Saturday, March 5, 2011

Detectives and Writers

I’m a huge fan of detective shows, pulp fiction and film noir. Besides the obvious charm of morbidity, I think I'm partly drawn to these genres because detective work mirrors the experience of writing and reading. Detectives spin stories, they take fragments of evidence and string it together into a cohesive narrative, a chronological tale with characters, motives and consequences. When we read and when we write, we essentially do the same. We start with pieces of a story and we fill in the details until our characters and settings make sense to us, the events unfold, and the future trajectory is foreshadowed. In another sense, detectives themselves are, literally, writers. They write reports and file paperwork that ends up being incredibly influential in court and may make or break a conviction.

This fascinating article featured on the Utne Reader website dissects the literary importance of the police report. Every detective takes a specific course at the academy in order to learn how to properly write one, and the detectives learn certain writing rules that are not unlike many writing rules taught in creative writing workshops. Rules like avoid flowery adjectives and adverbs and use action verbs rather than “is” or “has.” Such rules help ensure that the narration remains neutral.

The article goes on to discuss the detective’s responsibility when writing: to be truthful and persuasive, and urges fiction writers to learn from the power of the police report, and the subtle ways in which a well-phrased sentence can paint a picture and persuade an audience to feel a certain way.

Read the whole thing here, really fascinating stuff.


  1. I find myself becoming more and more interested in creative writing going on in places you wouldn't expect to find it. I wonder if medical reports can end up being as creative as these police reports.

    I also loved how Martinez understood the rules well enough to just barely bump up against the limits of them, keeping within the rules but definitely making his point (calling the "victim" what it was--a "baby," for example).

    Just a little bit that reminds me of writers trying to continue their craft under the rules of a censoring government. How much can you say, and signal, while sticking to the rules?

    Very interesting stuff.

  2. Just goes to show how important writing and word choice is even in occupations where writing seems like a secondary function of the job. And that's an interesting point about medical reports. On the same note, coroner's reports too determine how the ending of a life is interpreted and could be interesting places to see how conscious word choice is used.