TIJ is very pleased to announce the first in a series of articles by our own Jim Morrison. He's a reporter for the Banker and Tradesman in Boston and a former home inspector. Buckle up, put your ego in check and learn from the very best.
On Improving Your Reports
Consider this advice from a close friend, though we've likely never met. For about 25 years, I was a home inspector. Five years or so ago, I left the field to write for newspapers and magazines in a time when most outlets are laying people off. I know a bit about both inspecting and about writing.
Most of what follows are my own thoughts, but some of it I've learned from others. Where memory serves, I've attributed those thoughts that aren't mine.
I've known hundreds of home inspectors and -like many of you- have read HI reports numbering in the hundreds. There are no more than two inspectors I'm aware of that the following does not apply to (and one of them is dead): Your report is much, much worse than you think and it may be your biggest liability.
Your report isn't worth much if your client doesn't read and understand it. Newspaper writers are arguably under more pressure than anyone to attract, inform and keep readers' eyes on the page/screen until the very last word (and that's what you ought to be doing, too).
Writing Reports Is The Single Most Important Part of Your Job
If the greatest inspector ever born finds a serious defect in a property and explains it eloquently on-site, but fails to get her message across in writing, she has failed her duty and put herself at great risk. If something goes wrong and she gets a call from her client's attorney, the report will be the bulk of her defense. It had better be good.
A clear, complete, concise report is the best product you can offer. It's also your best defense in a lawsuit. Best of all, it might even discourage lawyers from filing suit against you in the same way that bad reports encourage them.
It's not what you meant, but what you wrote that will protect (or sink) you. Words have meanings and those meanings matter. Hell, even commas have meaning, but don't take my word for it. Read this. It's far from the only case of its kind.
Look, you want your report to be an easy, informative read and as they say: easy reading is damned hard writing. You don't have to be a gifted novelist to write a decent HI report; it's a skill that can be taught and honed.
Your Report Is Awful
I wasn't a very good report writer. To get good, you need practice (which most of you have) and good coaching (which most of you don't). A good editor/coach will bring anyone's game up. Way up. Now that I've had a lot of brutal, ego-smashing coaching, I can see just how bad some of my work was. Luckily, I've forgiven myself and managed to avoid the inside of a courtroom. You may not be as lucky, but there's still time to save yourself.
It's really important for HIs to understand that -like it or not- you are professional writers. You may be a brilliant inspector who has never missed a defect. You may even charm the socks off every client you've ever had. But if you aren't writing reports that clearly and concisely put what you saw on-site into your clients' heads through your reports, then you are a liability to your firm.
Writing Is Like Playing Catch
One of the reasons my reports weren't that good is because I thought like a home inspector and not like a professional writer. The first big concept you have to accept is that writing is like playing catch. It's not enough to be a good thrower (writer). For a game of catch to be successful, you need a decent catcher (reader) as well.
But you don't control who's catching (reading). You'll have different readers every day, so home inspectors need to be the best writers they can possibly be. The information you're trying to get across has to land gently and squarely in the reader's heads, in a way that is impossible to misunderstand. If you make a reader work for it, many of them won't get your meaning and you will have failed at your job and put yourself at risk.
Some Good Role Models
Ernest Hemingway is widely considered one of the greatest American writers. He got his training as a journalist. He avoided big words and always used the right words. His prose was stark, short, punchy, easy to understand and packed with meaning. He didn't dumb his writing down; he made it crystal clear. He's a great example to follow. Mark Twain, too.
Closer to home, search the TIJ forum for reports that Jim Katen has posted. He is the best report writer in the business. His reports are remarkably clear and free of major flaws. If you find yourself thinking, this is very different from most of the HI reports I've read; Good! Don't write like most home inspectors.
Want to dramatically improve your writing and reduce your liability in 15 minutes? Google up Orwell's six rules for writing, print them out and tape them to your computer monitor. Read them often and follow them always.
That'll do for now. More later.
Email Jimmy questions, comments or send him some of the worst HI writing you've seen at: JamesAndrewMorrison@gmail.com
Edited by Jim Morrison