How to Do Painless Report Writing
“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
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 factor.
A good report must have these four traits:
1. The holy trilogy of report writing is 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. and 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 your point.
Here is a link to a selection of handbooks about report writing.
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
TABLE OF CONTENTS
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. 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 cannot be summarized in the body of the report without loss of meaning may belong in the APPENDIX.
If it is mentioned in an 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.
Sources for further reading (click to get a closer look)
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.
Donald, Robert B. Models for Clear Writing. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1994. Print.
Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Penguin Random House, 2016. Paperback.
Hacker, Diana. Rules for Writers: A Concise Handbook. New York: St. Martin’s , 2016. Print.
Harris, Muriel. Prentice Hall Reference Guide. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2017. Print.
Harty, Kevin J. Strategies for Business and Technical Writing. New York: Pearson, 2010. Print.
Jeff Rackham, Olivia Bertagnolli. From Sight to Insight: The Writing Process. n.d. Hardcover.
Phillips, Rance G. Baker and Billie R. The Sampler: Patterns for Composition. Lexington: Heath, 1986. Print.
Rise B. Axelrod, et. al. The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing. New York: Bedford, 2016. Print.
Strunk, William and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan, 1999. Print.
Webster’s New World Dictionary. New York: Warner, 2016. Print.
• Archive of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) (Chartered in 1915, operational from 1917-1958. The NationalAeronautics and Space Act of 1958 created NASA from NACA.
• Technical Report Archive and Image Library (TRAIL) U.S.government technical reports issued primarily prior to 1975 and digitized by the TRAIL. More on TRAIL • GLISC Guidelines for the production of scientific and technical reports