Writing Good Reports


A report is a written document that is intended to communicate specific information to a specific audience for a specific purpose. The emphasis on communicating information for a purpose is what sets report writing apart from other forms of writing, such as writing intended to entertain, persuade or motivate. 

A report is typically the culmination of a range of related activities, which may include: 


  • carrying out research or an investigation
  • performing an experiment
  • gathering, analysing and interpreting data 
  • constructing an artefact such as a computer system

The report often presents conclusions and recommendations - drawn from these activities - that inform future actions. This knol offers guidance on the process of writing a report, but not on the related activities. 



“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure."   Samuel Johnson 



Terms of Reference

The first thing that you need to do - before even starting to plan your report - is to ensure that you understand exactly what is expected of your report.  The best way to achieve this is to have an explicit statement - often called the terms of reference - that clearly describes what you are expected to produce.  
If you are fortunate you will be given a suitable terms of reference when you are asked to write the report.  If you are not given one, or if the one you are given is vague, ambiguous or unclear, then you must ask for clarification before you begin planning the report.



Planning your Report

Having agreed your terms of reference you are in a position to start planning the report.  This is an often overlooked aspect of report writing but you should approach it in much the same way as you would approach any project planning task. 

  • Identify the tasks that need to be completed - for example: 
    • deciding upon the structure of report
    • writing each section of the report
    • proof reading each section of the report
    • revising each section of the report.


  • Identify time and resource constraints - for example: 
    • the date by which the report must be completed
    • other dates - if any - when parts of the report need to be available
    • how much total effort time you have available to write the report.


  • Allocate effort hours to each task in such a way that all the tasks are completed within the  time constraints.




“He who fails to plan plans to fail."   Anonymous

Inexperienced writers may find it difficult to estimate how long different tasks will take - even experienced writers sometimes stumble over this. Planning is not an exact science and you should expect to get a few things wrong and have to go back and revise your plan from time-to-time. 



The Report Structure


The structure of your report will depend on a variety of factors, including:

  • the terms of reference and the purpose of the report
  • any conventions that exist within the discipline, subject area or industry that you are working in
  • any conventions that exist within the organisation that you are working in

It is always a good idea to begin by looking at examples of previous reports in your organisation.  Always follow the local conventions on structure and presentation unless you have a very good reason for departing from them.

You will find that the following sections or elements commonly appear in a range of different report types.  

  • front matter
  • introduction
  • results
  • discussion
  • recommendations
  • references
  • appendices

Each one of these is discussed individually below.



Front Matter


This refers to a variety of information that might precede the main text of a report or book.  Information commonly found here includes: title page, acknowledgements, table of contents and abstract.


  • Title Page 

The title page should include the title of the report, the author's name and details of the organisation. The title of the report should give a clear indication of the subject matter. 


  • Acknowledgements 

Use this to acknowledge any help that you have had in preparing the report or in carrying out any related research work. For example: friends and colleagues, supervisor, library staff, technical support staff and proof-readers. 


  • Table of Contents 

The table of contents lists all the main chapters or sections in the report, with the corresponding page numbers. If there are multiple levels of sections and subsection, you will have to decide how many levels to include in the table of contents. Bear in mind that more is not always better - you need to balance informativeness with clarity. 


  • Abstract 

The abstract is a brief statement that gives the reader sufficient information to decide whether or not they should read the rest of the report. It may be up to a page in length but it is usually much shorter than this: around 100-200 words is typical.




Introduction


The introduction should give some background to the report, and should refer to, or include, the terms of reference.  It should indicate:

  • why the report was produced
  • who might be interested in reading it
  • how they might expect to benefit from reading it

Where appropriate, the introduction should make clear the limits of the report.  In other words it should say what the report does not deal with or take into account - as well as what it does.  It is common for an introduction to say something about the structure of the report by, for example, listing the chapters or main sections and giving a brief preview of each.



Results


A report will often need to describe and interpret the outcome of some experiment, or piece of research.  The results section is used to present the bare facts and figures that were uncovered.  These should be presented clearly and with a minimum of discussion.  Where possible you should make use of tables and graphs rather than paragraphs of text.  

Large quantities of detailed data they should not be presented in this section.  The quantity and level of detail should be such that your intended reader can reasonably be expected to read and assimilate the information.  Raw data can be put into an appendix if necessary, or made available online.



Discussion


In this section the results are analysed and interpreted.  You should identify and distinguish between: 

  • questions that are answered as a consequence of your work
  • questions for which your work does not supply an answer

For questions that remain unanswered you might outline any further investigations that are required.  You should pay particular attention to highlight evidence that will be used to support any recommendations that you intend to make.



Recommendations


This section lists that the report's recommendations as clearly and simply as possible.  You might present a brief rationale with each recommendation but these should just recap and summarise arguments that have already been made - no new results or discussions should be introduced in this section.



References


It is important to make it absolutely clear to the reader, where and in what ways you report has been informed by other people's work: this is achieved by proper referencing.  There are different ways of achieving this, but they all share some features.

  • citation is inserted in the text of the report to indicate the existence of the related work that you wish to acknowledge.  There may be many citations - each inserted at the position at which it is relevant.
  • reference list gives full details for each work that has been cited.  This is intended to give sufficient information to enable the reader to trace (and in principle acquire) a copy of the corresponding work.

The Harvard Referencing System is a collection of rules and conventions governing how citations and references are presented and organised, which is intended to reduce the potential for ambiguity.  Proper citation of reference sources is the key to avoiding accusations of plagiarism.

Appendices


An appendix is used when there is additional material that is related to the report but which either:

  • is not essential to the report's main arguments or findings
  • would unduly interrupt the flow of the main text

For example, the following information might appear in an appendix.

  • a glossary of terminology or abbreviations
  • the text of any questionnaires that were conducted
  • detailed statistical data



The Writing Process


The ability to write clear and concise English is a skill that is developed, with practice, over time.  There is no simple formula, and no short cut to becoming a good writer.  However, the following general principles will help guide you in the right direction.


Brainstorm



Start any writing task by brainstorming to get your ideas down in paper.  Don't worry about:

  • grammar, style, punctuation or spelling 
  • the order in which your ideas are presented
  • whether your ideas are good or bad


Just get  your ideas down on paper.

When you have written your ideas down, start to organise them.  Think about how they are logically related to one another, and about the order in which they should be presented to the reader.  As you organise and refine your ideas you can start to weave them into a more coherent text.



Write, Read, Revise ... Repeat ...



Writing is an incremental process that includes multiple cycles of proofreading and revising.  It can be difficult to proofread your own writing, because you will tend to see what you meant to write rather than what you actually wrote.  The ideal solution is to get a friend to proofread your writing for you, but if this is not possible then the following advice may be helpful.

  • Read your report aloud to yourself - this often uncovers problems that would otherwise go unnoticed.
  • Do not try to do everything at the one session - leave some time between writing and proofreading.


Be Brief



Do not use more words than you need to convey your meaning. Inexperienced writers sometimes believe that a longer document appears more thorough or more serious than a shorter one - this is a mistake.  Remember that your goal is to convey your findings and recommendation as clearly as possible - not to impress the reader. Your report should be as long as it needs to be, but no longer.


"I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter." ~ Blaise Pascal 

Avoid phrases that add nothing to your meaning.  For example, the following expressions have the same meaning, but the latter is shorter and - more importantly - clearer.


  • Due to the fact that Microsoft Word was installed ...
  • Because Micorsoft Word was installed ...


As you proofread and revise your writing, always try to find ways to make it shorter without compromising the meaning.


Be Clear



In general, it is better to choose words that are:

  • specific rather than general - e.g.
The car would not start - rather than - The vehicle would not start
The secretary arrived - rather than - The employee arrived
  • familiar rather than unfamiliar  - e.g.
The house was full - rather  than - The dwelling was full
The coat is waterproof - rather than - the coat is impermeable to water

  • concrete rather than abstract  - e.g.
The PC was regularly maintained - rather than -

The maintenance of the PC was regular
The chip was removed - rather than - The removal of the chip was completed

Be
 careful with long sentences: they are difficult to construct properly and are often unclear and ambiguous.  The reading out loud test is good at identifying problem sentences.  If you are in any doubt it is usually better to split a sentence into two or more simpler ones.

Do not use jargon or abbreviations or acronyms unless you are sure that the intended reader will fully understand. 


  • The first time you use an abbreviation or acronym in a report, give the full phrase followed by the abbreviated form in brackets.  Thereafter you may freely use the abbreviated form.
  • The first time you use a piece of jargon in a report, consider whether you need to explain its meaning.  Thereafter you may freely use the jargon.
  • Consider collecting all jargon words into a glossary of terminology that explains their meanings.  Abbreviations and acronyms may be similarly collected into glossaries.  These glossaries would normally be put into the appendices.


Impersonal Writing Style



The purpose of a report is normally to inform the reader about some specific topic - not to tell them about yourself or what you did.

  • If survey data was analysed, it does not matter who analysed it.
  • If an experiment was carried out, it does not matter who carried it out.
  • If a computer program was written, it does not matter who wrote it.


For this reason it is normal to adopt a particular style of writing that emphasises the act rather than the doer - what was done rather that who did it.  This style of writing is known aspassive voice - in contrasts to active voice.  In many other forms of writing, active voice is preferred over passive voice - but in report writing passive voice is normally required.

The distinction between active and passive voice writing is easily grasped form examples.
Active voice emphasises the doer, and is normally avoided in report writing - e.g.
I analysed the data
You carried out the experiment
She wrote the computer program
Melissa wrote the computer program
Passive voice emphasises what was done, and is normally preferred in report writing  - e.g.
The data was analysed
The experiment was carried out
The computer program was written
For similar reasons, you should seldom need to use a personal pronoun (I, you, he, she, we, they, me, him, her, etc.) in a report.  Similarly, you will seldom need to refer to a named individual.  You may occasionally refer to an individual indirectly, via their role, function or job title - so you might write write:
The computer program was written by the programmer
The medication was given to 
the patient
but only if the reference to the programmer or patient was significant.


An Exception to the use of Impersonal Style


There are exceptions to this advice about the use of impersonal style.  In particular, you may occasionally be required to write a report about yourself or your activities.  For example, you may be required to write a report describing your activities during a job placement or internship.  In this case, you are genuinely the subject of the report, and so it is perfectly acceptable - even desirable - to refer to yourself in the first person.  For example, the following text is perfectly acceptable:


"I enjoyed most aspects of the work and feel that I learnt a great deal about the software industry ..."

In this kind of writing, there is always a danger that you will overuse the pronoun "I" - which can be a bit tedious for the reader.  For example, you will probably agree that the pronoun "I" is overused in the following text.


"I started the job in July and continued until until the following May.  I was employed as a programmer.  I enjoyed most aspects of the work and feel that I learnt a great deal about the software industry ..."

You can avoid this by writing in third person some of the time - switching to first person only when you want to emphasise your own role.  For example:


"The job title was Programmer, and the period of employment was from July until the following May.  I enjoyed most aspects of the work and feel that I learnt a great deal about the software industry ..."



Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling


Grammar, punctuation and spelling are important.  Let me say that again ...

Grammar, punctuation and spelling are important!

Poor grammar, in particular, obscures your intended meaning and forces the reader to work much harder.  In extreme case it may even:


  • discourage the reader from reading your report
  • convey the wrong meaning to the reader

It is difficult to predict all of the difficulties that you might have in this area, and  I will not attempt to.  Careful proofreading helps - particularly if it is done by someone other than the writer.  A modern word processor can help you find almost all spelling errors -  if you use it properly - but it is not much help with grammar or punctuation.




"Call me Ishmael"   ~ Herman Melville (the opening line from Moby Dick)
"Call me, Ishmael"   ~ Anonymous

Purdue University (2008) contains useful reference materials on many aspects of writing, including grammar.  I recommend that you browse this resource and return to it as needed to support your writing.  Olson (1999) has a brief, but very well written, guide to punctuation.

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