Friday, 27 February 2015

Five tips to improve your report writing

Most engineers and technical professionals can write reports but how many are confident they do it well? It's not the content that most struggle with but rather the process of placing and ordering words on the page. Having written well over 100 technical reports and other documents I share below some of my own tips to help you improve your writing skills.

1. Just make a start

So you have a new report to write but where do you start? There are so many points to consider and it's not always clear how best to present them. My advice is simple... start writing with what you know and let the format follow later. It's not necessary to write sequentially from start to finish and once you have chunks of text to organise you can then place them in a logical order. When I'm writing a new report I like to set out my headings and then add bullet points whenever an idea comes to mind. It's easy to procrastinate because you can't visualise the finished article but don't... just get on and write and let the format sort itself out later.

2. The beginning, the middle and the end

Writing a report is like telling a story; it needs to follow a sequence that explains to the reader what you have been asked to do, what you have done, what you think about what you have done and then tell them again the key points of what you have already told them.

All reports should start with an introduction, a clearly defined brief that sets the scene for the rest of the document. Use the introduction to set out why you are writing the report, who for and the location of the building/site/etc.

The main bulk of the report is your observations and analysis; the technical content of what you did and what you think about it. This section may be supported by photographs, drawings and calculations which should be included as appendices so not to detract from the flow of the text. Personally I like to include photographs within the text so the reader can continue reading page-by-page without having to refer elsewhere.

Finally come the conclusions and recommendations, this is where you repeat the key points from what you've already stated throughout the report. Typically this section should include a recap of the brief, a commentary on your observations and analysis and your recommendations. Conclusions are not the place to introduce new content; everything you put here should already have been discussed in the main body of the report.

3. Keep in tense

You're telling a story remember; when you visited a site or attended a meeting it happened in the past. All of your observations about what you saw and did should be written in the past tense; this is important because you're painting a picture of what you experienced at a given moment in time. Someone else observing the same thing at a different point in time may have had a different experience.

By the same token, your analysis and discussion should be kept in the present tense and your recommendations are for the future. Consistency is key; if you want your report to flow from beginning to end then it should follow the format of what you did, what you think and then what you recommend.

4. Be confident and precise

Everything you write should add value to the finished report. Avoid waffle and speculation and only comment on things within your own area of expertise. Be confident in your conclusions and wherever possible avoid indecisive or ambiguous terminology. If your report is clearly and honestly presented and written with confidence it should leave the reader with no doubt what you are telling them and what your recommendations are. If you can reasonably justify what you have written then your report will stand up to scrutiny by others, on the other hand if it contains ambiguity or the key points are difficult to follow then your report will lack credibility and leave you open to criticism. Always read and re-read your report to make sure it clearly articulates the points you are trying to make.

5. Presentation gives credibility to content

Although the content of a report is critical and is, after all, what you've been paid to produce, never underestimate the significance of presentation. The visual appearance, grammatical accuracy and readability of your report implies a level of quality to the reader. Poor presentation is indicative of a lack of quality and attention to detail; if you haven't made the effort to ensure your report looks professional then how can the reader by confident you have made enough effort to ensure the content is up to standard?

As a minimum, reports should typically contain a front page with project details, contents page, numbered headings, page numbers and figure references. Figures and appendices should be referenced in the text to clearly demonstrate the purpose for their inclusion. Finally, when borrowing content from elsewhere, always make reference to the original source both to identify the content as not being your own and to allow the reader to seek out the original source and context.

Summary

Report writing is an important technical skill for engineers and other professionals but many struggle to articulate their technical expertise in a concise written format. The best way to improve your skills is through experience and once you've found a format you're comfortable with this can be refined and re-used over time for many different applications. Always critically appraise your own work before letting others see it and don't allow yourself to be put off by the scale of the task. I hope you've found my tips useful and look forward to hearing your own report writing advice.