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Report Advice

In: Science

Submitted By tranghoang2
Words 3970
Pages 16
Department of management science

lancaster university

ADVICE ON WRITING A REPORT FOR A CLIENT

Mike Wright

ext. 93846

email m.wright@lancaster.ac.uk

based on a draft by Mike Pidd

November 2010

Executive Summary

This document provides general advice about writing client reports. Such reports are not literary documents but are intended to convey technical information in a form that is as easy to digest as possible.

It makes several specific recommendations.

1. Start with a summary of the findings, then the argument and the supporting evidence. Do not start with assumptions and then attempt to write a quasi-scientific paper. 2. Use short sentences and a simple vocabulary; you are not trying to win a literary award. 3. Style is important. So are grammar, punctuation, syntax and spelling. You want your report to look professional. 4. Learn how to use a word processor properly, so that you have a consistent and appealing layout and structure in the report. 5. Place technical material in an appendix and make sure that the main text refers to it in a sensible way. 6. Use diagrams and figures when appropriate, since they can save many words. They must be readable, clear and properly labelled. 7. Always number the pages and sections to make it easy to refer to them in the report and in discussions. 8. Ask someone else to read the report before you issue it – and listen to what they say!

Contents

Page

Executive Summary 2

Contents 3

1. Introduction 4

2. The organisation of the report 5

3. Writing style 6

3.1 Why this is important 6

3.2 KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid 6

3.3 Avoid being too informal 7

3.4 Use an active style 7

3.5 Avoid awkward page throws 7

3.6 Use paragraphs 8

3.7 Punctuation and grammar 8

3.8 Spelling 9

3.9 Syntax 9

4. Appendices 10

5. Diagrams and figures 10

6. Numbering 11

7. If in doubt, ask a friend 11

8. Conclusion and recommendations 11

9. References 12

1. Introduction

All employees in jobs such as management consultancy, business analytics or simply management will from time to time need to write things down for other people to read. If these matters are at all detailed this will require the production of a management report.

Writing reports for managers is not an easy task. Most managers are very busy and thus highly critical of anything that they perceive to be wasting their time. Your task is to put across an important message (or set of messages) in a clear, well-organised, reader-friendly fashion.

Moreover, you will often not be addressing a single audience. Your report may be read at several separate levels, from the top executive who may flick through it briefly before passing it on (you hope) to a more junior manager (rather than to the waste-paper bin) and thence, if it is a technical report, to someone else who understands the technical issues (scientific, statistical, etc.).

Therefore it is no good writing a report as if it were an essay or academic dissertation. Nor should you write up technical aspects of the report as if you were undertaking a mathematical exercise. You readers must want to read your report and be capable of understanding it fully without having to work hard at it.

The most important thing to remember at all times is that you are writing for the benefit of your readers, not for yourself. Try to put yourself in their shoes as far as possible when writing.

The guidelines herein will, I hope, help you in this difficult task.

2. The organisation of the report

The aim of a technical report is to convey information, findings and opinion in a straightforward manner. This means that the report needs to be properly organised and I suggest that you use a structure something like the following.

• Title: something relevant, comprehensible and appealing. This is the first thing your reader will see and you want him/her to know immediately what this document is about and to read further. Include your name and your contact information.

• Executive Summary (sometimes just called "Summary"): this should be concise and specific. The worst type of summary is one that reads something like, “We have done lots of work and found some really interesting things. If you read the rest of the report then you may, if you’re clever enough, understand what we have done but we will not tell you anything here.” This is too vague and is very irritating to busy people, who may only read the summary. You want them to understand what you’ve done, so write something like the executive summary shown here.

• Contents: telling your reader what sections and subsections there are and where to find them.

• Introduction / Background: a brief section to remind the reader why you are doing this work and to place it in some wider business context.

• Main sections: you may need several such sections or only one. This is where you should describe what you have done and should list your findings, one by one. You are trying to communicate with someone who may not understand the methods that you have used and may not be interested in them. This is difficult, but not impossible. Try to use non-technical language, but do not treat the reader like an idiot – (s)he is not, (s)he just may not be interested in the detail.

• Conclusions and recommendations: this section gives you a second chance to summarise your findings and recommendations. It may sometimes be rather longer and more detailed than the initial summary and can be used to clarify any hesitations that you may have. It may also suggest what work should be done next.

• Appendices: only use them if it is essential, so think carefully before adding 20, 30, 40 or more extra pages to your report. Use them to provide technical or incidental material (such as a glossary) if needed. It may be enough to say that a further technical report is available to anyone who requires it – if you do this, tell the reader how to obtain a copy.

There is no need to compose the sections in this order. In particular, the contents page obviously needs to be completed last, so as to reflect any changes anywhere else in the report. The only action to take after that is one final spell-check and read through.

3. Writing style

3.1 Why this is important

How we write is a very personal thing, but we must realise that a report is written to communicate. You are not (or should not be) trying to impress your reader with your knowledge of long and pompous-sounding words. If your reader finds it difficult to understand you it's your fault, not his/hers. Hence the writing style should aid that communication.

It takes great skill to communicate ideas in a readable way, which is one of the reasons why red-top (tabloid) journalists are so well paid. Even articles in the Financial Times and the Economist are written in a simple style, though they may be loaded with technical terms. Be sure to use sentences – which must contain a verb!

3.2 KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid

Use a simple vocabulary. The English language has taken its words from a variety of sources, but most words have one of two origins. The first, formal, vocabulary is based on Latin and Greek. The second, much less formal, is based on Anglo-Saxon.

In general, the words of Anglo-Saxon origin are shorter. When we read, we scan the page with our eyes, and our short term memory holds the images while we make sense of them. This is easier with short words – which is why children usually read short words first. Telephone numbers are usually presented in small groups so as to make them easier to keep in mind as you key in the numbers.

Here are a few examples.

|Latin/Greek |Anglo-Saxon |
|terminate |stop |
|illustrate |draw, show |
|initiate |start, begin |
|disembark |leave |

Another reason for sticking to simple words is that you are less likely to use words wrongly. Long or fancy words are often confused, e.g. mitigate/militate, flout/flaunt, procrastinate/prevaricate, characterise/caricature, cohorts/cahoots, font/fount, loathe/loth and many others far too numerous to mention.

Use short sentences. This also relates to the short-term memory problem. With long sentences, you’ve forgotten how they start when you reach the end. A good check is to read your sentences out loud while holding your breath. If you run out of breath or get lost in sub-clauses and phrases, a sentence is too long.

By the way, "Keep It Simple Stupid" is a well-known saying. I am not really implying that you are stupid.

3.3 Avoid being too informal

Writing in a simple and straightforward fashion is not the same as being informal. If your writing style is similar to your speaking style, then it is almost certainly too informal. Avoid slang and (for the most part) abbreviations, unless these abbreviations are generally accepted. For example, it makes sense to use "etc." rather than "et cetera", and it often may not matter whether you use "doesn't" or "does not", but using "probs" to mean "probably" is definitely not good practice!

If you are unsure how formal or informal to be, then it is best to err on the side of formality. To be more formal than necessary is very unlikely to cause great irritation, whereas excessive informality can look seriously unprofessional.

Above all, avoid sarcasm and jokes. Your comments may be taken at face value!

You should also avoid eccentric fonts and over-emphases. This report is printed entirely in Times New Roman font, and all, except for the front page, is printed in 12-point type. It is not a good idea to write a report in which many fonts are used. Using a different font for headings may be OK (see, for example, the blank document style sheet that comes with Microsoft Word). But anything much beyond that can appear pointlessly gimmicky and can be very irritating for your readers.

Similarly, avoid sentences with multiple exclamation marks, double underlining and the like. They will make your report look like a poison pen letter.

Occasional use of bold or italic fonts can be helpful if used sparingly. For example, I have typed the final paragraph of Section 3 in bold, because I believe it conveys a message which is far more important than many people think.

3.4 Use an active style

Many of us have been taught to write in an impersonal, passive style. Though this is a useful way to distance yourself from what you write when this is appropriate, it may also distance the reader from it too. Moreover, passive sentences are dreadfully dull to read. I think it is much better to write in an active style rather than a passive style.

The latter produces some awful English, such as “The data was analysed this way because it was decided that ...”, which is better put as “We analysed the data this way because ...”. And instead of “After computation of the confidence limits it became clear that it would be necessary to develop a new approach and it was decided that this would be …”, we could write something like “Once the confidence limits were computed, it was clear that a new approach was needed, of which ….”.

This practice is much more direct and reader-friendly. Note that the latter sentence does still include a passive construction – I have no wish to abolish passives altogether – but it is used (there's another one!) naturally and sensibly.

3.5 Watch out for awkward page throws

I started a new page with Section 3.3 above. If I had not instructed Word to do this, the heading would have appeared on its own at the bottom of the page. This is rather ugly.

3.6 Use paragraphs

Paragraphs are not optional extras, but are essential. They provide a way to break a long section into manageable chunks and they make reports easier to read. Ensure that they are in a sensible logical order; one of the dangers of cut-and-paste in word processors is that it is so easy to move text around that paragraphs may end up out of sequence.

Try also to ensure that the final sentence of one paragraph links into the first sentence of the next paragraph. This can seem a bit convoluted, so don't overdo it, but it can make it easier to follow an argument.

You must make it clear when a paragraph starts and ends. This means that there must be a gap between them and you may wish to indent the first line of each paragraph.

3.7 Punctuation and grammar

Some people appear to write a document with little or no punctuation and then add commas and the rest at random, like shaking salt onto food. This is invariably irritating to the reader; good punctuation is important because it makes a report much easier to read and understand.

Most sentences should end with a full stop, though some may end with a question mark, and exclamation mark or a semi-colon. Use a semi-colon only between closely linked full sentences. Colons are not the same as semi-colons. They are used where the words after the colon give details or explanations or examples for the words before the colon: for example, this sentence or the one below about Jim and his dog.

Commas are very widely misused, even within serious newspapers, academic reports and other material you might expect to be written correctly. They should be used within sentences (not between sentences) to divide them up in a logical manner so that the meaning is clear. They are not simply to be used where you might feel like pausing for breath!

Apostrophes are a particular problem for many people. The basic rules are simple and are as follows. ▪ Use an apostrophe when letters have been omitted so as to produce an abbreviation: for example, "we’re" is an abbreviation for we are. ▪ Use an apostrophe to indicate ownership: if the dog belongs to Jim, write about Jim’s dog.

▪ To indicate ownership by a plural noun ending in "s" (e.g. "students"), the apostrophe occurs after the final letter "s". Thus "the students' books" means "the books belonging to the students", while "the student's books" means "the books belonging to the student".

▪ An apostrophe should not be used for ownership by a pronoun. Thus we write "every dog has its day" – there is no apostrophe, even though the day "belongs" to the dog. Likewise the words "hers", "yours", "ours" and "theirs" do not contain apostrophes. (But recall that when we use "it's" to mean "it is" or "it has", then we do need an apostrophe – this explains why so many people get "its" wrong.)

▪ An apostrophe should never be used for a plural!

Microsoft Word has a grammar checker, but it often gets things wrong. There is a very good Ladybird book1 on English grammar. It is aimed at children, but you could always buy one and pretend it is a present for a child.

3.8 Spelling

Use the spell checker but don't always believe it! Spell checkers are invaluable especially if you, like me, are a dreadful typist. I just hammer away at the keys at top speed and then rely on the spell checker to alert me to mistyped words. Always use a spell checker, always. It is hard to convince someone that you are smart if your report contains spelling mistakes.

However, like most computer programs, spell checkers are inherently stupid and should not be wholly relied on. Why not?

• English has words that sound alike, but mean different things. "There" and "their", "licence" and "license", "effect" and "affect", "principle" and "principal’, "stationery" and "stationary" are all examples. A spell checker will not correct these. • Also, some words are commonly mistyped into another correct word. For example, I often type "form" instead of "from" and vice versa. A spell checker will not detect this. • Finally, some spell checkers contain mistakes, and it is always a good idea to use a dictionary if you have the slightest doubt.

3.9 Syntax

Syntax errors are when you get words, or the forms of words, wrong. For example, "St. George slayed the dragon", which should of course be "St. George slew the dragon", or the football pundit's favourite "if he had shot at goal he may have scored" when they mean "if he had shot at goal he might have scored". Worse still "the ball may have went in the net"!

"Was" and "were" are often confused. "Was" is solely used for the past tense, whereas "were" can also be conditional or subjunctive. Thus "if a new product was developed it could be a best-seller" should be "if a new product were developed ....".

Other common errors include "different to" or "different than" rather than the correct form "different from". Likewise "none of them are" should be "none of them is", and "it belongs to you and I" should be "it belongs to you and me".

If you have not been taught these things then I appreciate that you may find it very difficult to know what is right and what is wrong. The best advice I can give is that, if you are at all unsure, you should look it up somewhere reliable. Internet sources will usually get things right, though not always.

It is not simply pedantic to mind about spelling, grammar, punctuation and syntax. If your report contains frequent mistakes, your readers will regard you as ill-educated and unprofessional, and thus they will be less inclined to take seriously what you are explaining, describing or recommending.

4. Appendices

Used properly, appendices are a boon. Used wrongly, they are just a waste of paper. You should use an appendix only when you need to provide extra detail that would impede the flow of material in the main report. Here are a few examples to illustrate this.

▪ A student found that the weekly booking pattern for a holiday company was random. He therefore recommended that they use statistical process control charts to monitor the bookings as they were made. He was able to describe the method in the main report, using common-sense notions. He used an appendix to include statistical material showing how to compute the control limits on the charts.

▪ Another student built a discrete simulation model of a manufacturing system. Part of the model was based on stochastic sampling and he used an appendix to describe the detail of this sampling. The main report simply showed that certain processes were variable, giving some idea of the variation, and referred the reader to the appendix for detail.

▪ Yet another student developed a spreadsheet model, based on Excel macros, to be used on a daily basis by people planning promotions in supermarkets. In the main report she described how the spreadsheet should be used and listed its major limitations. The appendix discussed the detail of the macros that were used.

▪ Sometimes a report must contain technical jargon and abbreviations that may not be familiar to all the intended readers. In such cases, provide a glossary of terms in an appendix. If there are only a few such abbreviations, define them as you use them in the main text of the report.

Please do not use appendices just because you are unable to decide whether to include material or not.

5. Diagrams and figures

A picture paints a thousand words, as someone once said. Indeed, an old Chinese proverb says that a picture is worth ten thousand words, which may be a little over the top, but it's certainly true that, in a report, some things are better presented graphically, using charts, diagrams, figures, tables etc.

Inserting diagrams in a word-processed report is technically straightforward, but you need to be careful when you do so. Here are some principles to follow.

1. Make sure that each figure is properly numbered (e.g. figure 2) so that it can be referred to in the text and in discussion.

2. Be careful with the layout of your report so that the figure and any text that is directly relevant are placed on the same page, if possible. Try to avoid orphans (items left at the bottom of a page) and widows (items left alone at the top of a page).

3. Don't use diagrams etc. unless they help your readers!

6. Numbering

Opinions differ on this, but I think it best to number the sections and sub-sections of technical reports. Some people go as far as numbering every paragraph, which I think unnecessary. Numbering your sections makes it easier for you to refer backwards or forwards to other parts of the report where necessary, though this should not be used as an excuse for not presenting the sections of your report in a coherent order. It also makes it easier to discuss the report in a meeting

I prefer a system like the one used in this paper, with sections and sub-sections. As a general rule, three levels of sections are enough, so the finest subdivision should be something like 6.1.1. If you find yourself typing 6.1.1.1.1, then something has gone badly wrong.

Microsoft Word will number sections automatically if you choose the correct options. I prefer not to do this, since it takes control of my document away from me, and I'm a control freak. However, many people do like this feature.

You should also number each page and I prefer, as in this report, to show how many pages there are in the report. Then the reader knows if (s)he has all the pages. Microsoft Word will number the pages for you and I find it best to do so via the Header and Footer submenu of the View menu.

7. If in doubt, ask a friend

If a report is important, then it is worth trying to get it right. If you can, ask someone else to read your report and then ask for their frank opinion. They may not understand the content, but they should be able to follow what you are trying to say and they may spot the odd typo.

There is, of course, a downside to this – they will ask you to do the same for them.

8. Conclusion and recommendations

Though few of us are natural writers, we can all learn to write good reports and there are a few simple rules to follow in doing so. • Write for your readers, not for yourself • Organise the contents. • Strive for a simple and direct writing style. • Use good English to make yourself appear professional • Learn to use a word processor properly. • Use appendices carefully. • Used properly, diagrams are good communication devices. • Number the sections and pages. • Ask someone else to read your report before you issue it.

There are bound to be ways of improving this document and if you have any suggestions then I would be glad to receive them.

9. References

You may not need any references in a management report, but if you do refer to anything then cite it properly in the References section at the end, as in the example below. Don't include anything in the References section that you have not referred to (this applies also to academic work).

1 Daly A. (1997) Spelling and grammar. Ladybird Books, Loughborough. ISBN 0-7214-1854-6.…...

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