A (SHORT) REPORT ON REPORT WRITINGAngus Morrison-SaundersSenior Lecturer in Environmental AssessmentSchool of Environmenta...
A (SHORT) REPORT ON REPORT WRITING1.         IntroductionEffective communication is the key to success as a professional. ...
they are in the report and where they are going. An example of providing guidance to a reader is the useof connecting sent...
presentation are demonstrated in Box 1 in which I present identical text in two ways. Which approach doyou find easier (an...
and reader alike. In summary this system entails always citing the author of a reference item (or a title ifno author is e...
7.      ReferencesBate D. and Sharpe P. 1996. Writer’s Handbook for University Students. Harcourt, Brace & Company,  Sydne...
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Report writing

  1. 1. A (SHORT) REPORT ON REPORT WRITINGAngus Morrison-SaundersSenior Lecturer in Environmental AssessmentSchool of Environmental ScienceMurdoch UniversityAugust 2008[Task: write an engaging 4 page report (excluding title page, table of contents, abstract andreferences) that demonstrates effective report writing skills].AbstractDrawing on personal opinion and published guides, in this report I model effective report writingstructure and content. I start with this single paragraph Abstract which properly contains elementsof introduction, methodology, results or discussion and conclusion. I argue that creating anidiot-proof and stand-alone document that can be comprehended by a reader with basic schoollevel English skills is an essential aim of report writing. I address the importance of referencing inargument construction and touch on other aspects of professional report writing such aspresentation, balance and language choice. In doing so, I demonstrate that creative writing can beproduced whilst adhering to the guidance I advocate. TABLE OF CONTENTSCONTENTS PAGE1. Introduction 12. Creating an Idiot-proof and ‘Stand-Alone’ Document 13. Structuring a Report 2 3.1 Using Headings Effectively 2 3.2 Maintaining Balance 2 3.3 Working Towards Attractive Presentation 24. Referencing and Credibility 35. Other Issues for Effective Written Communication 4 5.1 Non-Discriminatory Language 4 5.2 Colloquial Language 46. Conclusions and Recommendations 47. References 5LIST OF BOXESBox 1 Comparison of Two Presentation Styles 3
  2. 2. A (SHORT) REPORT ON REPORT WRITING1. IntroductionEffective communication is the key to success as a professional. Report writing provides us anopportunity to create an enduring legacy for expressing our professional knowledge and views. Toensure that your work is read it is important to develop skills in effective report writing. By effective Imean both creative (i.e. engaging to the reader) and with convincing content. In a time of informationoverload (e.g. Hurst 2007), a report should be short and succinct but as Mark Twain (1835-1910)famously said: "I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead"i. It is far morechallenging to write a short report compared to a long and rambling or waffley work, and it is a task thatrequires much drafting and re-drafting (Blaxter et al 2006, p228).In this report I model what I consider to be important report writing skills and content. My primarypurpose is to help my reader understand how to create an effective professional report. I draw upon thewell established literature on this topic as well as personal views derived from 20 years as an academic.To demonstrate the most important writing skills explicitly, I present this report in keeping with mypreferred approach. In each section, I provide explanations of the skills I employ.At this stage I should point out that an Introduction should clearly set out the purpose and scope of thereport content. Sometimes it is appropriate to indicate the methodological basis of the report in theintroduction too (as I have done in the previous paragraph along with the purpose); however, morecomplex works will warrant a separate Methodology section following the introduction.In terms of scope, the main discussion of my report (Sections 2-5) begins by considering the concept ofan idiot-proof and ‘stand-alone’ piece of work. I then address the issue of structure in terms of the useof headings, the importance of presentation and balance. Referencing and other issues such as the useof non-discriminatory and colloquial language follow. I do not discuss basis issues such as spelling andgrammar as I assume that all professional writing would scrupulously comply here. I conclude withrecommendations for effective writing and a personal vision for the future of professional report writing.2. Creating an Idiot-proof and ‘Stand-Alone’ DocumentWhen writing a report, who is your audience? Do not fall into the trap of writing for a professional withthe same education and specialist knowledge as yourself. The chances are a professional report will endup on a website in the public domain; this is especially the case for environmental science reports whichcommonly are subject to public comment. The only thing we can guarantee about the general public (inAustralia) is that they would have attained at least Year 10 schooling. This is the only assumption youshould make about your audience. If you write for a Year 10 school graduate, you cannot go wrong,meaning that your written work will be understood. Do not use jargon or acronyms and technical termsunless they really are the most appropriate words to employ and each is carefully explained the first timeyou use it. This does not mean that you must write each line of your work with all words of just onesound each (like I just did)! Be creative, be expressive (just dont obfuscate for the sake of showing offyour fabulous vocabulary!).Additionally a report (or any other piece of written work for that matter) should be presented as a ‘stand-alone’ document on the subject it addresses. This means that any stranger to the topic can understandexactly what it is all about just by reading it. Creating a ‘stand-alone’ document is easily achieved byproviding an introduction much like the one outlined previously which clearly defines the purpose andscope of the report, as well as a discussion section that delivers the promised content (nothing more andnothing less). At the paragraph level it is also important to create internal coherence or unity by onlyincluding relevant material to the paragraph topic and avoiding ambiguity or contradiction (Osland et al1991, p109)Nightingale (1986, p15) suggests that writing for a different audience (e.g. a stranger and Year 10graduate) is less stressful for the writer who otherwise may feel threatened by having to write for anexperienced learned authority. An additional advantage of writing for this audience is that it requires thewriter to lead the reader through the work in logical and progressive steps that are well signposted(Murray 2006, p209). In other words, your reader should always be able to clearly understand wherei source: http://www.famousquotes.com/show.php?_id=1045873, accessed 13 August 2008 1
  3. 3. they are in the report and where they are going. An example of providing guidance to a reader is the useof connecting sentences between different sections of the report such as: ‘In the next section I addressthe issue of report structure’.3. Structuring a ReportA report should be well structured with consideration given to use of headings, balance andpresentation. Petelin & Durham (1992, p59) advise that structure is very important and it assists bothwriters and readers alike. I strongly advocate the use of numbering for headings – a quick glance at anumbered Table of Contents is sufficient to understand and test the structure of a report. Ultimately howstructure is handled is part of the storytelling process itself (Canter and Fairbairn 2006, p74) and it can(and perhaps should) be a creative aspect of a particular piece of writing, not a static or uniformapproach applied equally to all reports.3.1 Using Headings EffectivelyA report should have clearly defined sections with a minimum normally of five consecutively numberedheadings including Introduction, Methods, Discussion, Conclusion and References. Of course forcreative purposes, making use of descriptive section headings is preferable providing they serve theequivalent functions (Denscombe 2007, p318). For long or complex works, sub-headings should beused where appropriate, although Commonwealth of Australia (1994, p242) cautions against excessiveheading use. The act of dividing up an essay in this way and numbering the sections makes it easier tostructure and balance for the author and as a means for providing focus for your reader (Petelin &Durham 1992, p62).For smaller pieces of work (e.g. a paragraph answer to a question or an abstract), it is not necessary touse explicit headings. However, the writing style and structure should automatically assume this role.Hence I suggest that there should be a minimum of four distinctly identifiable components eachdedicated to providing discrete introduction, methodology, discussion and conclusion functions, even ifsome are only one sentence or less each in length (e.g. as would be the case within an Abstract; Dayand Gastel 2006, p52).3.2 Maintaining BalanceBalance is important in terms of both report content and presentation. I address these in turn.With respect to balance of content, the level of detail given to specific report components should matchthe importance of each component. Issues of major significance to the report topic should be covered insome detail (e.g. several paragraphs or pages each) while smaller or sideline issues given only a briefmention (e.g. 1-2 sentences or a single paragraph). Major sections of a report (Introduction, Discussionand Conclusion) should be in appropriate balance. For example, a 1500 word report (i.e. approximately5 pages) would normally comprise of a 1-3 paragraph Introduction (maximum of 1 page), 3-4 pages ofDiscussion and a 1-2 paragraph Conclusion. Clearly, extreme deviations from this pattern, (e.g. a 1sentence or a 3 page introduction) would be very unbalanced.With respect to balance of presentation, it is also important to balance the length of individualparagraphs as well as sections. For example, a report may appear unbalanced if long paragraphs (say10-12 sentences in length) are interspersed with single sentence paragraphs. However, as Bate &Sharpe (1996, p33) point out, some variation in paragraph length is important to avoid monotony for thereader. Similarly, a minor point being made in a report may not warrant a section heading of its own thatplaces it on an equal footing with the major points being covered. In this instance, headings such as‘Other Issues’, ‘Additional Concerns’, ‘Other Considerations’ etc. may be appropriate as a way ofgrouping minor issues to bring them into appropriate weight with major single sections.3.3 Working Towards Attractive PresentationPresentation is the responsibility of an author and often is as important as the content itself. Forexample, think of the elaborate lengths advertisers and manufacturers go to in order to promote orpresent their goods to consumers; in my view report writing is no different.A report should always be presented as well as possible, i.e. the arrangement of headings, sentencesand paragraphs should create maximum readability and visual interest along with appropriate use oftables, figures or boxes. Bate & Sharpe (1996, p42) suggest that like careless spelling, poorpresentation can prejudice a reader to assume sloppiness of thought. A simple example of the effects of 2
  4. 4. presentation are demonstrated in Box 1 in which I present identical text in two ways. Which approach doyou find easier (and more pleasurable) to read?If making use of tables, figures or boxes it is important that they be introduced in the main text of thereport and also discussed in terms of their meaning. In the case of Box 1 it is clear that the passage onthe left is by far the better of the two in terms of presentation for all of the reasons discussed in thepassage itself (even though it is slightly longer in terms of the space it occupies).Box 1 Presentation Matters!: A Comparison of Two Presentation Styles When talking about presentation issues, there is When talking about presentation issues, there is no need to discriminate between typed and un- no need to discriminate between typed and un- typed work. All of my comments about essay typed work. All of my comments about essay presentation are equally applicable to both typed presentation are equally applicable to both typed and hand written work. They also apply to essays and hand written work. They also apply to essays written under both mid-term assignment and written under both mid-term assignment and exam conditions. exam conditions. One useful presentation technique is the use of ‘dot points’ to break up the One useful presentation technique is the use of discussion of a multi-faceted item. Some ‘dot points’ to break up the discussion of a multi- advantages of ‘dot points’ include: less words are faceted item. Some advantages of ‘dot points’ used; ideas or information can be presented in a include: quick and direct fashion, thereby enabling more • less words are used; ground to be covered; and provision of visual • ideas or information can be presented in a relief for the reader. An important consideration in quick and direct fashion, thereby enabling presentation is to keep paragraphs to a more ground to be covered; and reasonable length (unlike this one) and to • provision of visual relief for the reader. separate them with a blank line. Additional considerations are the provision of an appropriate An important consideration in presentation is to margin (e.g. 2cm minimum) on all sides of the keep paragraphs to a reasonable length and to page and the use of ‘fully justified’ text for typed separate them with a blank line. Additional work. A report with no breaks or margins is the considerations are the provision of an appropriate equivalent of a speech delivered in a monotone; margin (e.g. 2cm minimum) on all sides of the i.e. guaranteed to put the reader to sleep! Some page and the use of ‘fully justified’ text for typed useful presentation tips are provided in work. Commonwealth of Australia (1994, pp237-265). A report with no breaks or margins is the equivalent of a speech delivered in a monotone; i.e. guaranteed to put the reader to sleep! Some useful presentation tips are provided in Commonwealth of Australia (1994, pp237-265).4. Referencing and CredibilityDevelopment of an argument; giving grounds or reasons for conclusions (Fisher 1988, p16) is at thecore of any report. Ultimately report writing and the construction of an argument is a form of storytelling. Referencing the ideas and facts that inform your argument gives your report credibility. It alsoprovides a paper trail for your reader to follow in order to find out more on the subject. The main goal ofreferencing is thus to provide a complete, accurate and helpful record of where material came from(Neville 2007, p8). For example, whilst it may be accurate to reference a 500 page book from which youdrew some information, your reader will find it helpful if you guide them to the relevant page or section.And of course the information provided in the Reference list must be complete so that your reader canlocate the work. Specifically this means supplying the:• author (surname plus initials of all authors of the work);• date (i.e. year of publication);• title of work;• publisher and place of publication (sometime this means providing a journal name and volume details, sometimes this means the name of a book publisher and sometimes the name of the organisation and their relevant website address).It doesnt matter whether the material is available in hard copy (e.g. journal article, book, report etc.) orelectronically (e.g. website or on-line report) the same four components must be provided.All sources of information used to write a report should always be properly referenced to avoidaccusations of plagiarism (Bate & Sharpe 1996, p39). An approved and consistent format should alwaysbe used; I personally strongly advocate use of author-date for its simplicity and ease of use for writer 3
  5. 5. and reader alike. In summary this system entails always citing the author of a reference item (or a title ifno author is evident) and the year of publication. It is also helpful to the reader to provide the relevantpage number for citations within the text, particularly for book citations (Commonwealth of Australia1994, p149).An excellent guide to the correct procedures for referencing can be found in Commonwealth of Australia(1994) (and its subsequent later editions). This document outlines the correct way to referencepractically every form of communication (e.g. journals, books, chapters in edited books, legislation,newspaper articles, films, personal communication etc.). It was, however, published prior to thewidespread use of electronic communications. For information about ‘citations in cyberspace’ such tryReddick & King (1996, p72) or Murdoch University Library Publications (2008). A reference list shouldalways be included in an essay with complete bibliographic entries corresponding exactly to thereferences cited in the text (see Section 7; Neville 2007). It is not acceptable to list information sourcesutilised in writing the essay in a reference list if these are not actually referenced in the essay text itself.How many references should you use? I have no ‘hard and fast’ answer to this question other than:‘enough to do the topic justice’ or to build a convincing and credible argument. Even for a short report, Ifind it hard to imagine this being possible with anything less than 15 or 20 references.5. Other Issues for Effective Written CommunicationOther important issues to consider in report writing include the use of non-discriminatory and colloquiallanguage. I address each briefly in turn before discussing the role of a conclusion.Non-discriminatory language should be used at all times and this is now considered a normal part ofprofessional writing (e.g. see Petelin & Durham 1992, p133 and Bate & Sharpe 1996, p64). It isimportant to be aware of potential discrimination in language and to choose alternative phrases andlanguage. The only exception to this is if directly quoting a passage from another author in whichdiscriminatory language was used. Commonwealth of Australia (1994, p122-124) describes the variousforms of language discrimination, including a list of common words and phrases, and provides examplesof acceptable and simple alternatives.Colloquialisms are expressions people use in casual conversations and create an atmosphere ofinformality (Petelin & Durham 1992, p144). Professional report writing may preclude the use of colloquiallanguage, although I personally find it easier to write more naturally and in a more engaging manner withcolloquialisms. In these circumstances it is necessary to use single quotation marks to acknowledge thecolloquialism (Commonwealth of Australia 1994, p102) as I have modeled throughout this report.There are many other tricks of the trade for effective writing which are covered in numerouspublications on the topic including Murray (2006), Blaxter et al (2006) and Murdoch University LibraryPublications (2008). For the sake of brevity I will draw this report to a close with my conclusions. Firstthough, I should point out that the purpose of a Conclusion is to reiterate the main learning points arisingfrom the Discussion component of a report only; no new ideas or material should be introduced at thisstage.6. Conclusions and RecommendationsIn this report I have demonstrated some of the fundamental writing skills and characteristics that shouldbe incorporated in a professional report. I make the following recommendations to writers:• Create an idiot-proof and ‘stand-alone’ document through careful construction of an argument using language that a stranger to the topic can understand;• Provide descriptive headings and sub-headings that are sequentially numbered and structured in a balanced manner;• Present your written work to be as attractive as possible to your reader;• Correctly use references and colloquial language to ensure that your communicated story or argument has credibility; and• Avoid discriminatory forms of language.Plenty of room for creativity in writing remains whilst adhering to these recommendations. Good writingenables boundless creativity in terms of exploration of the actual topic and presentation opportunities. Iview the writing skills outlined in this report as the foundations of good writing upon which the truecreative elements are overlayed. I hope you have found them to be useful! 4
  6. 6. 7. ReferencesBate D. and Sharpe P. 1996. Writer’s Handbook for University Students. Harcourt, Brace & Company, Sydney.Blaxter L, Hughes C. and Tight M. 2006 How to Research. Third Edition, Open University Press, Berkshire.Canter D. and Fairbairn, G. 2006. Becoming an Author: Advice for Academics and Other Professionals. Open University Press, Berkshire.Commonwealth of Australia 1994. Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers. Fifth Edition. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.Day R. and Gastel B. 2006. How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Sixth Edition, Greenwood Press, London.Denscombe M. 2007. The Good Research Guide for Small-Scale Social Research Projects. Third Edition, Open University Press, Berkshire.Fisher A. 1988. The Logic of Real Arguments. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.Hurst M. 2007. Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload. Good Experience Inc., New York.Murdoch University Library Publications 2008 How To Cite References, Murdoch University, available: http://wwwlib.murdoch.edu.au/find/citation/ (accessed 12 August 2008)Murray R. 2006. How to Write a Thesis. Second Edition, Open University Press, Berkshire.Neville C. 2007. The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism. Open University Press, Berkshire.Nightingale P. 1986. Improving Student Writing. Green Guide No. 4, Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia Inc., Campbelltown.Osland D., Boyd D., McKenna W. and Salusinszky I. 1991 Writing in Australia: A Composition Course for Tertiary Students. Harcourt Brace, Sydney.Petelin R. and Durham M. 1992. The Professional Writing Guide: Writing Well and Knowing Why. Pitman Publishing, Melbourne.Reddick R and King E. 1996. The Online Student: Making the Grade on the Internet. Harcourt, Brace & Company, USA. 5