Report Writingby Clare Forrest
In a nutshell
1. Why do we need reports?
Reports are written because
- Someone wants some research data before they make a decision – for example, the best place to open a new branch of the business
- You want to persuade someone to do something – for example, invest in some new resource or buy your idea
- Something has happened that needs recording – for example, an appraisal report or a customer complaint
- The business needs to be continually updated – for example, a progress report about how a new process is affecting performance
- Something has happened that needs investigating – for example, an accident.
2. The report writing process
The reason why people who don’t often write reports usually have a miserable time when faced with the task is that they don’t use a systematic process. Instead, they just start writing and then end up in a muddle.
- Don’t start by writing: step one is to establish objectives and readers
- Step two – research data
- Step three – organise and sequence data
- Step four – structure the whole report
- Step five – write the report
- Step six – format the document to make it easily readable and highlight essential points
- Step seven – edit and proof read.
3. Step one – establish objectives and readers
If someone has asked you to write the report, make sure you find out exactly what they want before you go any further and, perhaps, waste a lot of time. Asking the questions: WHO?, WHAT?, WHY?, WHEN?, WHERE? and HOW? will save you a lot of time in the long run. For example:
- What is the purpose of this report?
- Who has asked for it?
- Why have they asked for it?
- Who will be reading it?
- Who will make a decision about it?
- Will I need to make recommendations?
- When is it needed?
- How will it be read – online, on paper?
When you have established the answers to these questions, you will be in a much better position to write a report that fulfils its objectives and is acceptable to its readers.
- Keep your objectives where you can see them while you are preparing your report, so that you can refer to them regularly and check that the report is relevant and fit for purpose.
- When you begin to write, keep a picture of your reader in mind all the time, just as if you were talking with them. This will help you to write for your reader and ensure you are hitting the right note.
4. Step two – research your data
This stage may amount to little more than a review of activities already recorded in the company’s files. At the other extreme, it may involve a detailed investigation carried out over several months.
- No one is in charge of the internet, so you must be careful when using it as a research source. You need to develop skills to evaluate what you find or you could find yourself spreading false, perhaps slanderous or libellous, information.
- If you need to collect information from a large number of people, the quickest way to do this is to design a questionnaire which they can complete and then send back to you by email.
- If a smaller number of people is involved, it’s usually better to see them as a group or individually.
- Interview methods and types vary widely, and it’s important to choose your method according to the size of the group involved and the skills of the interviewer.
5. Step three – organise and sequence your data
The key here is to trust your brain – and not to think too hard.
- Arm yourself with scissors, post-it notes, A4 paper, marker pens and all your data.
- Write out, on separate pieces of paper and in large letters, all your report objectives. Spread these out so that you can see them all easily.
- Take all your bits and pieces of data and match them to your objectives.
- Take each objective with its data and break this down further by putting like with like, creating headings and sub-headings as you go.
- Again, use your scissors and post-it notes to duplicate information that needs to be in more than one place.
- Move the piles of paper around until you have a sequence that makes sense to you and will make sense to your readers.
- Finally, go through and quickly prioritise each item of data with your marker pen, using a simple ABCD system.
6. Step four – structuring your report
If you think of a report as a house, then each element of structure is a brick. Just as with a house, each brick needs to be laid correctly to ensure that the structure stands up. If a brick is out of place, everything can come crashing down. There are only four bricks which must be included in your report and they should appear in this order:
- Title – tells the reader what the report is about. It must include when the report was written and who it was written by – name, job title and department. It must also include any other necessary dates – for example, the time period being reported on, the date of an accident and so on.
- Introduction – sometimes known as a background or an opening statement. This sets the scene for your reader.
- Main body – your data, logically organised into headings and subheadings. Sometimes known as findings or information, this is neutral. You simply present the facts. It’s useful to think of the main body as the ‘evidence’ for your conclusions
- Conclusion – sometimes known as interpretation or opinion.
7. Optional extras
There are several optional extras that you may or may not need to include in your report.
- Contents page
8. Step five – write
Now pick up your report map and complete it by creating sentences around each of the headings and sub-headings. In other words, write the main body of your report.
- Keep a simple grammar guide by you and refer to it to make sure you are grammatically correct – it matters.
- Keep it simple – use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
9. Step six – format
Just as with your writing style, the rule here is to keep it simple. The key principles for elegant presentation are
- Leave plenty of white space on each page – it makes a document look more accessible and readable
- Use bullets for lists
- Consider using bold and/or a larger font size for headlines and emphasis
- Make sure that the left margin is wide enough for binding
- Put in page and paragraph numbers.
10. Step seven – edit and proof
If you don’t edit and proofread, there are bound to be some awful errors, which readers will spot. If this happens, then the credibility of your report will be destroyed. The goal is to ensure the report reads well, is consistent and is structured correctly.
Key editing tasks include
- Correcting faulty spelling, grammar, and punctuation
- Checking for ambiguous or unclear meaning
- Correcting incorrect usage (such as can for may)
- Ensuring consistency in spelling, hyphenation, numerals, fonts and capitalisation
- Checking for proper sequencing (such as alphabetical order) in lists.