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Report writing.

Introduction

Reports are a standard management tool with many managers needing to write them frequently, but although managers are expected to write reports, they are often not provided with any training to do so. Writing a good report can be the difference between achieving your objective or failing to achieve it. An effective report can contribute to business success, therefore impressing your superiors as well as improving possible career prospects.

A clear and well presented report can greatly assist in the process of planning and decision making. But a report that is badly structured, uses inappropriate language and is not well presented may confuse the reader and prejudice the outcome.

A good report should be readable, interesting and well presented, and it should be no longer than is necessary. It must keep the needs of the readership clearly in mind. Since readers of the report are likely to be busy people, a long-winded and lengthy document is unlikely to be welcome. A good structure, with clear conclusions and a summary, is vital if an effective document is to be produced.

The basic guidelines for report writing are the same whatever type of report you are writing, whether it be a research report, staff appraisal report, accident report, standard monthly report or any other type of report.

This checklist looks at the key stages of successful report writing and is intended both for those new to report writing and for experienced report writers who wish to improve their current style.

National Occupational Standards for Management and Leadership

This checklist has relevance to the following standards: B: Providing direction, Units 5, 8

Definition

Reports are written, or oral, statements analysing a particular issue, incident, or situation, usually with conclusions drawn and some form of recommendation for future action.

Action checklist

1. Defining the purpose/objectives of the report Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) is not the way to start the report writing process. It is necessary to plan what you are going to produce if you want it to be an effective document. In preparing for the actual writing process you should consider:

* the terms of reference (definition of the task) or precise purpose of the report

* the reason why the report is needed

* the type of report it should be

* the scope of the subject that is to be covered

* the time scale.

It is also important to identify the readership since this will help you pitch the report at the correct level. Is the person who requested the report the primary reader? Who else will see the report? How much do they know about the subject already? What do they need to know about the subject? What do they not need to know about the subject?

Be sure to establish the objectives in your own terms so that you are clear about what is to be achieved. Taking a few minutes at the start of the process to think about the objectives may save you hours of work later.

2. Gathering and organising the information

With most reports you will not have all the information needed to hand, so some form of research or data collection will be required. You will need to:

* decide what information you need

* collect the material

* collate and organise the information.

This may entail identifying and reading other reports, interviewing people, carrying out primary research or drawing together data from a number of different locations. Gathering too much information is not a bad fault; gathering too little definitely is--but bear in mind what you want the information for, otherwise you can bury yourself in a mound of data. Reports are far easier to write when you are able to choose from the information immediately to hand. The important thing is to gain a balanced picture of the subject.

3. Structure your report

Analyse the information you have gathered in order to identify what is most important and what provides supporting evidence. To achieve this you should refer back to your objectives and your readership.

Once you have decided on the content of your report, you need to determine the order in which to present the information. A well-planned structure can save you a lot of work, avoiding explanatory notes referring to other parts of the report, making it easier for writer and reader alike. Restructure the report if the order does not seem logical and if it fails to convey the message you want.

Plan the layout of your report following the house style of your organisation if applicable. A simple framework can form the basis of most reports. This can be adapted for particular circumstances. A report can be set out using the following elements, although it may not be necessary to use them all:

* title or title page

* executive summary/summary

* contents list

* introduction (to include terms of reference and the methodology)

* main body of the report

* summary and conclusions

* recommendations

* supplementary evidence/appendices (including full tables and graphics that would obstruct the reading of the main report).

A shorter report may not need to include a title page, but should have a title. Longer reports are more likely to need a contents list, and an executive summary is usually only required in formal reports.

4. Write the report

Once all the information has been collected, sorted, checked and organised, it must then be translated into a readable report.

Put the report together initially as a draft, using your objectives to guide you. It may be helpful to write the report in a single sitting so that you retain your original train of thought. The deadline provided will help focus your mind.

Tips for writing the report:

* write as you speak, but avoid slang/jargon/cliches

* try not to use complicated language that your reader will not understand. When transferring the spoken word on to paper we can overcomplicate sentences, therefore, adapt your style to accommodate the readership so that the report does not lose its clarity or effect

* use well-structured paragraphs. A straight body of text with no or few paragraph breaks or white space is likely to be daunting to the reader. Try to start a new paragraph each time there is a new line of thought

* avoid long and complex sentences

* include only the information the reader needs to know

* use long words only when they are appropriate

* use short words and phrases for conciseness and clarity

* utilise technical terms only where they are unavoidable or where you are sure that your audience will understand them. A glossary may be required to assist your readers

* use bullet points/numbering where appropriate to emphasise, or summarise information, but do not overuse them.

Most senior managers and decision makers will want the report to provide them with a simple decision: do we do it or don't we? In general terms the person who wrote the report is considered to be the best person to draw conclusions and make recommendations. Conclusions are not a needless repetition but a necessary reminder of the main points of the report and allow the reader to avoid the necessity of flicking back and forth through the report to check. Points are most appropriately made using numbers or bullets.

Recommendations should not be omitted. If the conclusion is that nothing is wrong or should be changed, then it is important to state that no action is necessary at this stage. Recommendations may not need to be more than a simple statement. However, if there are multiple recommendations, they should be summarised. Recommendations should be achievable, should include a timescale for completion and be listed in order of importance. Be prepared to accept responsibility for the recommendations when signing the report.

Graphics, including line graphs, bar graphs, pie charts, pictographs, and illustrations, such as flow charts and photographs, as well as tables of data are invaluable for expressing complex information. They should be formatted with care, clearly numbered and titled and introduced within the text. If the graphic is included to help explain a key point it should be placed as close to that point as possible. If it is supplied for documentary support it can be placed in the appendices at the end of the report. It can be useful to include a simplified or summary figure or table in the main report and to relegate detailed data to an appendix.

5. Review what you have written

Always allow time to review what you have written in order to make any necessary amendments. Most reports need to be completed by a specific time or within a stated time-period, so aim to have it completed a day or so prior to its submission. It is not recommended that the report is reviewed immediately following its writing. Revising the document a day or two later can be more effective as the ideas will still be clear in your mind, but you will have been able to take a step back from it. This will assist you in critically analysing what you have written. You will often find simpler, shorter, better ways of saying what you intended after a break away. It can often help to read it out loud too.

Take time to consider whether the report says what you want it to say. Be sure to check that:

* it fully covers your objectives

* it is readable--if necessary make use of such techniques as Gunning's Fog Index or the Flesch Reading Ease Scale

* your conclusions sufficiently differentiate between those drawn from information presented in the report and your own personal comments

* recommendations for future action are based on the report findings.

Be sure to:

* check the overall structure of the report

* check spelling, punctuation and grammatical correctness

* ask a colleague to proof-read the report and to consider issues such as ease of understanding, structure, persuasiveness, clarity and objectivity.

6. Printing and submission

First impressions are vital and the presentation of the report will be the first thing the reader notices. There are two aims to the presentation of the report:

* to make it look readable

* to make it look organised.

Your readers will associate you personally with the qualities they attribute to the report. Therefore, if you want them to see you as organised and professional, these are the qualities you need to apply to your report.

House style may dictate how your report should be printed, if you do not have a house style, consider the following when looking at the layout of your report:

* font and size of type

* spacing and margins

* justification of lines and paragraphs

* page numbering

* presentation of titles and headings

* numbered sections

* starting each section on a new page (advisable for longer reports)

* colours if you have graphics

* binding (for example, stapled together, spiral or ring, treasury tags, etc).

Finally, check how many copies of the report are required and aim to submit the report ahead of schedule or distribute it accordingly.

How not to manage writing reports

Don't:

* write to impress

* include information only because you have found it

* convey a lack of confidence in what you are trying to put across

* make it too technical

* provide incomplete information

* write with a lack of clarity

* make it unnecessarily long

* submit the report late.

Additional resources

Books

The report report, Alasdair Drysdale

Cirencester: Management Books 2000, 2004

Report writing in a week, 3rd ed, Katherine Heritage

London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003

Writing at work: a guide to better writing in administration business and management, Robert Barass

London: Routledge, 2002

Read this: business writing that works, Robert Gentle

Harlow: Pearson Education, 2002

Write in style: a guide to good English, 2nd ed, Richard Palmer

London: Routledge, 2002

Dissertation skills for business and management students, Brian White

London: Cassell, 2000

How to write proposals and reports that get results: master the skills of business writing, Ros Jay

London: Prentice Hall, 2000

This is a selection of books available for loan to members from the Management Information Centre. More information at: www.managers.org.uk/mic

Internet resources

Plain English Campaign: www.plainenglish.co.uk/reportguide.html Produces free guides including a simple guide to writing reports.
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Title Annotation:Checklist 051
Publication:Chartered Management Institute: Checklists: Personal Effectiveness and Development
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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