Your first thoughts probably weren’t so much about audience this time, either; you were probably thinking hard about jargon, though. You know (from CSI or elsewhere) that coroners use very specific terminology that allows for precise and concise description, so to write a plausible report you had to muster up as many factual and pseudo-medical words as possible. In other words, your freedom to select words—to choose your diction—was limited greatly by the jargon of this profession, which means that the tone was also mostly dictated. Because a detective and a coroner have similar agendas in that they report causes, effects, and facts, and because they often present to similar audiences, their reports often assume a similar tone that is informative, authoritative, and forensic.2 But the tone of the coroner’s report is ultimately much more technical and is prescribed by the medical community. Every discipline has its own range of acceptable jargon, diction, and tone to be learned and applied.
So how does your report read? If it is like that of my students, you began it much like you did your detective report with the five, simple facts relating to the crime. After that, however, it diverges. It becomes focused on the body alone and for good reason—that’s all you’ve got to look at! Here I’d like to answer some relevant questions I asked but never addressed with regard to your detective report: what details did you include or omit and why? Of course the coroner cannot and does not include details about the parking garage, but what would stop him/her from recording whether Mark Smith was handsome or not, or whether the tattoo on Smith’s calf was cool or comical, or whether he reminded the coroner of his/her brother-in-law? You think this a dumb question, I know, because such subjectivity and personal observations do not belong in an official, objective report. Perhaps the question is dumb, but thinking about why it is dumb is not: even though you are not a real coroner (you just play one here) you have an awareness not only of what the genre demands but also what it rejects. You have a sense of what is appropriate in this context, and in many, many other thetorical contexts, including when you assume the role of a student writing an essay (we are getting closer to a definition of genre).
What surprises me most about all the times I’ve asked students to write like coroners do is not that they can, even though this is the most difficult exercise in the group, but that they do not include the simplest information—a basic, physical description of Mark Smith. They tend to jump right into gory descriptions of what got him to the morgue but not anything like “The subject is a Caucasian male, is in his early thirties, about five feet, ten inches tall and 175 pounds; he has brown eyes and shoulder-length, dark brown hair. He has a birthmark on his left forearm and a two-inch scar in the vicinity of where his appendix would be.” Maybe students are just too eager to cover the “five facts” I have presented them; or maybe it is that they are not so eager to ponder Mark Smith as a real but dead person with personal features; or both.
After reporting the five facts in the first sentence of his coroner’s report, and adding that Mark Smith was found by an off-duty police officer, Brett Magura writes:
After post-mortem evaluation, it can be seen that only one of
the six stab wounds was fatal. This stab came from behind,
through the back and in between the ribs, puncturing the
heart and causing internal bleeding. The fatal blow appeared
to follow an effort to run away after the first five wounds occurred
to the hands and arms. The wounds on the hands and
arms are determined to be defensive wounds.
Magura concludes his report with the contents of Smith’s stomach and a blood-alcohol level assessment. Like many students, Magura identifies the locations of the wounds and the exact cause of death, and like many students he admirably gropes for the words that coroners use. Instead of “back” or “behind,” he might have substituted “posterior” and thrown in some words like “anterior” or “lateral” or “laceration,” I would venture, but his report is on target even if his and my jargon would benefit from some medical schooling.
Lecille Desampardo is the only student I’ve known to give the report a case number, “Murder Case #123,” which immediately suggests that her report is official and conforms to standards we would also find in Cases 1 through 122. Even better, one could easily keep track of and even reference such a report, which would be important if it should be needed as forensic evidence. Desampardo finds “remnants of some kind of black grease” in the stab wounds, and upon the miracles of further lab testing links it to the “Nissan Pathfinder owned by the victim.” Coupled with the “irregular shape” of the stab wounds, the murder weapon was a “monkey wrench” she concludes. What kind of weapon did you deduce killed Mark Smith? Was it a hunting knife or a butcher’s knife or scissors or something else? Does your report work to support that assumption? Chances are you found yourself knowing exactly what content to include but were frustrated at not having the exact words you desired at your disposal. In this rhetorical instance, you even know what it is you don’t know (which, unfortunately, can also be the case when you are first learning academic writing).
On the other hand, perhaps these words came easy for Kristin Flynn who writes,
Mark Smith was an amazing father, husband and good friend.
His unfortunate murder and untimely demise come as a shock
to all who knew him. Mark and I go way back [ . . . ]. His
memory will be forever treasured, and it is truly a shame to
have to say goodbye to him today.
Wait a minute? What happened to the knife, the parking garage, and the stab wounds? One would hope that such graphic details wouldn’t make their way into a eulogy.
Yes, the next exercise I want you to write is a short eulogy for Mark Smith, which is a speech of remembrance delivered at a funeral. This exercise is perhaps one of the easier ones to write, but that is only if you liked Mark Smith and can write in honesty; imagine how difficult it would be if you didn’t like him? So return now to the “five facts,” invent the details that you need, and work for five minutes or so to fulfill the rhetorical demands of the genre of the eulogy (which I hope you’ll never get much practice in).