Report writing (Part 2)

April 2006 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
I did not intend to write a follow-up to my February column about report writing, but so many readers responded that I decided to publish what some of you have to say.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S.

I did not intend to write a follow-up to my February column about report writing, but so many readers responded that I decided to publish what some of you have to say. The more than 45 e-mail responses represent both sides of the issue, although a clear majority of them favored my action when I refused to change a report because a reviewer wanted me to.

At the end of the February column I asked six questions, but only the sixth one, "Does it appear that I was just being stubborn by declining to change my report?" was controversial. My column this month highlights readers who feel that I was wrong.

Next month I will present the other side—those who favor my decision. Some of the responses have been slightly edited in the interest of clarity and brevity.

The most vehement response by a reader to the question of whether I was being stubborn was, "Yes! Yes! Yes! None of your recommendations were questioned by the client, and the client's suggested changes were, when viewed from the big picture, meaningless. As long as none of the suggestions impacted your meaning or intent, I think you were a fool to not keep a happy client, and I would happily work for the client that you rejected. I am not surprised in the least that you are no longer working for them."

Neither am I.

Another reader inquired, "Did you talk over the reviewer's changes with your client? Did you talk to the employee who did the review? It seems like some good old face-to-face discussions could have gone a long way there and maybe made everybody happy. You know, a little give and take. Then you would have not come off being stubborn—and maybe you would still be getting work from them." My amiable correspondent may have a point, and that's why I wrote the column in the first place. I wanted input; even though I knew some of it would be negative regarding my action.

Another reader wrote, "In the situation you describe—without knowing any more details than what you provided—you should have made the changes requested. You know your client felt you should have made the changes, too, as evidenced by the lack of follow-up work." You guys are beginning to make me feel bad! One e-mail said, "If your client contact was happy with the suggested changes (proposed by the aggressive reviewer) I say make the changes. Your description of a 'serious flooding' for something 18 inches deep and about the size of a football field does not give me a complete picture. Obviously, the real picture is incomplete." I have to admit, 18 inches deep doesn't sound like much. I defend my action with the comment, "I guess you had to be there." I would add that 18 inches deep isn't much on a floodplain, but in another setting, such as the one I wrote about, it could be very serious.

"Remember, in business the customer is always right. As a consultant, it is your duty to provide a work product that your client wants, provided it is not unethical or illegal. Your client was ready to pay for modifying the report and—you said the changes were not substantive, so I do not see any reason not to comply with your client's wishes." This point is part of the reason I posed the question to readers. It's probably the strongest argument against the action I took.

I received an interesting communication from a P.L.S., who wrote about surveying problems. "My biggest gripe is [that] these 'description checkers' are not licensed and want to change the body of [a lot] description," he wrote. "The problem is their lack of understanding of 'Lot & Block' and 'sectionalized land' descriptions. They want to change metes and bounds, which can create a gap or overlap. I refuse to change a perfectly good, simple description to a long drawn-out redundance of useless words." Another message said, "In the final analysis, the client is always right, even if he/she doesn't always operate in the most cost-effective manner possible." And another respondent wrote, "If the feedback you received was authorized and does not change the content of the report, and they are glad to pay you to make the revisions, for crying out loud, this will help you to retain your client." A good point, but this is getting into a gray area.

Another reader said, "I agree that their suggested changes were not substantive. However, given that they agreed to pay you to make them, I would have made the changes and been done with it. Sounds like there might have been communication problems." It's probably true that we might not have been on the same page of a design manual.

Perhaps we were not even in the same book.

One reader responded, "Being a consulting engineer, I have always maintained the philosophy 'the customer is always right, unless he is not willing to pay for it'" This seems to be a recurring theme from those who feel I was wrong in my action. I'm going to continue, stubbornly disagreeing with their viewpoint—stubbornly.

And, "My usual method of resolving issues is to contact each reviewer and reconcile each comment—to [get] approval of the report.

That is my ultimate goal. Sometimes I think that the reviewer's comments are an insult to my writing abilities. But then I remind myself of my ultimate goal. Is my pride more important than my goal?" I guess the goal of getting approval of a report is valid, but the "gray area" is getting grayer.

Finally: "With all due respect, I have to say you were wrong to take the action you did." This reader then discussed his sound reasons in detail, ending with, "If you prefer to just shoot me, you'll have to take a number and get in line with the rest." Rest assured that I plan no such action in this matter.

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201-441-9719; or e-mail him at

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