“Ability to express ideas cogently and goals persuasively—in plain English–is the most important skill to leadership. I know of no greater obstacle to the progress of good ideas and good people than the inability to compose a plain English sentence.”
John D. deButts, former CEO, ATT
How to Do Painless Report Writing
Report or technical writing is the most used format in business, technical, and professional writing. A formal report is also known as a scientific report and generally these reports are written to explain scientific or technical processes, progress, or results. The basic format for the formal report is also the basic format for a scientific report. Generally, when this type of writing is published in academe, it is first rigorously peer reviewed by other experts in the field, and then is published by an academic journal which also conducts another rigorous review of the report before it is published. On the other hand, when an organization or business creates a report, it is usually not written for journal publication but instead for internal distribution and as such is seldom subjected to the type of careful multiple reviews given academic work. Hence, the formal business report often appears less well researched and written although this marked difference between the two types of writing is due more to a failure in writing process than any other factors.
A good report must have these four traits: 1. clarity, make your writing clear and understandable; 2. brevity, come directly to the point in your sentences, putting the subject and verb at the beginning of your sentences, 3. organizational correctness, use only the organizational pattern appropriate to the project, in this case the report format explicated below: and 4. accuracy, be absolutely certain of the veracity of your facts, the validity of the sources of your information and your own objectivity in reporting. Report writing is entirely objective and fact-based writing. Technical reports contain no opinions, only facts and data collected for the report although in some reports it may be acceptable to make well-informed speculations in the RECOMMENDATIONS section. It is concise writing and uses few adverbs or adjectives. Avoid jargon in the formal report whenever possible. If an obscure technical or scientific term that the audience may not recognize must be used, then define the term or phrase when it is used. Always be mindful of the specific audience the report is written for, and endeavor to be certain that the audience can easily understand the report.
Please note that the following format is generic. Most businesses and organizations use formats nearly identical to this generic one with small modifications specific to the individual purpose for the report. Whenever possible, get a copy of a successful and recently written report. This report can be used to alert you of deviations in the format and as a specific guide to writing reports for that company or concern. The following sections of a formal report are the universal standard.
The parts of the formal report are the TITLE PAGE, TABLE OF CONTENTS, EXECUTIVE SUMMARY, INTRODUCTION, FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, RECOMMENDATIONS, BIBLIOGRAPHY/REFERENCES, AND APPENDICES.
The TITLE PAGE is the cover page for the report. It should include the company or organization’s name across the top of the page. One third of the way down the page, center the report’s title and subtitle across the page. Two double spaces below the report’s title, add your name and title. At the bottom of the page, write a very brief listing of the sections contained in the report.
The TABLE OF CONTENTS, fortunately, is just exactly what it sounds like. Here you produce a contents page listing all of the sections and their page numbers. Of course, the writing will go better if the rest of the report is written and paginated when the table of contents is written. Here a previously written report which is considered a good example is handy because most of the larger formatting questions, such as spacing, capitalization, and pagination can be answered with a glance at the other report. Do be sure the previously written report was well-received and considered a correctly written report. The length of the TABLE OF CONTENTS is about one page.
The EXECUTIVE SUMMARY or ABSTRACT is a brief, precise description of the report. It should contain the purpose for the report and the results or findings. Do not include facts and figures, but you may refer to them summarily. Use only about ½ of a page (100-125 words) for this summary.
The INTRODUCTION is used to explicate the topic more comprehensively than the SUMMARY or ABSTRACT, but not as completely as the body of the report. The INTRODUCTION, properly written, will make the report easier to read and understand because it prepares the reader by introducing an overview of the work performed in the report and the reason for it. How the work was accomplished and any especially interesting results highlight the INTRODUCTION. Be specific enough to give the reader a rough outline of the rest of the report, but avoid using long passages of procedures or data as these belong in the body of the report. Avoid acronyms and jargon.
The THEORETICAL BACKGROUND OR THEORETICAL UNDERPINNING is usually included in the INTRODUCTION but may also follow it immediately as a separate section of either heading depending on the audience. The length of the INTRODUCTION varies with the length of the report, but as a general rule, a 20-page, double-spaced, with one-inch margins, 10 or 12 point Times New Roman font, report has a 1.5 to 2-page INTRODUCTION. So using this rough formula, estimate the INTRODUCTION at ten percent of the total length of the report. Note that only the pages from the INTRODUCTION, BODY, DISCUSSION, AND CONCLUSION are included in the page count. Luckily, the overriding rule is to make sure the report contains everything it intends to communicate, so strict page percentages are not very important but are more a guide than a rule.
Sometimes referred to as the body of the report, and including but not limited to the BRIEF STATEMENT OF OBJECTIVE OF THE PROJECT/NEEDS ANALYSIS, DESIGN/THEORETICAL ANALYSIS/PROCEDURE, BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SYSTEM MODEL, APPROPRIATE BLOCK DIAGRAMS AND PARAMETERS the main part, or BODY of the report is its meat and potatoes. Here the purpose, or OBJECTIVE of the report is thoroughly and clearly explained and contains the evidence establishing the existence of needs that will be met by the results of the report. The length of these sections should be exactly how long it takes to clearly explain. If the accompanying research is brief and uncomplicated, then write that. If, on the other hand, it was long and involved then explain it as such. Don’t leave anything important out. Don’t include any extraneous information in the body of the report.
The DESIGN/THEORETICAL ANALYSIS/PROCEDURE, BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SYSTEM MODEL section is the place for the lengthy and complicated details explaining of the type of study done, the methodology used, the data collected and its meaning relevant to the whole system. Describing the objective of the study, research, or analysis and then describing how these were met within the scope of the work is one clear and direct way to organize this section. Think of these sections as an opportunity to write a clear and concise description of how results were achieved. When there is no research design and instead analysis was used, provide a summary detailing how the analysis was performed. Don’t simply write out research formulas or display charts and graphs, but do explain these in words accompanying the visual representations. Accuracy in the entire report is of paramount importance and no more so than in this section. Write and proofread carefully here. Make sure these rather specialized and often esoteric processes and procedures are fully explicated.
The RESULTS AND DISCUSSION section minimally contains the description of the method used to test a theory, verify a design, or conduct a process. Write this section knowing that what is written here is what will prepare the reader for the DISCUSSION section. In the RESULTS section, there is a danger of confusing the reader, so be brief and come directly to the point in your sentences.
There are two likely courses this section may take depending on the public or secret nature of the research in the report. If the report is for a business or organization, the exact procedural details of the research methodology may be proprietary and not disclosed. If the report is for the public, then the procedures must be described exactly so that future researchers can replicate the findings.
Do not assume prior knowledge on the part of the reader. When presenting comparative data, use presentation methods that facilitate comparison. When data can be expressed more coherently in a visual aid such as a chart, use one. Explain every graphic used in the report. In the happy event that the RESULTS speak for themselves, then little or no explanation is necessary.
In the DISCUSSION, include an explanation of the margins of error for this particular research methodology mindfully assuming that the audience is relatively ignorant about the specific details of the research design. Lengthy procedures, charts, data, or other parts of the writing that may become digressive and cumbersome in the BODY of the report belong in the APPENDIX (ICES).
The best rule here is that if the writer bogs down re-reading the passage, then the reader certainly will, so use the APPENDIX section for this information so that it is accurately and completely communicated but does not stand in the way of reading comprehension. Mistakes here will echo there. Conclude by describing the meaning of the results and suggest trends the results speak to. If there is a wow moment or significant or unexpected fact uncovered by the report, write about it here.
Don’t drop the ball in the DISCUSSION section. Here the writer will briefly summarize all the facts that bring the report to its conclusion. Even if some aspects of the study may have been extensively described in a previous section, repeat the facts and significance in this section. Discuss what additional inferences may be drawn from the results. This section may contain ideas for further research and inquiry and should exhaust through discussion all aspects of the research results.
The CONCLUSION section is a summary of the report similar to the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY/ABSTRACT in its comprehensiveness, but presents the information in a more quantitative way since the research is complete when it is written. The CONCLUSION must contain a concise description of the report and its purpose and results now described with specific quantitative information. The CONCLUSION should contain no figures nor make reference to them. As with the SUMMARY/ABSTRACT, the CONCLUSION should be written to be read on its own without the rest of the report, so do not use jargon or acronyms.
In some instances, a RECOMMENDATIONS section is added after the CONCLUSION. In the RECOMMENDATIONS, changes to be made or further work to be done discovered by the research project is explained and described. Both expected and unexpected results imply possible courses for amelioration, and these are written about in this section. This section will vary in length depending on the RESULTS.
All reports include a BIBLIOGRAPHY/REFERENCES/WORKS CITED section. The title of the section will vary with the field in which the research is done or by the preferred citation style of the initiating business or organization. All references used in the writing of the report are listed in this section in accordance with that field’s format for citing sources. This section is especially valuable to others who may study the same topic. Be vigilant here. Use the proper citation method and cite every source used. Microsoft Word has a feature in the References tab to help correctly cite in text and in the BIBLIOGRAPHY/REFERENCES/WORKS CITED pages. The length again varies with the number of sources cited and is not of any concern.
The APPENDIX (one) or APPENDICES (more than one) section is for lengthy research tools such as surveys in their entirety or long explanations of research issues such as margin of error adjustments, and other long pieces that are necessary components of the report. Any piece of the research that can be summarized in the body of the report without loss of meaning may belong in the APPENDIX. If it is mentioned in this abbreviated way in the report, then make sure it is also included in the APPENDIX. The general rule is that if the entire contents of a piece is necessary to understanding the concept it represents, then put it in the text, and if a summary of it is just as effective, then summarize or excerpt from the piece and put the entirety in the APPENDIX. Then length of the APPENDIX will vary and should not concern the writer since all lengths are acceptable here.
- Find ways the following figure can improve your own writing process and write a couple of pages about it. If you don’t get at least two pages, then you haven’t tried as hard as I want you to try, Beloved Student/Reader. And always be mindful to write with a specific purpose and audience in mind, structure sentences, paragraphs and reports consciously and with foresight, and write clearly and concisely.
Keep a copy of the current year’s style manual at all times.
Works Consulted and Recommended
How to do Technical Writing for Plebs and Scholars
Technical writing confounds some people. It sounds so forbidding, so difficult, conjuring images of white coats and pocket protectors pregnant with pens, and leaving most people feeling relieved they dodged the bullet and pursued some field of endeavor unknown to technical writing. However, according to experts in technical writing, “Writing consumes a substantial portion of the working day for almost all college-educated workers,” (emphasis mine) (Anderson). Since we probably can’t escape it, let us learn not to fear it through familiarity. Technical writing is defined as “a form of technical communication used in a variety of technical and occupational fields, such as computer hardware and software, engineering, chemistry, aeronautics and astronautics, robotics, finance, consumer electronics, and biotechnology” (The Free Dictionary). Fortunately, although technical writing is done in many fields, good technical writing abides by the same rules as do other types of writing: clarity is everything. Good writing is clear and correct, no matter the medium that conveys it.
Another option for a business style guide
Courses in technical writing, often referred to as Business, Professional, and Technical Writing, are typically offered at the 200, or sophomore, level at most colleges and universities in the US. Students are usually required to have passed both Composition 101 and 102, also known as freshman composition sections one and two, before they are admitted to a technical writing course. Students enrolled in technical writing courses may expect to study and produce examples of all of the basic types of business and technical correspondence, including newsletters, emails, memorandum, resumes, persuasive letters, internet and social media publications, instruction manuals, and scientific reports. Additional emphasis will be placed on clarity and correctness in the writing. Few usage errors will be tolerated since students in these classes have already passed composition sections where lower order errors, such as errors in mechanics, punctuation, and usage are mastered. A section on ethics in communication is customarily taught in technical writing courses. Some universities offer a bachelor’s or master’s degree in technical writing.
Technical writing as a separate sort of writing started around the time of the Enlightenment when human beings found themselves with complicated theories, observations, and experimental results they wanted to communicate clearly to others so that human progress in technical and scientific studies could be shared and research collaborations formed. By the early 20th century, following the examples and standards set by academia, technical writing was becoming a field in its own right. Jobs could be found, either as a technical writing specialist in a firm selling writing projects to clients or as writers in in-house writing departments in businesses.
Technical writing jobs still share much in common with academic writing jobs, most specifically in the rigorous adherence to research methodology and in the facts-only, terse, hard hitting styles often found in both types of writing. With the advent of the internet, jobs in technical and other types of writing have been steadily increasing across the world. Technical writing jobs increased due to the infinite space in the internet which made room for many more words and opportunities and because our electronics, apps, and software continue to grow increasingly complex necessitating instruction manuals. Now may well be the most opportune and exciting time to pursue a technical writing career.
Technical report writing is the primary, sometimes sole, occupation of technical writers. Other types of writing are done by technical writers, but the technical report is among the longest and most complicated tasks required. Breaking the task into steps will make the writing go more smoothly. At the outset of the writing, get a template for a report or an old report produced at the organization you will be writing the report for. A template or an old report will contain any specific writing specifications and details that are required by that organization but that may not be included in a generic template. Read the report and get a general feel for how the organization’s writing. You may also read its website or its handbook, any longish pieces of writing it has produced should give you a grasp of what is expected.
Beyond this reading and any additional directions you are given with the project, you may ask yourself these questions which reflect the basic tenets of good technical writing: who is my audience; what is the most important thing I have to tell the audience; and what is the best way of making sure my audience understands all I have to say? When these three questions are clear in the writer’s mind, the writing process can commence with optimism.
The standard format for a technical report may be divided into ten sections:
- TITLE PAGE
- TABLE OF CONTENTS
- BRIEF STATEMENT OF THE OBJECTIVES OF THE PROJECT
- BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SYSTEM MODEL, APPROPRIATE BLOCK DIAGRAMS AND PARAMETERS
- DISCUSSION OF RESULTS (all plots, tables, and other pieces of visual dialog included in the report must be discussed in the text)
- CONCLUSIONS AND LESSONS LEARNED
- APPENDICES (if needed)
Anderson, Paul V. “”What Survey Research Tells Us about Writing at Work”.” Goswarmi, ed. Lee Odell and Dixie. Writing in Nonacademic Settings. New York: Guilford, 1985. 30. Print.
Harty, Kevin J. Strategies for Business and Technical Writing. New York: Pearson, 2010. Print.
Writing Styles and Stylish Writing
by Richard Green
Writing styles vary wildly across time, place, and context. The phrase “writing style” refers to two entirely different meanings of style. The first, more superficial definition of writing style refers to the actual typeface, or font, used to draw letters, and doesn’t merit discussion here. The second and more useful definition of writing style is “a style of expressing yourself in writing” and this is the definition of writing styles that concerns us here (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/writing+style). Writing style derives from a combination of elements in the writing and can change and vary according to the writing situation, time of life, or other factors.
Styles of script.
The foremost authority on style is William Strunk, and the foremost book on style is The Elements of Style, written originally by Strunk and later revised and expanded by E.B. White. Written and self-published in 1919, The Elements of Style is still the accepted standard among style texts.
The best and last words on style in written English by the foremost accepted experts.
Writing styles are like the proverbial three bears because there are high, medium, and low styles. Examples of high style, also known as academic writing, may be found in scientific reports, academic journal publications and literary analysis. The vocabulary in high style writing is challenging, the organizational pattern complex, and the topics esoteric.
High style writing is found mostly in academic and trade publications because the inherent intricacy of high style writing makes it difficult for some readers. Often, the necessity of using jargon delimits the size of the audience in high style writing. However, the very novels you love right now are written using every style.
Fiction writers may use low style for dialog to portray place, education, or ethnicity in what is otherwise a story told in a high style. Lastly, don’t forget that good writing is altogether a different thing than high style writing, with good writing frequently containing humor and clarity.
A few elements of style.
Midway between too much and too little is medium style, which is best exemplified by the writing in government publications and technical directions. Medium style writing is not required to be complicated nor interesting and in most schema, isn’t even mentioned because it is easier to explain the other two styles and then add that medium style falls somewhere in between high and low. More accurately, medium style describes good, correct, concise writing that avoids the extremes in vocabulary, length, and topic involvement that characterize high style writing.
Medium style is the sweet spot for technical, business, and other professional publications writing because it combines the correctness of high style with the greater readability and flow of low style. To read an example of medium style, pick up any government publication.
Low style writing is lesser writing in readily recognizable ways: correctness, vocabulary, length, topic, and structure. Low style writing is street speech, and when read aloud often has cadence and sound of the speech of the people in the region it comes from. Regionalism, or sense of place, is a feature of vernacular and gives it a sense of movement and growth. Low style writing and speech is full of lively innovation in the form of slang and is quick to include new words and new uses for existing words.
Although sometimes it certainly is bad writing, it can be put to good use creatively. Eventually the best neologisms in low style begin their journey into our lexicon to become part of the mainstream until finally they are indistinguishable from words and phrases with a more pedigreed pompatus.
Examples of low style are found in the common or colloquial speech, some modern and postmodern novels, and movies. Low style refers to writing or speaking that isn’t too correct, doesn’t use big words or phrases, has generally superficial topic coverage, unidentifiable or loose structure. It is anything goes writing and speaking, and although we don’t normally use it in formal writing, it occupies an influential place in language development and self-expression.
More elements of style. The current edition of Associated Press style.
The definition of proper style also varies according to the type of publication. Journalistic publications such as newspapers use both a set of style rules, Associated Press (AP) style and then each newspaper may have its own smaller set of style rules specific only to that publication, and all of these rules are unlike those used by slick magazines such as People or National Geographic.
Generally, the more frequent the publication the more responsive and changeable are the rules. Most variations in style are small, like the number of spaces after a colon, which many magazines reduced to one from the formerly accepted two spaces. Within academics, each field has its own set of rules: in English and literature, the Modern Language Association (MLA) makes the rules; in psychology, The American Psychological Association (APA) makes the publication rules that all psychologists must conform to in their professional writing. The list goes on. Suffice to say that before writing for any purpose, familiarity with the style used in that area is imperative.
Fortunately, all of the various conventions of style are similar and many, many style guides are available. Obviously, getting the style just right requires reference sources, and trying to wing it without a style guide most probably will lead to pronounced frustration.
The current edition of the MLA Handbook.
The definition of a creative writer’s style is still “a style of expressing yourself in writing”, and is still based largely on the same factors: organizational pattern; vocabulary; topic; and level of correctness. However, the most distinctive creative writing styles may contain additional features such as speech tag use in dialog, repeating motifs, or mini themes, sub textual elements, and continuity in mood or tone over several works.
Remember that the mood of a piece of writing is the overall impression it conveys while the tone of a piece is the writer’s reaction of the mood. Hence, an office may be described as efficient (mood) but perhaps the writer hates efficiency (tone). These features of individual style may cumulatively create what can be identified as the writer’s style.
When composition students are asked to imitate a writer’s style, most of them can do so even though they may be unaware of these style features. Thus although style is often subtle and sometimes difficult to explain, it is still easily recognized at some level. For further thinking, read anything by Kurt Vonnegut or Mark Twain and then try to write a passage imitating the style in the passage read. That ephemeral something that we find we can imitate is the writer’s style and the writer’s voice is what the writer has to say combined with how the writer expresses it.
A comprehensive handbook that includes MLA, APA, CM, and CSE documentation styles.
Clarity, meaning clearness in thought and style, is the most important part of style. A poorly written piece is probably also an unclear piece of writing. The causes of unclear style are the features of style run a muck: messy essay and paragraph structure, in other words the writer doesn’t place the ideas in a logical order; incorrect sentence structure, such as faulty pronoun references, changes in tense, lack of transitions such as shifting in and out of tenses until the reader is confused; uncertain or ill-conceived thesis, so that the reader never gets that road map to guide him or her through the essay; inadequate development of the topic so that the essay seems to go everywhere but to a logical conclusion.
This list of areas should be viewed as opportunities for improvement rather than a shopping list of mistakes. The point of writing has always been to express ideas, so examples of incorrectness or less than correctness need not be experienced as errors because that perception does nothing to improve a writer’s ability to express ideas clearly whereas seeing these problems as beacons indicating the way to improvement leads directly to amelioration and is the only sensible approach.
Here is the second best style book.
This text includes readings and exercises.
Some closing thoughts on style from great writers.
Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.
Style is the physiognomy of the mind.
In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.
Thanks for reading!
By Ricardo Verde
Suggested Reading Resources Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. NY: Macmillan.