Nov 122008

It’s so easy to put off the task of writing up that report!

Tempting to divert to an easier job, find something that’s more urgent, or a myriad of other excuses.

Here are six tried and tested tips to make report writing more approachable.

They will help you get started quickly.

1.    Decide on your structure

Sorting out the structure first means you’ll know where everything has to go. It’s rather like planning your journey in advance, so you don’t end up taking detours or ending up in dead ends. Here’s my suggestion for a structure, which you can modify to suit:

  1. Title page
  2. Contents
  3. Introduction
  4. Executive summary
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Conclusions & recommendations
  8. Appendices

2.    But don’t write in that order!

It would be difficult and daunting to write a report from beginning to end. I suggest you set up the headings for the different sections of your report, and then get started on a section which feels easy to you.

  • You might start with:

The Title page and Contents page.
Introduction, Methods, and any Appendices relating to the Introduction or Method

  • Then move on to:

Results, any Appendices for Results.

If you have a lot of detailed results, which warrant an Appendix, you’ll probably need to write up the Appendix first, so you can summarise it into your Results section.

  • And write these parts last:

Conclusions and recommendations, Executive Summary

3.    Structure each section before you start

Just as you have structured the whole report, it will help you to write the main headings within each section. For example a Results section might include:

  • Trends from desk research
  • Employers’ views
  • Trainees’ views
  • Stakeholder views’
  • Summary of results

4.     Ask for help

If you find it difficult to structure your report, ask a colleague to help. You don’t necessarily need someone familiar with your project – explaining things from scratch will give you insight into a reader’s perspective.

5.    Start writing anywhere within a secton

It can be hard to write the first paragraph of a section, partly because it’s an overview of a section which you haven’t written yet! Word processing makes it easy to start anywhere. I usually start with a part I can write easily. Then I add bits in, moving them around as necessary.

6.    Use technology

Computer software offers many ways to make writing easier. Here are my favourites:

  • Keep a backup of your report
  • When you have added substantially to your draft, save your report as another version, so you end up with versions 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 etc. This means you can easily go back to earlier drafts if necessary.
  • Use styles for different levels headings, so they are consistent.
  • Use Word’s facility to automatically generate, and update, your Contents page (Insert/Reference/Index and Tables).
  • Use Word’s facility for Footnotes, to add short pieces of information which interrupts the flow of the text, at the bottom of the page (Insert / reference / Footnote)
  • Use Word’s ‘Track changes’ facility if you want to circulate your draft and be able to see each other’s changes (Tools / Track  Changes)
  • Use Word’s Help menu to learn to use any of the above features.

The bottom line: Report writing doesn’t need to be daunting. Once you have a structure, the trick is to start with a part of the report which feels easy to you, and build out from there. A range of software tools will help you.

© May Johnstone, 2009, Project Please feel free to circulate this article provided it is used in its entirety, including this acknowledgement.

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