Report Writing

by Clare Forrest

Step three – organise and sequence your data

Now’s the time to organise the main body of your report. This is the step when you’re most likely to feel overwhelmed. There are post-it notes scattered around your desk, scribbles in your diary, notes on the PC, odd scraps of paper in your pockets, spreadsheets...

It’s all the data you need to write a great report and somehow you’ve got to get it into a sensible order. But it looks a mess and it’s hard to know where to start.

I wish I had a nice, high-tech solution for you, but really there isn’t one. What you need to do is work with your brain, which likes lots of information to make up a complete picture. This is important. If you give your brain – through your eyes – all the information you have, it will happily make the necessary connections for you. But if you try to look at the information you have piece by piece, this will make it hard for your brain. The key is to trust your brain – and not to think too hard.

Step by step

Here’s how:

  1. Arm yourself with scissors, post-it notes, A4 paper, marker pens and all your data. (Make sure you print out anything that’s on your PC.) Then find a suitable space – I usually use the floor.
  2. 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.
  3. Take all your bits and pieces of data and match them to your objectives – as if you’re dealing out cards. If necessary, cut things up as you go and use post-it notes if a piece of data is relevant to more than one objective – which is often the case.
  4. Take each objective with its data and break this down further by putting like with like, creating headings and sub-headings as you go. For example, if you’ve got several bits of information about communication in the business, you might create these main headings: Written Communications; Communication Breakdowns and Meetings. And each of these might break down yet again, so Written Communications could have three sub-headings: Email, Letters and Reports.
Quick tips

Don’t be afraid to use more than one or two words in your headings.

On the other hand, keep headings to one line; longer headings look like highlighted sentences, not headings.

Headings are important signposts for the reader, so although they should be brief, they should be as explanatory as possible. For example, ‘Staff reaction to the Alamo Site restructuring’ rather than ‘Staff reaction’. The former tells the reader exactly what to expect. The latter is vague – reaction to what?

You may, depending on the length and complexity of your report, need subheadings under your main headings, but avoid having sub-subheadings.

  1. Again, use your scissors and post-it notes to duplicate information that needs to be in more than one place.
  2. Move the piles of paper around until you have a sequence that makes sense to you and will make sense to your readers. If necessary, reconsider likely headings for each of the piles in front of you.

Organising the data

Here is a collection of data organised and prioritised into headings and sub-headings. The sequence is suggested by the numbering.

  1. Finally, go through and quickly prioritise each item of data with your marker pen, using this simple ABCD system:

A = Absolutely must include to meet this objective

B = Barely essential but could include

C = Colourful – brings the Absolutes to life (stories, anecdotes and quotes usually)

D = Ditch it – not needed (throw this stuff away NOW).

By now you will be making sense of it all. Things will be falling neatly into place; you’ll be seeing how your report is going to work when you come to write it and the whole job will be looking relatively easy.

The map

But this step-by-step organisation process isn’t quite finished yet. There’s one last thing to do – write down, on one piece of A4, the headings and subheadings in their correct order. Under each heading jot a note of the data to be included, so that you now have writing map that will be easy to follow. You have now completed the work you need to write the main body of your report.

Data sequences

There are many ways to sequence your data. Your aim is to organise it in a way which will make sense to your readers so they can follow your thinking. The three main sequences types are:

  1. Distinct subject areas
  • New sales
  • Current sales
  • Proposed sales
  1. Process/chronological order
  • Use this when there is a logical step-by-step order, as with the report writing steps described here.
  1. Order of importance
  • Either put your most important point first – to hit your reader in the eyes so they want to read on – just as they do in a newspaper
  • Or put your most important point last, building up your case so that your reader is carried along by your argument.