Making every word count for children
Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive
The priority we attach to good writing is shown in our new Cafcass House Style guide for everyone working for Cafcass. Cafcass reports and case analyses should start with the evidence base in the case about child impact. They should end with a structured professional opinion and clear recommendations to those with authority for the child – parents, carers and/or local authorities usually, depending on the type of case and the situation. Analytical writing is based upon making every word count and making every word clear. The evidence base about child impact must start with what the child is saying or, if they cannot speak, what she or he is expressing. Those around the child can contribute to the evidence base with that focus. Our enquiries should include everyone in the child’s world who can shed light on what the child is going through and what needs to happen to make the child’s life better.
Analytical writing does not just focus on what someone says but what it means. The analysis of that should be a co-production with the person concerned, so they are not misinterpreted. Our cases are high on emotion, which means that interpretation is often contested. We therefore need the clearest evidence base possible and to set out a structured professional opinion that makes sense of a complex family situation.
As with all good writing, the reader has to be drawn in from the start, if they are not to skip the text and go straight to the conclusion. This can be helped by using the ‘inverted pyramid’. This means you start with your strongest points and when you are through those, you stop. No padding; nothing that is not to the point. This technique helps with adherence to structure in a report or case analysis and this helps the reader to follow what is being said.
We emphasise to our practitioners that the child should ‘leap off the page’ in their reports. When this happens, reports can be a powerful tool for change. The child can sometimes be seen and heard properly for the first time. None of our reports need to be longer than ten pages to achieve this, though we do not set an artificial page limit. Usually, the stronger the analysis the easier it is to write concisely. The woollier the writing, the longer the report and the harder it is to follow.
While our work is mostly about changing the child’s environment for the better, a well argued and evidence-based report or case analysis can make a difference too. This is what we strive to produce, for every child in every case.