Professional and Technical Writing/Reports/Planning
The first task to be completed before starting a report is to determine what needs to be addressed. According to Paul V. Anderson's text, Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach, the basic superstructure for a report and the questions to be answered in each section are the following(p. 541):
- Introduction - What will the readers gain from reading the report?
- Method of obtaining facts - Are the facts reliable?
- Facts - What have you found that is useful for the readers?
- Discussion - How do the facts work from the reader's point of view?
- Conclusions - Why are the facts significant to the readers?
- Recommendations - What do you think the readers should do?
This is a basic superstructure, not an outline. Some of these elements may be in a different order, addressed together, or completely omitted. An effective report includes these elements to improve the usability and usefulness of the report. If the report isn't easy to navigate, the persuasiveness of the report will be lost and/or it will be thrown out.
For some reports, the introduction may only need to be a sentence or two, but for longer more extensive reports it may take multiple pages. The introduction is where the objective of research is stated and briefly explained. An introduction should tell the reader what the main focus of the report is and in doing so tell the reader why the research and report is important for them to read. Essentially we answer the question "What will we gain from reading this report?" The introduction should explain the problem that the report is aiming to solve.
For longer reports, your introduction may take multiple pages. Such things such as 1) What problem your report solves, 2) what activities you performed toward solving that problem and 3) how your readers can apply your information to their own efforts towards solving the problem should be answers within the introduction. Also, ensure that within your introduction your main points are stated.
The main points within most introductions will include your major conclusions and recommendations. Although you should discuss these fully at the end of your report, your readers will appreciate a brief summary of your main points in your introduction.
- Beginning of report:"In this report, I present the information you wanted to have before deciding whether to place new university stables on next year's list of major funding drives." (Anderson, 2007, p.542)
- Summarizing main points: "Overall it seems that the stables would make a good fundraiser project because of the strength of the current programs offered there, the condition of the current facilities, and the existence of a loyal core of alumni who used the facilities while undergraduates." (Anderson, 2007,p. 543)
In addition, the introduction may explain how the report is organized, outline its scope, encourage openness to your message, and provide important background information for your readers to understand the rest of the report.
Method of Obtaining Information
The purpose of this section is to show the readers how you obtained your information. Stating where you obtained your information will help to tell the readers if your research is reliable. Your method will help readers to understand the uses and limitations of your research. A good, descriptive method section will allow anyone else to recreate your experiment exactly and obtain the same result. Be very detailed in the method section and reread it as if you were trying to do this experiment for the first time based on your method section.
The results section is the most valuable part of the report to readers. The whole point of research is to find the results so they need to be conveyed clearly and effectively. A results section may likely contain tables, graphs, text, and pictures. Include anything that is important in showing the reader what was found through research. Do not include extraneous information as it will only clutter the results section. Make sure you check the date of your information, where it comes from, and who the source was. Keep the prose simple and descriptive in this section, leave the analysis of the results for the discussion section.
The discussion section is where you interpret your results. Your results section may be nothing but tables and graphs with a few accompanying sentences. Your discussion section is where you make sense of those tables and graphs and explain how they relate to the problem or question the report is trying to research. The discussion also explains what the results mean to the company. In some reports, mainly shorter ones, the discussion and facts sections may be put into one to make reading the report shorter and easier.
The conclusion section explains why the results are important and how they affect the reader. It is a good practice to summarize your facts and restate the problem so the reader clearly understands the importance of your findings. This is your chance to tell the reader how they or the company will benefit from your findings. The conclusion usually does not make recommendations for action but will inevitably get the reader thinking about it.
Here is where you state the purpose of the report and what you want to be accomplished after the readers are done with your report. This section may not be in some reports because the decision to be made may be beyond your knowledge and power.
Reader's Six Basic Questions
When reading your report, readers will ask six questions that revolve around one goal: does the information and ideas that you provide offer a guide for future action? Examine these questions while pretending you are the audience you're writing to. Ensure your report answers the questions in order to create a well written report.
- What will we gain from reading your report?
Readers in the workplace only want to read information relevant directly to them. Therefore, you need to make sure that you explain how this information is relevant to the readers responsibility, interests and goals.
- Are your facts reliable?
Readers want to ensure that the facts you provide will give a sound basis for their decisions or actions.
- What do you know that is useful to us?
The readers are not interested in all the information you know about a given subject. They only want to know information that is pertinent to them. Especially ones they can put directly to use (Example: The most important sales figures for this quarter are as follows:....")
- How do you interpret those facts from our point of view?
Facts within relevancy are meaningless. in order to make facts meaningful, people must interpret them and identify the relationships or patterns among them. Usually Readers want you to do this form them, rather than leaving the work up to them.
- How are those facts significant to us?
Readers also want you to go beyond just the interpretation of the facts, they want you to explain what these facts mean in terms of their responsibilities, interests and goals.
- What do you think we should do?
Because you have studied the facts you're presenting in detail, readers will make the assumption that you are qualified to make a recommendation.
These questions are general in order to be applicable to a variety of reports. Some reports will take very little to answer these questions, however in larger reports writers often need to take hundreds of pages to answer these question. Readers often seek answers to these basic questions by asking multiple more specific questions. However, these six questions are the general ones that can be applied to your work.
Once you have written your report review it using the checklist.
- Does it clearly state the topic of the report?
- Does it tell your reader why you are writing about this topic?
- Does it persuade the reader to continue reading?
- Does it provide background information for the reader?
- Does it explain the process of obtaining the facts and ideas within the report?
- Does it present clear and specific facts?
- Does it present the generalizations from the facts that will be meaningful to the reader?
- Does it explain the significance of the facts?
- Does it tell your reader what they should do next and why?
Anderson, Paul V. Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach. 2008. Thompson Wadsworth Publishers. 2008. Pages 541-545.