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Evaluators need to write clearly for their work to be used. Although not preferable, the written evaluation report must stand on its own, clearly conveying the key findings and messages. The 9 mistakes below are ones that I’ve come across in my years of writing, editing, and reading evaluation reports. The first three are more evaluation specific, while the middle three relate more to writing style, and the final three are all about grammar. I’ve provided tips to help you prevent or correct these common errors.
1. Using Jargon
To explain why not to use jargon I, ironically, must first explain it. The Oxford Dictionary defines jargon as “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.”
What is considered jargon depends on who your target audience is. If your audience is expected to have some technical expertise, using terms others may consider jargon can help them quickly identify what you are talking about. But, if your audience is general, it may be best to eliminate the jargon or clearly explain it and avoid repeated use of the word.
Jargon can be hard to identify. In evaluation, common jargon includes topics related to:
Methods: e.g. mixed methods, formative evaluation, summative evaluation, systematic sampling, convenience sampling
Analysis: e.g. data saturation, logistic regression, triangulation
Interpretation: e.g. benchmark, generalizability
Tip: If you need to use jargon in a report that includes a general audience, explain the concept first, then use the jargon-y word. Using jargon first and explaining second can cause general audience members to disengage and feel like concepts are over their heads.
2. Using analogous words
In evaluation there are several words that can be used relatively interchangeably.
Common analogous words include:
Sometimes, which term is being used depends on your audience or stakeholder. Check if you are unsure. In rare cases, multiple words can be used within one program in which case its best to have your stakeholders agree which term will be used in the evaluation report (and to prevent a tracked changes war between stakeholders. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen).
Tip: ctrl+F can help you find and replace mistakes that slip by or when multiple people are involved in writing sections of the report.
3. Floating or repetitive quotes
When using quotes, tie them into the text without restating what the quote is about. Quotes should fit seamlessly into the narrative and be embedded within the surrounding text. Do not just restate what the quote says in the body of your writing.
For example, I often see:
“…Participants were happy with the training, especially the extra attention given to policies and procedures.
‘I liked the training, especially the part where we learned about the policies and procedures.’ (Program participant)”
Tip: Quotes should be used for emphasis and to showcase the participants’ voice, not to explain an entire concept.
4. Exaggerating with Adverbs and Adjectives
Be very cautious about using hyperbole in your writing (see what I did there!). Modifiers that exaggerate your statements should be used with intention. Writing that is littered with exaggerative adjectives and adverbs tend to make people skeptical. Show rather than tell your audience why something is the most/best/greatest/very.
For example, instead of writing:
“Participants were very frustrated about x,” show the reader what you mean. “Participants consistently expressed frustration about x” tells us that this topic came up many times, while “Participants recalled specific times where they were frustrated about x” tells that this issue was described specifically rather than people just stating “x was frustrating.” In both cases, the examples provide a clearer picture of the frustration than just ‘very’ frustrated. Being more specific lends greater clarity to your writing and provides important details for your audience.
Tip: Writing with exaggeration is a habit that is best caught during the editing process. If you can catch yourself while writing, ask yourself what other descriptive word could be used. Most often, the adjective or adverb is unnecessary and can be removed.
5. Being Verbose
In school I often filled my papers with extra words and explanations to meet the page or word count or an assignment. In writing for evaluation, you want to do the opposite. The time and energy you put into creating clear and readable reports is wasted if you leave your readers to wade through your long-winded writing. Being succinct is a learned skill.
Tip: Use active voice (see more below) and edit, edit, edit.
6. Using Passive Voice
Active voice is when the person or thing doing the action comes first. Passive voice is when the person or thing being acted on comes second. Writing evaluation reports using active voice gives your writing a sense of energy and reduces your word count. It also makes it is clear who or what is doing the action.
The participants were told about the interview by the program director. (Passive)
The program director told the participants about the interviews. (Active)
Tip: Always think who did what. Be assertive in your writing.
7. Data is/are
No matter what side of the data is/are debate you fall on, pick one side in your writing and stick to it. Sometimes your choice is dictated by your audience. A more academic of formal environment may prefer that you refer to data as plural (and use datum when referring to a singular piece of data) while a general audience may feel this style is too formal. The APA 7th edition citation guide defines data as a plural noun, requiring the use of plural verbs. However, in many contexts ‘data’ is considered a mass noun, like butter, water, or sugar.
Tip: Whether you’ve chosen to refer to data in the plural or singular, an easy way to check that you are using the correct verb when editing your writing is to replace the word ‘data’ in your head with another word which is more obviously either singular or plural. I use ‘cats’. Reading my methods section aloud in my head sounds like “The program staff captured the administrative cats in an Excel spreadsheet. The cats were checked for completion and missing data.”
8. Oxford Comma
Highly contested just like referring to data as a singular noun, the use (or not) of the oxford comma often elicits strong opinions. Being consistent with your usage sends a message to your reader about grammatical precision. When multiple people are writing the report, it is important to be consistent in whether you use (or not) the oxford comma or not throughout the report.
Tip: If you chose not to use the oxford comma be aware that there are certain instances where a comma is necessary before the word ‘and’ in a list greater than two things to convey the correct meaning.
Probably the most common example: ‘The strippers, Hitler and Stalin…’ implies, or is ambiguous at best, that Hitler and Stalin are the strippers in this sentence. While ‘The strippers, Hitler, and Stalin…’ makes it very clear that there are three groups of people being referred to in this sentence: 1) strippers, 2) Hitler, 3) Stalin.
9. Unclear pronoun reference
No, I’m not referring to the use of gender pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’, rather I’m referring to having an unclear link between the pronoun and it’s antecedent (the noun it is referring to). Pronouns such as ‘it,’ ‘they,’ and ‘that’ should link clearly to one noun.
For example: “Laura and Marissa liked the ice cream she made.”
Who made the ice cream? She is ambiguous in this context as the reader is unsure which of the two women made the ice cream.
A more common example I see in reporting: “The participants and program staff had differing opinions about the pizza lunch that was provided. They said it was greasy and soggy.”
Who said it was greasy and soggy? The participants or the program staff? Since they have differing opinions, we are assuming both groups didn’t think the pizza was greasy and soggy.
Tip: Nothing can fix this mistake other than judicious editing. Match your pronoun to one clear noun.
Hopefully these common errors and tips have given you a starting place to improve your next evaluation report.
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