What is a written report?
Reports need to be written with impact in mind – and should grab and hold the reader’s attention. Reports should be clear, concise, well formatted, well written, but still allow room for individuality. The reader should know exactly what you want them to do after they have read the report.
- Write in plain English using everyday words, and use as few words as possible. Use short, uncomplicated words. Don’t assume the reader knows – you might be an expert, but the reader may not be.
- Write in the third person – eg The organisation is……not I or we are doing
- Use 12 point text in the ‘Arial’ font
- Do not use slang, jargon or clichés
- Wherever possible, do not use acronyms as they stops the flow – think of alternative words to use instead
- Do not use lists of bullet points that aren’t referenced – use (i), (ii) or (a), (b) etc
- Use short sentences – no more than fifteen to twenty words to maintain clarity
- Stick to one main idea in each sentence
- Use capital letters only when absolutely necessary
- The longer a report, the less likely it is to be read
- Check it for content accuracy and grammar – does it make sense? Read it out loud and reword any clumsy sentences. Get someone you trust with good English skills to read it.
- Proofread it manually, but after doing it with your computer.
- Finally – make your report look attractive – well-formatted, use colour if it adds clarity, use tables, sub-headings, bullet points – make the reader want to read it
A good report demands good preparation and good planning
The key to writing a good report is good preparation and good planning. Thinking about the structure of the report, is a key factor in ensuring the report has impact. If you have spent a long time investigating a subject, you may have a lot of raw information in no particular order. You need to sort the information and look for the key items and then start jotting things down as headings. You can then start to sort these headings into the structure of the report. Don’t just write down everything you know about the subject – be selective – a report is not a showcase for your knowledge.
Define the purpose of the report so that you are clear about:
- Why you are writing it – if you are not clear about why you are writing the report, or its exact purpose – get a clear brief in writing. Report writers can’t be expected to second-guess what’s in someone else’s mind. Define the purpose of the report in one sentence and concentrate on the main issue(s).
- What should be included – arrange the information logically, so the reader can follow your argument/information. Make it look interesting – ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, so try to think of places where a diagram, table or a graph would make the text easier to understand. Use colour to add impact.
- What should be left out – they do not need to know everything, unless it is important contextual information. Think – what do they know already?
- Who your readers are – think about what they actually want – and the shorter the better as they are busy people
- What they should do once they have read the report
So, how should I start?
The three main sections of a report are the summary, the recommendation and the detailed information.
1. The summary
The summary should be the first section of the report, but it should be the last of the three main sections to be written.
The summary is a precis of the main report and the reader should be able to glean all they need to know from this section without needing to read any more of the report. This section is vital as it saves time for busy people. Its contents should be sufficient for a layperson to be able to understand why the report has been written. It should contain the key points that are to be considered, the implications arising from them, the conclusions and the recommendations. The summary is not just a ‘purpose of report’ to be written in one sentence. The summary should ideally be no longer than 2 sides of A4 and the paragraphs in the summary should be numbered.
This section should explain the purpose of the report so that the reader knows why it has been prepared and what decision they are expected to make. This should be followed by a very brief outline of the structure the report will follow, which makes it easier for the reader as they know what to expect.
3. The Recommendation
This should answer the question ‘Now I’ve read the report, what do you want me to do?’ The recommendation should flow logically from the information contained in the report, and should tell the readers exactly what decisions and / or actions are required of them.
A recommendation should not be made unless a case for it has been made in the main body of the report and precised in the summary.
4. The detail or supporting information
The detail or supporting information is likely to be the longest section of the report. It may consist of a series of numbered paragraphs following the style of the report template. However, it can be divided into logical sections organised under headings and sub-headings. If there are four options to consider in a report – consider using sub-headings or bullet points to add clarity and to reduce the amount of text. Make sure the text also matches the sub-headings – if you say you are going to cover something, then do so. Use hard facts and figures, evidence and justification, but be concise.
Do not hinder the flow and clarity of your argument with excessive detail. Try to anticipate likely questions and answer them.
Do not use vague terms to cover ignorance, or lack of knowledge – in other words no bull!
Just before the end of the report, re-emphasise the key ideas and then draw the report to a logical conclusion.