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REPORT WRITING - Editing a Report

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Report writing is not the easiest of tasks and one of the biggest mistakes made by many report writers is to neglect the final stage of their task - which is to edit and proof-read their report carefully. So often this final task is done casually, if at all, whereas it should be done carefully and systematically.

So, how do you actually do it? Different professional writers will have different approaches, but they are likely to have several of the following in common.

1. Print it! Read it! Fix it! Many people find it easier to edit a printed document than one still on the screen, so print and read it. If you stumble then your readers will almost certainly do so too. If you, the writer, cannot read your report without hesitating, then what chance have your readers got?

2. Shorten it! This will involve doing a number of things. First, remove anything that does not add value to your report. In fact, nothing like that should be in there but if it is, delete it. Just because you sweated blood to find out a bit of information does not mean your reader needs to know it. If they do, include it; if they don't, leave it out. Be ruthless about this.

3.  When writing keep your paragraphs fairly short; try to average around 5 to 8 lines if printed on A4 paper. Short paragraphs look more inviting and are easier to read than long ones. Keep your sentences short as well, aiming for an average of around 17 to 21 words. Obviously some will be longer and some will be shorter. Consider splitting sentences that are longer than about 35 to 40 words.

4.  Replace any unusual or obscure words with ones that are easier to understand, and delete unnecessary words. Try to use plain English - if your reader has to get a dictionary out to understand your report then you have not used plain English. When writing a report your job is to get your argument across to your reader, not to expand his or her vocabulary.

5.  You can also tighten up your writing by preferring active to passive sentences. This point of grammar can seriously improve your report writing! Active sentences will usually have a subject-verb-object structure whereas passive ones have an object-verb-subject structure. Clear as mud? Forget the grammar and just look at some examples. 

For example, The dog chased the cat (5 words) is an active sentence whereas The cat was chased by the dog (7 words) is a passive sentence. Active sentences are normally shorter and a bit more direct and it's usually a good idea to aim for about 70-80% of your sentences to be active when writing reports. You will probably struggle to get that example into your report but here are two from real reports:
Three sites were visited by the inspectors. (Passive)
The inspectors visited three sites. (Active)
Children were encouraged to use exploratory play by their teachers. (Passive)
Teachers encouraged children to use exploratory play. (Active)

6.  Do the obvious checks. It is surprising how many people appear to skip the basic checks on punctuation, spelling, grammar and illustrations. Grammar checkers are far from perfect but they will provide some help if used intelligently.

Subject-verb-agreement usually means that you have muddled up singulars and plurals. Remember that 'collective nouns' such as the board, the committee and the industry are actually singular and take singular verbs despite referring to lots of people or organisations. So we write The committee is very concerned not The committee are very concerned.

Most punctuation problems can be avoided if you use short sentences. Short sentences need fewer punctuation marks - and the grammar checker is more likely to get things right too. If you keep things simple you will probably only need a colon (:) if introducing a list or bullet points, and you will hardly ever need a semicolon (;).

Check the spelling throughout the report! Make sure that the spellchecker is set to the right version of English for your readers but do not rely on it. It cannot check the meaning of what you have written. If you mistype a word so that it ends up as a correct English word (such as typing work instead of word) it will miss the mistake. You must check carefully by eye. If you are not a good speller try asking a colleague to check for you. Reports are usually important documents and when report writing you should do a professional job - which means using good grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Also check that your illustrations are correctly captioned and numbered - and that they are all referred to in the text.

7.  Finally, take a good look at it. Does it look good? Adding some white space in sensible places (such as an extra line space after sections) can make a report look more inviting.

Editing any document, but especially a report, is an important part of the production process, not an optional extra to be done if you have nothing better to do with your time. When doing any writing, especially when writing a lengthy report, no matter how much care you take you will find errors to correct if you edit carefully and methodically. It is far better for you to find them and correct them than for your readers to notice them and wince. Report writing is not necessarily easy, but it can be rewarding and a good report can build your reputation. A bad one can too!


Author: Tony Atherton
Tony Atherton 2005, 2013 (For permission to reproduce this article please write to Tony Atherton)



About the author:
Tony Atherton is a freelance trainer and writer with over 25 years' experience. He runs in-company courses in Technical Report Writing, Business Report Writing and Minute Taking. For course details click home.



Enquiries: E-mail direct to Tony Atherton or call 07976-390960

Based in Hampshire, England

Last updated 24 July 2014