convince them to read beyond the first few paragraphs by the truth of your words.
This article isn’t an English Composition 101 substitute. But here are some final tips. Structure your article’s title and introduction to grab the reader’s attention. (A good editor will help with the title as well as the piece itself.) In addition, the intro should be a short statement of the article’s intent. Use the intro to sell these thoughts to the readers. When training, you most likely carry out the same process verbally, addressing your student’s WIIFM factor: What’s In It For Me? Next, focus on developing your prime thoughts into the main portion of the piece. And finally, wrap it up with a brief conclusion that at most, emphasizes a few closing thoughts.
Don’t expect to get huge sums of money for your efforts. In fact, some magazines, like those published by the NTOA and the California Association of Tactical Officers, are nonprofit. They’re focused on benefiting members through the sharing of information. Often, this is a great “payment” in and of itself.
Keep in mind that published articles will be associated with you well into the future. I once wrote an article about trainers testifying as subject matter experts. A few months later, I was on the stand giving my opinion in a use-of-force law suit when the other side’s attorney whipped out that article (“Taking a Stand on the Stand,” September 2010). In it, I had written about dealing with good, professional lawyers as well as those who are less ethical. In a courtroom ploy, the suspect’s attorney selectively read only my negative comments to the jury while ignoring the article’s more positive language. It was a clear attempt to discredit the testimony that proved the point I’d made in the article. Fortunately, this had no effect on the jury. They found in favor of the officers we were defending.
As we discussed this topic, Mr. Coates shared that “a good article lasts forever.” Think about that. If you write a piece that consists of concrete ideas and information sharing, it will probably do just that. Today, many if not most articles go onto the Internet. They’ll be archived at the big electronic library in the sky for a long time to come. In the future, there may be a fledgling police writer using a search engine to find relevant material. Hopefully, they’ll come across one of your well written articles and thank you for the hard work. So, get to work and write something, will ya?
Train safe. God bless America.