Writing Good Reports

By BNET Editorial published on BNET.com 5/02/2007

What You Need to Know
I have a report to write that covers issues that could become large and unwieldy. How do I control the scope of the material?
Try these techniques for controlling scope and content: • Take the time for a detailed conversation with the person requesting the report. Ask about the specific objectives of the report. • Think carefully about your audience, their perspective, their background knowledge of the topic, and their likely investment in it. • Work out your desired outcome, which will help you to organize your information and arguments. • It may seem obvious that the report should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but many report writers lose track of this basic structure. Plan the sections and sub-sections carefully and logically. • Find, organize, and analyze the information that you want to include. Then exclude anything you don’t really need. • After you’ve written a draft, check and double-check your work. If at all possible, ask someone else to read the report and give you feedback on whether it flows logically and convincingly.

I work in a technical area and much of my information is numerical. How can I make this compelling reading?
Unless your readers are highly technical, reams of numbers or formulas will turn them off. Make the data come alive by describing in lively terms what the numbers mean. Whenever possible, present data in easy-to-grasp graphs, charts, or other illustrations.

How can I show myself in the best light when I write a report?
Producing a highly professional document may help you advance your career as well as meet the objectives of the report, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking of the report as your résumé. It’s a vehicle to show your professional expertise, not an excuse to show off. Follow the basic rules: logical organization, simple and straightforward language. Don’t pepper the document with the latest

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acronyms and jargon. If you do need to use an acronym, write out the term the first time you use it. If you need to use a technical term that many in your audience may not understand, include a brief definition. If the report must use acronyms and terms specific to the field, consider including a glossary at the back. You may include a line that will help the reader recognize your expertise, for example: “The current debate about [subject] goes beyond the scope of this report, but my conclusions take in account the relevant issues.”

What to Do
Know What Impact You Want to Have on Your Audience
To write a good report, you need to be clear about your audience, what they know already, and what they’ll learn from your final document. You may be writing for a number of different reasons, but each will inform the approach you take: • justifying a decision that has already been made and reviewing its effectiveness. • developing a persuasive argument in support of a particular decision • providing background knowledge for a debate or a decision in which you have no investment. Each possibility suggests an organizing framework. Visualize your finished document at the outset and get a sense of how you’d like the readers to feel as they read through it. This will help you decide what to include, what to leave out, and what tone will work best.

Set the Context
Your first task is to draw readers into the material and to remove anything that would detract from them understanding it fully. Think of creating a “frame” through which readers view the topic. This frame may be a summary at the beginning of the report of its purpose, scope, structure, and any assumptions on which it’s based. You may include an outcomes statement to set expectations and guide the reader on how the contents of the report should be considered or applied. For example: “This report will contribute to the debate on [subject]” or “This report will set out the rationale for making a decision on [subject]… and conclude with a recommendation on what this decision should be.”

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Present the Key Issues, Themes, and Arguments
Identify the key issues and themes that will be developed in the main body of the report, and help the reader by providing signposts—subheads, etc.,—for where those themes will be found. Rather than crisscross themes, introduce and address each theme separately and develop your argument logically. Do not conflate personal opinions with the facts; be accurate and objective in the way you present your data, findings, or discussion points.

Explore the Implications
Now that you’ve identified and explained the key issues and themes, you need to expand on their underlying causes and consequences. Explore possible solutions, being careful to cover any implications, including costs (often overlooked). Your logic will pull the readers along and help them to come to the same conclusions as you do. If your report is designed to favor one option out of many, this is clearly the way you want to go!

Look to the Future
Some of your readers won’t be natural decision makers and may feel uncomfortable when weighing a number of options. Help them along by including a forward-looking section where you explain why one decision is better than another. Sometimes, you can do this most effectively by painting a picture of the future if the “ideal” decision isn’t made. If you do take this approach, however, you must be absolutely sure that your logic is watertight, as any gaps will give others an excellent opportunity to launch counterarguments.

Conclude and Make Recommendations
Powerful conclusions reiterate the points made, draw all the threads together, and assert what needs to be done next.

Prepare the Executive Summary
Although the executive summary usually comes at the beginning of any report, it’s actually much easier and more effective to write it after you write the report. You’ll have thought through your arguments to their logical conclusions, all of which should still be clear in your mind, so it should be

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a relatively simple task to summarize. Remember that the summary need only be a few paragraphs long. Its purpose is to give the reader a brief overview of the report’s content and outcome. Here’s a quick checklist covering the main structural points along with some items to consider when reviewing your document. Context Do you have a clear understanding of the purpose of the report and its scope and expected outcome? Have you considered the readers and understood their needs, perspective, and motivations for reading the report? Have you made sure that your document is ordered logically and that your arguments are robust? Is there an obvious beginning, middle, and end to your report? Is there a logical thread? Is the document attractive to the eye? This includes layout, formatting, and use of tables, figures, and illustrations. It’s true that pictures can say a thousand words, but make sure they’re relevant and add something to the report. Make sure there is enough white space for easy reading but not so much that the report looks weak. Have you covered all the key issues? Have you differentiated between fact and opinion? Have you outlined your assumptions? Are your facts accurate? Are your arguments clear and free from personal or unreasoned bias? Is your writing concise and your meaning clear and consistent? Have you checked your spelling and grammar? Are your conclusions a natural outcome of the arguments in your report? Are your recommendations based upon your conclusions and free from prejudice or bias? Have you included a succinct executive summary? Does the report look professional as you page through it one last time?

Organization

Presentation

Content

Style

Conclusions and Recommendations

And finally…

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What to Avoid
Your Report Is Too Long
Many people assume that they must include everything they know about a topic or issue in a report. Remember that “less is more”and include only information that is essential to the logic and purpose of the report or that provides important background.

Your Report is Too Subjective
It’s easy to weave too much of yourself into a report, especially if you feel strongly about the subject or have a vested interest in it. But the result can be a report that doesn’t help your audience and may even damage your credibility. Avoid unsubstantiated statements or emotional assertions Instead, use solid information and examples to support your points. If there are web sites or publications that bolster your argument, list them as references to further build your credibility and allow readers to conduct their own research.

You Assume That Others Think Like You
Report writers often assume that their audience thinks as they do and will see an argument along the same lines. Don’t fall into this trap; remember that others approach topics with their own perspective and logic. Part of knowing your audience is anticipating their arguments to your case. When you address these arguments in your report, you can show respect for the audience while you politely counter the arguments themselves. Ask a colleague to read your report and alert you to any unwarranted assumptions about your readers.

Where to Learn More
Books:
Alred, Gerald, et al. The Business Writer’s Handbook. 8th ed. St. Martin’s Press, 2006. Tufte, Edward. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. 2nd ed. Graphics Press, 2001.

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Web Sites:
About: Freelance Writers: http://freelancewrite.about.com/cs/prmarcom/a/busreport.htm “How To Write More Powerful Reports”: http://hodu.com/report-writing.shtml

Copyright © 2007 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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