Report-Writing: Some Questions And Answers

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Is the report really necessary? 

Not always. Could it be replaced by a long-ish but informal email, by a phone conversation followed by a summary email, or by a short oral presentation at a departmental meeting, recorded by ‘bullet points’ in the meeting minutes? 

You may not have the luxury of choice, especially if a project report is required as a condition of funding. But if you don’t need to write a report, don’t write it.

Who are the main readers of your report?

Are they subject specialists, university managers, members of a funding body, people with knowledge of business, or lay people? Choose the style and language to suit. If you are writing for non-specialists, go easy on the jargon. And if you are writing a report for sponsors – or for your own university management – do comment on the costs and benefits of the research to the sponsors or the university as well as noting the academic challenge of your work.

How long should the report be?

It depends, but the ideal length may well be less than you think. Have you been given an expected word count or similar guidance? If not, remember that an eight-page report is more likely to be read than an eighty-page report. Unless you are writing for a PhD examiner, the reader doesn’t need to know all the details of your research methods, especially if you are using the standard techniques for your research area. Cut and summarise where possible.

With a mixed readership, one option is to produce a short report, with additional details in appendices. Specialist readers can read the whole document, whilst others can focus on the key results. Another option is to provide an ‘executive summary’, a one-to-two page extended abstract, with the report.

Is the report for information or does it seek action?

Make it clear to the reader if you want him or her to take action after reading the report. This is especially important if you are seeking additional funding, approval for a project extension, or permission to recruit an extra research assistant for example.

So don’t bury any requests in the body of the report. Make them clear in the opening paragraph and again in the concluding section.

Are there particularly effective ways to do the writing?

Even experienced authors sometimes have trouble starting to write. There are always more interesting things to do, even if it just means putting the kettle on for another coffee.

Many people feel it helps to just take a single sheet of paper and write ‘bullet points’, which provide a framework for the detailed text.

Others draw rough ‘story board’ diagrams to illustrate the main points they wish to include. This can help to develop a different perspective on the subject, and the diagrams themselves can be used as a framework for the writing.

Mind maps or spider diagrams – where the main theme forms the body of the ‘spider’, with subsidiary topics forming the legs - may also help. Find a method that works for you.

Once you have a framework of some sort, write the draft text without trying for perfection at this stage. Think of the writing process as equivalent to painting a room, with the first draft being the quickly-applied undercoat and the final draft the more-carefully-applied glossy layer.

Edit and simplify once you have a full first draft. Sometimes major changes will occur to you at this stage. That’s fine; one reason for writing the first draft quickly is that it is psychologically easier to make major changes a rough version than to a ‘near-final’ version.

Once you are happy with the ‘final’ draft, do proof-read it carefully. Ask a colleague to check it for you before sending it out; authors can become blind to typing errors after working for a while on a document. If English isn’t your first language, and sometimes even if it is, asking a native speaker to check the grammar can also help to improve the document.

Any other tips?

Include your contact details in the document. This can be done either on a front sheet or at the end, or both.

Think about a distribution list for the report. There may be people who aren’t necessarily in the target readership who nevertheless would be interested in the report.

If appropriate, phone or email the main recipients a few days after they have received the report, to ask if they have had chance to read it and if they have any comments or things they’d like to discuss with you.

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