Reports have their own structure and this is distinct from the form of an essay.
Essays are mainly used to allow you to demonstrate your ideas and arguments to tutors. Written reports provide specific research-based information which results in a course of action being decided and acted on. Reports are designed to give information concisely and accurately. A formal report has an impersonal and objective “tone of voice”. The main argument is clear and uses a minimum of words. Accurately presented facts are in the main body of the report – your evaluation of these is in the “conclusions” and “recommendations” sections.
Reports tend to follow a standard structure but much depends on the circumstances in which they are being written. It helps to ask your lecturers, employers or mentors what they expect – there may be an accepted way of writing a report appropriate to your course, employment or professional body.
Before you start to write, you need to be clear about what you want to achieve and what you want to say. This will involve some planning. If you plan a report well, it will save time – and will save much drafting and redrafting.
Steps to follow:
- Define your aim
- Collect your ideas
- Select the material and decide how to show the significance of your facts
- Structure your ideas
- You will then find it much easier to write.
Defining Your Aim
- Start by asking yourself some questions:
- Why am I writing this?
- What do I want to achieve?
- Who will read this?
- What does my reader want to know?
- How will this be used?
- When is this needed?
Once you have answered these questions, you should be clear about the kind of document needed.
Collecting Your Ideas:
Start by jotting down ideas in note form. Do not write sentences at this stage. Remember your aim and concentrate on the questions in the readers’ minds. This will help you to include only those ideas which are relevant, rather than writing everything you know about the subject.
Not all of your ideas will come at once, so plan to meet your deadline. Be prepared to spend some time on noting initial ideas and then set the document aside. When you come back to it later, you will find that your ideas have gelled and that you can see the way ahead more clearly.
Selecting Your Ideas:
Review the content of the document. Are all the ideas relevant? Is there anything which you need to cut out? Think about using appendices or attachments to cover detail which the reader may need at a later stage, but does not need in order to understand the main message.
Decide how to show the significance of your facts. Would some graphs or diagrams help the readers understand your message? What visual material will you use? How will you produce it?
Structuring the Document
You will need to structure the content in a logical and clear way if you are going to help the readers take in your message.
Make sure you have a sequence of headings and sub-headings which will act as signposts to help the readers find the information they need.
Also, if you structure a piece of writing well, you will find it easier to choose the words to express your ideas.
A report should be divided into sections and sub-sections, each of which should have a clear heading. If you structure a report well, it will not only help your readers find the information they need but it will also help you when you start writing.
Many readers may not want to read the whole report; they will want to read the parts that are relevant to them. A well structured report will help them to find information quickly.
- A good structure will help you to decide where to put each fact or idea.
- It will help you to think clearly.
- Your readers will want to concentrate on only one aspect at a time.
You will be able to start writing at any point – you will not necessarily have to start at the beginning. If different people are contributing to the report, they will know what to cover.
Good headings will tell your readers about the subject in each section.
The main headings and sub-headings will give your readers an overview of your plan.
A good structure will make it easier for your readers to refer back to specific sections of your report.
- Make sure the structure is complete. It must cover all the facts and ideas. Dustbins like General or Other Notes usually show that the design is the wrong one.
- Your headings must be helpful and clear – they must tell the readers about the information in each section. One-word headings are often vague and misleading. Don’t be afraid of using headings that are eight or nine words long – they will help you to be more certain of what to put in each section, and will help your readers to find the details they need.
- Your sections should be watertight. Each point should fit logically into only one section. This is not always possible – you may need to remind your readers of something you said earlier – but don’t give up easily. Over-repetition may indicate a bad design.
- Do not have too much material in each section – or too many headings in a string. Your readers will only be able to cope with a maximum of about six points, if they are going to remember the points you are making.
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