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Being able to write a structured and well-argued report is an important part of our lives, whether it is an essay for school or university or a report for work.
And yet, we rarely ever actually get taught how to write.
When it comes to writing a report, a lot of people find themselves sitting at their computer, staring at a blank screen, fingers poised over the keys, overwhelmed by the task ahead and at a loss for words.
I’ve written a lot of essays and reports in my time. Let’s be honest, not all of them were good. However, I was lucky enough to be taught the basics of how to approach a writing task at a young age by my dad.
After agonising over my homework, Dad would sit down with me, and together we would patiently work our way through my jumbled efforts to explain the causes of the First World War, the impact of consumption on a country’s economic growth and the symbolism of metal chains in Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Well, he was patient. I, invariably, threw a minor tantrum because “I just DON’T understand, Dad!”
But, tantrums aside, one of the key things I learned during those sessions was that no matter the subject, the steps that my Dad used to approach each essay were always the same.
Even today, many years on, I use his steps whenever it comes to writing a report at work – or in fact when I’m writing anything (including this blog!). So I thought I would share these with you in the hope that it will help you write clear, well-structured and robust reports.
1. Don’t start writing too early
With a deadline looming, there will be a real urge to just hop on your computer and start writing while doing your research at the same time.
Surely it will save time?!
It won’t. Trust me. The number of times I’ve started writing what I think is the right answer, only to get halfway through and find that all my research into the subject is pointing me to another conclusion. There is nothing more frustrating than having to highlight and delete vast tracts of beautifully erudite text because it is, simply, wrong.
Do your research first. Make sure you know your subject, know what you think, what you want to say. Only then can you begin.
2. Write your report in one paragraph
But I’m still not going to let you start writing just yet!
Do you know what you want to say? Then tell me. Imagine you are sitting opposite someone – your client, a friend, whoever; you should be able to explain the report you are writing to them in thirty seconds.
For example, “I’m writing a report on whether company A should do x, and based on my research, I have found that there are five key factors that company A needs to consider: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Of these, the third is the most important, and company A should ensure that it does l, m, n, o and p to ensure that it is successful.”
This paragraph should act as the anchor that you keep coming back to when you are writing. Keep your report simple; you are just trying to expand on this one paragraph.
3. Draft the skeleton structure of your report
Again, we’re still not quite ready to start writing yet. One of the key things that makes a good report is structure.
You need to make sure you have a clear, logical flow that the reader can follow; one that always links back to your anchor paragraph of what it is you are trying to tell the reader.
On a sheet of paper note down in bullet points the structure of the report. A good way of breaking a report down is to split it into the following sections:
- Context: what is the context of this report? In the example above, it is that Company A wants to do x. This part of the report would include an introduction to Company A, the market that it operates in, the reasons behind why it wants to do x.
- Complication: so, what’s the complication to Company A in doing x? In the example above, it would be the existence of five key factors that influence this decision. Explain each factor in turn.
- Key question: based on the situation and the complication above, what is the key question that this report is trying to solve? In the case of the example it is that Company A wants to do x, but five factors are influencing it. How can x be allowed to happen most effectively?
- Solution: so how do we solve this question? In the example above, there are five key steps that Company A needs to take: l, m, n, o and p. Explain each one.
4. Break it down: Blocks and Bridges
OK, now you can start writing!
But at this point, it can suddenly feel daunting. There are thousands of words ahead of you and just a blank screen staring back.
Stick to the skeleton structure that you have written and break the report writing down into blocks and bridges. The blocks are individual sections in the report (e.g. each influencing factor would be its own block) and these are linked by bridging sentences.
Put in sub-headings if it helps, and then write each section as a stand-alone block. Bridging sentences then act to guide the reader through each block of the report. For example, “As illustrated above, Company A should consider five key factors. Of these the third is the most important to the effective implementation of x. The challenges associated with this factor can, however, be overcome through a number of steps, each of which is described in detail below.”
Also, just ignore the first sentence. Lots of people (me included) get stuck on writing the perfect first sentence. It doesn’t matter. You will undoubtedly go back and edit it again at the end anyway, so just launch yourself in and know that you will come back to improve it later.
Once you’ve finished writing, it’s a good time to remember the quote from Mark Twain:
“I’m writing you a long letter because I don’t have time to write you a short one.”
You will need to go back over and edit the whole report. Invariably, we waffle and don’t make our point succinctly during the first draft. You need to tighten it up to ensure that you keep your reader engaged all the way through.
Don’t try and do this on the computer though. Print it out. Keep going back to your anchor paragraph: what are you trying to tell the reader? Don’t deviate from that key message. Much as you find a topic interesting, if it isn’t directly relevant to the report, leave it out. Look at the blocks. Shift things around so the order flows. And then edit the bridging passages so that the report holds together.
6. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them
I always write the introduction and conclusion last, as they are essentially summaries of the main body of the report. Until you’ve got that right you can’t summarise it properly.
When it comes to making presentations, one of the tricks that I have been taught repeatedly is that when you stand in front of your audience you need to:
Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then tell them. And finally tell them what you’ve told them.
The same applies for reports.
- Introduction: Tell them what you’re going to tell them. For example, Company A is looking to do x. This report provides an overview of the key factors to consider and highlights the key steps it needs to take in order to ensure the most successful implementation of x.
- Main body: Tell them in detail the context, complication, key question and solution.
- Conclusion: Tell them what you have told them. For example: Company A is looking to do x. As this report has demonstrated, five key factors influence the outcome of this. Based on our understanding of the market and regulatory environment, we recommend that Company A do l, m, n, o and p in order to ensure that x is done effectively.
I know this sounds obvious, but the trick to good report writing is holding the hand of your reader and leading them through your thinking towards your conclusion. Telling them what you’re going to tell them, and then guiding them through each block with the help of the bridging passages ensures that they understand clearly where they are headed and you won’t lose them along the way.
Photo credit: Plbmak & gordontour via photopin cc
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