Report Writing

by Clare Forrest

Step one – establish objectives and readers

Writing is long periods of thinking and short periods of writing.

Ernest Hemingway

The first step is to consider two crucial questions:

  1. Why are you writing the report (what do you want it to achieve for its readers) and
  2. Who are you writing it for?

These are simple questions, but unless you answer them clearly in your own mind you will probably end up writing the wrong document for the wrong reader.

The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.

Agatha Christie

You can learn more about the importance of objectives and building rapport with your readers in Business writing: write for your audience and Rapport: creating rapport in writing.

Report objectives

It’s good practice to write a statement along the lines of the one below and refer to it as you move through the steps of the report writing process.

 

The purpose of this report is to

  • Examine the current coaching programme for managers
  • Establish the ROI and other benefits from the coaching programme
  • Identify any key areas for improvement and/or change
  • Identify the cost implications of these areas for change/improvement
  • Assist the Senior Management Team (SMT) to make a decision about its management coaching strategy over the next five years.

Its key readers will be the SMT.

Objectives activity

Think about a report you write regularly or will be writing soon. What do you want your reader to know or do as a result of reading it? Either use some of the verbs listed here to help you or choose your own. Write your objectives down.

 

Useful words for report writing objectives

  • To analyse
  • To assist
  • To compare and contrast
  • To discuss
  • To evaluate
  • To explain
  • To identify
  • To inform
  • To present
  • To propose
  • To recommend
  • To review
  • To suggest
  • To update

Once you’ve written your objectives, notice how this helps you to envision the report. You’re beginning to get a sense of what it will look like and what it needs to contain. Keep these objectives where you can see them while you are preparing your report, so that you can refer to them regularly and check that the report is relevant and fit for purpose. Clear objectives give you direction, help to shape your document and point you to selecting relevant material.

Terms of reference

Establishing report objectives is sometimes known, very formally, as ‘establishing your terms of reference’. This provides you with a clear brief and helps ensure you write the right report. It also helps to make sure you don’t include unnecessary material.

Quick tip

If someone has asked you to write the report, make sure you find out exactly what they want before you go any further and, perhaps, waste a lot of time. Equally, if you’re delegating a report to someone else to write, make sure you’re very clear on what you want the report to achieve by giving them proper objectives for the report. Asking the questions WHO?, WHAT?, WHY?, WHEN?, WHERE? and HOW? will save you a lot of time in the long run. For example:

  • What is the purpose of this report?
  • Who has asked for it?
  • Why have they asked for it?
  • Who will be reading it?
  • Who will make a decision about it?
  • Will I need to make recommendations?
  • When is it needed?
  • How will it be read – online, on paper?

Your readers

Question

What could there be about your readers that might influence the way you write?

As part of this first step, always think carefully about your reader or readers, what their expectations are and what they will need from the report. This is information that will affect your writing style, the level of detail you include and so on. You will want build up a clear picture of your reader, so consider the following questions.

  1. Who are they? What will they be interested in? What won’t they be? For example, the report you write for the Finance Director is likely to be very different in style, tone and approach to the one you’d write for your peers and colleagues.
  2. Why will they be reading your report? Do they want to or have they got to? Is their agenda the same as yours?
  3. What is their relationship to you? Are they your team? Someone else’s? Your peers? Your superiors? This could have an effect on the style you choose – for example, formal, informal, technical, non-technical and so on.
  4. What is their attitude to you? Do they know you? Like you? Who are your allies/opponents?
  5. What is their attitude to your subject? Is it something which will help them or a nuisance? How much effort do you need to spend selling your ideas?
  6. What do they already know about the subject? Is it brand new? Are you going to be giving them a refresher or an update? Will levels of knowledge vary? This will affect the amount of detail and depth required, especially in your introduction.
  7. What implications will your report have for them? Is it going to give them more work? Will they envisage any hidden implications that you may need to bring in to the open?

A conversation on paper

When we talk with someone, whether alone or in a group, most of us adapt our language and style to meet their needs and build rapport. For example, a conversation with a senior colleague will probably be very different from one with your child. Writing is just a conversation on paper. When you begin to write, keep a picture of your reader in mind all the time, just as if you were talking with them. This will help you to write for your reader and ensure you are hitting the right note.