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REPORT WRITING - How to write a report

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This article describes how to write a report and makes some suggestions for improving your report writing. All these suggestions, and many more, are taught on Tony Atherton's Business Report Writing and Technical Report Writing courses where they are set in the relevant context.

Report writing is a time consuming business. It is not easy to construct and write a really good business report. In many ways report writing is a craft. If you wanted someone to make a really nice wooden table for you, or a piece of jewellery, you would probably go to a carpenter or jeweller rather than do it yourself. They have learned and mastered the necessary skills. They can do the job well.

In business we do not normally hire a professional writer to write our business or technical reports for us; we write them ourselves. However, we can usually do a better job if we take a little time to discover and develop a few of the skills used by professional writers. It is not that difficult, but it does take some time and effort. The results are worth it.

Three Stages
Many reports are badly thought out and poorly written; they make life difficult for the reader. If you follow some guidelines you can give your reports a logical structure, write them better and you can make life easier for both yourself and your readers.

Your objective should be to provide what the readers want and need, and provide it in such a way that they can find it quickly and understand it fully at the first reading. That must take into account the simple fact that you will probably have many readers who may want different things from your report. It is a tall order but you can get very close to it. The Golden Rule is that you are writing for your readers, not for yourself - that means using terminology they will understand at first reading and making your points clearly and concisely.

Begin by recognising that the process of writing a report has three stages: preparation, writing the draft and editing the draft into the finished report. Splitting the task into these three distinct stages will save you time and produce a better report. Good preparation genuinely does save time.

Stage 1 - Preparing
It may seem silly to have to say this but, as part of your preparation, make sure you know why your report is needed and what it is supposed to achieve. What is it for? What is its purpose? Agree this with your sponsor (probably your line manager). Otherwise you run a serious risk that after you present your report you will get the response, ‘It’s not quite what I wanted’. That leads to a lot of frustration, rewriting and wasted time.

So what is the purpose of your report and who is it for? The two are linked.

Generally, plan to use the standard sections that people expect in business reports. You can vary them but do so only slightly and only with very good reason. Report readers expect certain things to be in certain places, they are not looking for novelty and surprises. Make life easy for them by putting the right things in the right places.

Standard Sections
-    Title Section. In a short report this may simply be the front cover. In a long one it could also include Terms of Reference, Table of Contents and so on.

-    Executive Summary. Give a clear and very concise account of the main points, conclusions and recommendations. Write it in such a way that it could stand alone from the rest of the report. It probably won’t, but treat it so because some people will not read anything else. Keep it brief and free from jargon so that anyone can understand it and get the main points. Write it last, but do not copy and paste from the report itself; that rarely works well. The best title for this section is 'Executive Summary' although you will sometimes see it called 'Management Summary' or even 'Synopsis'.

-    Introduction. This is the first part of the report proper. Use it to paint the background to ‘the problem’ and to show the reader why the report is important to them. Give your terms of reference (if not covered separately) and explain how the details that follow are arranged. Write it in plain English.

-    Main Body. This is a catchall phrase for the meat of your report, the facts. It will probably have several sections or sub-sections each with its own subtitle. Collectively these are the heart of your report and will be unique to your report; they will describe what you discovered about ‘the problem’. These sections are most likely to be read by experts so you will probably use appropriate jargon and acronyms but explain them as you introduce them. Many people who just want to know the gist of your report will not read this Main Body or will just glance at it. You may choose to finish with a Discussion in which you explain the significance of your findings.

-    Conclusions. Present the logical conclusions of your investigation of ‘the problem’. Bring it all together and maybe offer options for the way forward. Do not include any new facts here, just the deductions or conclusions you have drawn from the facts already given. Many people will want to read this and most of them will probably not have read the Main Body. Write it in plain English.

-    Recommendations. Now, after all your careful work and thinking, what do you suggest should be done? Don’t be shy; you did the work so tell them what you recommend. Do not hedge your bets; state your recommendations in a bold but straightforward manner – in plain English.

-    Appendices. Put all the heavy stuff here, the detail that only specialists are likely to want to see. However, anything that is needed to draw the conclusions must be in the main body.

Stage 2 - Writing the draft
When you come to write the draft (note, not the first draft – just one draft should do the job if you plan well) try to get a concentrated period of time free from interruptions so that you can do large chunks of writing at a time. Don’t worry too much about the grammar and punctuation as yet – deal with those later. Just get a flow going and write.

Stage 3 - Editing
Finally, edit your report. Aim to do three things.

1. Shorten the report by removing superfluous words and phrases. For example, you might change 'at this moment in time' to 'now', or 'due to the fact that' to 'because'.

2. Improve the clarity by replacing complicated words with simpler ones where that will help the reader. For example you might change 'termination' to 'end', or 'paradigm' to 'method' or 'process'. Also check that you are not using too many long sentences and paragraphs. The average length of the sentences in this web-based article is about 15 words. To use short paragraphs, short sentences and short words is an old, and still pertinent, piece of advice for writers.

3. Check and correct the spelling, punctuation and grammar. Try to use more active verbs than passive ones. For example, 'The IT Team is investigating the matter' uses an active verb whereas 'The matter is being investigated by the IT Team' uses a passive. One is simply the back-to-front version of the other. Actives are normally shorter and a bit more direct. Reports usually read better if a sizeable majority of sentences are active. In this article about 90% of sentences are active.

This article has described some extremely useful ideas for improving your report writing. Of course, professional writers use many other techniques as well and some of these are described on our courses where exercises and examples are used for practice.

Reread the article and try some of the suggestions we have made. Implementing just three or four of these ideas should lead to better reports. If in your organisation you have several people who would like to improve their report writing or general business writing then please get in touch; we could run an in-company course for you. You can call us in the UK on 07976-390960 or email direct to Tony Atherton.

Good luck with your report writing!

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