Welcome back. While it is usually the detective who asks all the questions, we will proceed first with me grilling you not about the murder but about your report:
• How does it begin? Where does it end?
• What types of details did you find yourself adding? Why? What details did you omit? Why?
• What kind of words did you choose?
• What tone did you take? (I will admit, tone can be a tricky thing to describe; it is best done by searching for a specific adjective that describes a feeling or an attitude such as “pretentious,” “somber,” “buoyant,” “melancholic,” “didactic,” “humorous,” etc.).
• How did you order your information?
• And, since I am working under the assumption that no undergraduates have yet had careers in law enforcement, how did you know how to write like a detective would in the first place?
The answer I get to my last question invariably is “from television, of course,” nowadays particularly from shows such as the fictitious CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and reality-based The First 48. From such shows, and from detective movies or fiction, we get a glimpse not only into the work detectives are likely to do but also the language they choose. Gradually, and ever so subtly, we internalize this detective speak, which is more than just the jargon they use. Jargon is the terminology used by those in a particular profession or group to facilitate clear and precise communication, but this rhetorical tool is not limited just to the professional world. For example, anyone who participates in a sport uses the lingo specific to that sport, which is learned by doing. Doctors use medical jargon and lawyers use legal jargon, and they go to school specifically to learn the terms and abbreviations of their professions; so do detectives. If you use any kind of slang words, you, too, use jargon, but if you studied these words in a book, they are probably not very hip or at least not very au courant. For slang is different in that it maintains a currency in a dual sense: it strives to be current, and it circulates among a select network of users. Jargon does not fall victim to fashion so easily as slang does, but it does have a similar effect in that they both exclude those outside of the community who do not understand the meanings of the words. And so purposefully in the case of slang and not necessarily purposefully in the case of jargon, the initiated constitute an “insiders club” for whom they themselves are their intended and best audience. When you write an academic paper, you are practicing how to use the jargon you have internalized through studying that discipline as you write for professors and students within that field.
Getting back to the detective writing . . . although you probably didn’t think much about whom your audience would be, who would read such a report, when you got started you probably had no problem deciding how to begin your narrative: Am I right that it starts with you arriving at the crime scene, and that you wrote in first person? Every piece of writing needs a starting point and a perspective, it is true, and the demands of the genre—in this instance the reports of detectives—shaped the very first words of your response. This is why I say with confidence that you worked your magic with more than just detective jargon. As much as I am aware of my audience here—so much so that I am trying to engage in dialog with you through my casual tone, my informal language, and my addressing you directly by asking you questions and anticipating your responses ultimately the format dictates that our “conversation” remain one-sided.
As much as I wish I could chat with you about the report you wrote, I cannot. Instead, I offer you here the “detective reports” of students much like you, students taking freshman composition classes who were given just the five facts about the murder, to present some rhetoric in action. “I arrived at the crime scene at roughly 22:45 (10:45) p.m.,” writes Jeannette Olsavsky; “headquarters had received a phone call at 10:37 p.m. about a dead body lying stabbed in the parking garage on Franklin Ave.” Ilya Imyanitov starts his report with: “My partner and I received a phone call at 11:02 p.m. from dispatch that a body was found in the parking garage on 34th and 5th. We were the first to arrive on the scene.” Here’s one more example: “On Saturday, June 6th, at 10:37 p.m., the Montclair Police Department received an anonymous call regarding a body found in the Hawk Parking Garage. Detectives Dan Barry, Randy Johnson, and I, Tamara Morales, were called to the scene. Upon arrival, we noted the cadaver was facing down and had multiple stab wounds.”
Did you notice all of the things that these reports do similarly? Mere coincidence? I think not. They obey the conventions of the genre (which is a word we will gradually define). All of these opening sentences note some kind of phone call that gets them to the scene of the crime, all of them establish more specifically the location, all of them note precise times (which could be of significance), all of them are in first person, and two of our detectives work with partners. While the similarities continue to multiply as the three reports unfold, we can discern from these few sentences alone that writers attend to how they order their information and that writers can aspire towards objectivity
even when writing in the first person.
Since detectives are trained observers who search for clues to aid in the investigation of a crime, they provide written, first-hand accounts of the tangible evidence they find. They also speculate as to what might have motivated the criminal to perpetrate the crime. In short, detectives have an agenda: in their reports, our three student-detectives try to identify the victim, establish injuries and cause of death, and look for signs of foul play. They also hope to interview witnesses to corroborate their findings, and one lucky detective does. Detective Imyanitov “took down a statement from the [garage] attendant, Michael Portnick.” Portnick “states that he was making his rounds as usual,” and “he remembers checking his phone” when “he discovered a body that appeared to be stabbed to death.” Why such hesitation, Detective Imyanitov? You can tell from the verbs he uses (such as Portnick “states” and “remembers,” and the body “appeared”) that he is recording a version of the events he has not yet verified, and so he infuses his narrative with words that establish room for doubt. Through his diction, or choice of words, Imyanitov establishes a tone for his report that is formal, objective, inquisitive, and tentative all at the same time. Not surprisingly, Olsavsky’s and Morales’s reports adopt much the same tone, and all three also end the same way: with the call for a “full investigation”
to ensue based on the preliminary findings.
These three detective reports, in fact all the detective reports I’ve ever collected from students, discuss to some degree the nature of the fatal wounds Mark Smith received. Now shift gears slightly to imagine that you are the coroner who is on duty in the city morgue when Mark’s body arrives. The coroner must do a full examination of the corpse and, what else, write up a report (trust me, there are few jobs out there that do not require writing). Visualize yourself in your new occupation, recall the “five facts,” and then take five minutes to write up your findings as a coroner might (remember, you may add or invent as many details as you like, but you may not alter the given facts). Really—go, write, and come back.