The problem with reports….
What do people most dislike about reports?
Ask any group, in any organisation, and they all come up with the same list of complaints: reports are too long, boring, repetitive, full of irrelevant information and jargon; with too many long sentences, long paragraphs and long words, and not enough headings or structure; meaning is often unclear, things are in the wrong order, key points get lost and there’s sometimes no conclusion.
Funny, that. Because, if you ask a group of report writers (often the same people) what they want to achieve with their reports, here’s their wish list: to make them shorter, crisper and more concise; to get the message across clearly; to have a robust structure; to get things in a logical order and make them flow well; to make their reports readable and engaging and to keep the reader’s interest every step of the way.
So, if we know what we hate about other people’s reports, why is it so hard to find a cure for our own?
Perhaps it’s because the task itself is often daunting—a report is probably the most high-stake document you’ll ever write. Important people may see it—Senior Management, Board members, the general public, the media—and they may all have different expectations, needs and levels of knowledge. You may need to research, gather information or conduct interviews, and collate and present that material in a consistent style and tone. You may have to render complex financial, scientific or technical data for non-specialists. If you’re very unlucky, you may have been given an unclear brief; or even conflicting briefs by different managers; or a deadline you feel you can’t meet.
There’s not much you can do about those last scenarios. But here’s a plan of action that in most cases should set you off in the right direction.
First, write down the aim(s) of your report. Is it to enable your board or trustees to make an informed decision? Is it to keep your members or supporters motivated? Is it to promote your work? IIs it to influence policy? Is it to effect change? Is it to persuade people to invest or donate? Is it to fulfil legal or professional requirements?The clearer you are about your aims, the clearer they’ll be to your reader, and the less likely you’ll be to stray from the point.
Next, identify what kind of report you’re writing—a business plan, a progress report, a proposal, an annual report, an incident report, a financial paper—and find the appropriate structure. If you come to our report-writing course, you’ll pick up lots of ideas and examples of structures. In the meantime, have a look at some of the online help. Here are two university websites: https://libguides.reading.ac.uk/reports and https://library.leeds.ac.uk/info/14011/writing/114/report_writing —or follow one of the recommended links here: http://archive.learnhigher.ac.uk/resources/files/Report%20Writing/Reports_Staff%20Websites_staff.pdf
Once you’ve got the right structure and the right headings, you’ll find your report almost writes itself. Arrange the headings in the right order. Allocate a word count to each section so they’re not unbalanced in length, and you’re ready to start the actual writing—your first draft.
And there’s the rub. How do you avoid those pitfalls—long, rambling sentences, waffle, lack of clarity, jargon— that people most hate?Here are six tips:
1: Keep your sentences short. The recommended length is 15 to 20 words, but don’t be afraid of writing a very short sentence if you want something to stand out.
2. Cut out unnecessary words—they’re one of the biggest obstacles for the reader.
3. Avoid jargon, and zombie nouns ( explained here: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/zombie-nouns/)
4: Keep paragraphs to four sentences or less. The rule is, fresh thought, fresh paragraph, so as soon as your topic shifts, start a fresh paragraph.
5. Start each paragraph with your topic sentence—the key point—and then expand on that, instead of building up to it. You can use the topic sentences to write a summary—just string them together and edit the result.
6. Keep your reader in mind throughout.
These are just tips, not a magic wand—let’s face it, reports are hard work and they take time.
For more guidance, tips, tricks and advice, and to practice your skills, check out our Report writing course