How to Write a Technical Report

Summary

1. The Need For Guidelines

  • 1.1. Aims
  • 1.2. Using this Report

2. Communications

  • 2.1. The Channel and the Message
  • 2.2. The Writer
  • 2.3. The Reader

3. The Structure of the Whole Document

  • 3.1. The Title
  • 3.2. The Content
  • 3.3. The Summary
  • 3.4. The Conclusions

4. The Body of the Report

  • 4.1. The Material Content
  • 4.2. The Drafting Framework
    • 4.2.1. Content Dependence
    • 4.2.2. Landmarks
    • 4.2.3. Parallel Concepts
    • 4.2.4. Numbering

5. Writing

  • 5.1. Good English
  • 5.2. Selection
  • 5.3. Style
  • 5.4. Revisions
  • 5.5. Appendices
  • 5.6. Diagrams
  • 5.7. Some Don’ts

6. Action Programme Authors

Appendix 1 – Questionnaire

Appendix 2 – My Response to the above Questionnaire

Summary

1. Although not directly associated with Fire Safety report writing is a very important and necessary skill required by Fire Safety Officer and Consultants. It is important to inform the client in a concise and accurate form what is required of them and any action they need to implement. This page is also written in a report form to reinforce the
ideas of this article.

2. The inexperienced author needs guidelines to help him
write his early technical reports. This document provides such guidelines
and helps him to apply them.

3. First the information channel which carries the message between the writer and his reader is examined. This shows why it is important for the writer to be clear about his own aims and also to understand the viewpoint of his readers.

4. A technical report serves two groups of reader, those who want to grasp the essentials quickly, and those who wish to take a critical look at all its reasoning and conclusions before acting on its recommendations. It suggests that the, Title, Contents Page, Summary, and Conclusions should be able to stand alone to satisfy the first, often more important, class of readers.

5. For the second, more committed, readers this document examines how the material for a report should be assembled and then hung onto a drafting framework. This ensures that the contents are logically presented. It is shown how the reader is helped by being made aware of that framework.

6. Section five deals with a variety of topics concerned with writing the body of the report. These all emphasise the need to show consideration towards the reader. Only in this way will he get clear, interesting and factual information.

7. Finally an action programme is provided in which the new author is taken through the task of preparing his first technical report.

1. The need for Guidelines

1.1. Aims

Fire safety officers, consultants and those involved in fire safety matters will at sometime be required to write a report. The need to communicate with a client and provide an accurate and effective instructions or information is essential. This report therefore has the following aim,

TO PROVIDE GUIDELINES ON REPORT WRITING WHICH WILL ENSURE YOUR REPORT WRITING IS MORE EFFECTIVE.

It is also written so that it can be read through quickly before the writing begins and thus give an author a grasp of how to set about this task.

1.2. Using This Report

A practical problem faced by everyone who writes about report writing is that of too much generality. Illustrative examples must be introduced at times to avoid this. I have therefore used the fact that this document is itself a report which should be capable of illustrating the principles which it preaches. Occasionally, the reader will be invited to go back to some earlier passage where he will find a point of principle illustrated by words which he has already read in a different context.

Section six provides the action list for it is there that I make the transition between my writing and your writing.

2. Communication

2.1 The Channel and the Message

Report writing is part of a communication process. As figure 1 shows the principal parts are the writer at one end and the reader at the other. The report itself is the message that flows along the channel between them.

Fig.1 The written report seen as part of
a Communication Channel

 

Writing the report is thus a matter of aiming the message correctly, while reading it is a matter of accepting the message and correctly interpreting its meaning. With so much written work impinging on people the acceptance of a report is akin to opening a filter to allow the message through selectively. The first step in report writing must therefore be to consider both the writer and the reader.

2.2 The Writer

Here is a list of questions which you, the potential author, must answer before you put pen to paper. Moreover the answers must be kept in mind all the time the report is being written.

a. What action do you want your report to trigger off?
b. Who will be the readers?
c. How many of them are there?
d. What is their level of knowledge of the subject?

It is very important to answer these questions explicitly. Indeed it will pay to write down the answers. The appendix provides a questionnaire for that purpose. It also shows how I answered the questions when preparing this report.

When these questions have been answered a much more practical view of the task is obtained. You will realise which style of writing will be most appropriate, how much of other people’s time you are trying to capture and the size of the printing and reproduction job involved. Above all the reader is identified, and your own motives are made explicit.

But it is not enough simply to consider your motives and to take an external view of the reader, you must also try to put yourself in the reader’s shoes and think what it will be like to receive your report.

2.3 The Reader

Reading is demanding and time-consuming so that first question will be, WHY SHOULD I READ THIS?

Don’t forget that you will not be there to answer him all that he will have before him at this stage is the title on the front cover. It is only possible to answer this question in general terms. Thus he will only wish to open the front cover, and read on if he is led to believe that, he will gain insights into a subject of concern to him from which he will benefit in the future.

This makes the title very important. “Why should I read this?” emerges as a key question when thinking about report writing for it not only applies to the title but is ever-present in the reader’s mind. It is the criterion which must be used for STRUCTURING the whole of the report. It also serves as a reminder not to bore or burden the reader with difficulties in finding his way through the BODY OF THE REPORT finally it warns you against having your message misinterpreted or rejected through bad WRITING. These three aspects of report writing provide the next sections of this report. They do not follow in series, but should rather be thought
of as parallel themes which are then drawn together in section six.

3. The Structure of the Whole Document

3.1 The Title

I have already indicated why the title is important. Clearly it is not necessary to set down the exact words at the start. Indeed, it is best to wait until the report is close to completion before finally fixing it. Nevertheless it is worth while starting with a title in mind, and writing down modifications and improvements as the report develops. The title of this report went through a number of changes as the work progressed. They were:-

How to Write a Technical Report
Why should I read this?
Why read it?

When I re-read section two and three the words “How to Write a Technical Report” seemed best because it made a statement and did not ask a question. If your title persuades your reader to open the front cover, what will he be looking for? There are two things,

The Contents Page
A Summary

These two items should now be readily accessible. Each is discussed below.

3.2 The Contents Page

At this stage your reader will not be committed to reading the whole report and will only leave his filter open if you can reassure him very quickly that his time will be well spent.

A contents page can do this. It will of course be made up of the sub-titles of all the sections of the report. When those subtitles are first written they are set down in order to identify the contents of the sections which follow. That is what is needed on the contents page but when your report is written it may be necessary to re-phrase some of those headings so that the contents page stands as a meaningful document in its own right.

Also a contents page can communicate the structure of a report by the way it is set out. Look at the contents page of this report. From it you will discover where you have reached in your reading. Fortunately in reports this second role of the contents page in no way conflicts with the primary one of helping your reader to decide whether to read on. (This is not true in large books where a lengthy contents list may sometimes be used as an index).

3.3 The Summary

Suppose that your reader has discovered from the contents page that he may benefit by reading more, but he is still not fully committed to reading the complete document.

What he needs is a summary, so provide one. Try and make it one page only. In this way he can see at a glance the size of the reading task he has to take on. Also be sure that it will stand alone with a self-evident structure and clear cut paragraphs which are best with a subset of bulleted points which might, for example, outline the conclusions of the report.

You should write the Summary after the main report is written. Indeed, you should read through your report in one unbroken session just before your write the summary.

You might time yourself. If you anticipate fifty readers each setting aside one hour, then you can at least ask your own conscience whether you have valued other people’s time as highly as you value your own. For as I will stress later on, good report writing is very much concerned with consideration for others.

3.4 The Conclusions

If your reader has found that the contents and summary are relevant to his needs then he may be ready to read the main document. In later sections we deal with his demands on you.

However, there will be people who consider that reading the contents and summary is nearly enough. Such readers are often the most senior, with the broadest responsibilities, which can trigger off the actions your report, is intended to achieve. They will want one more item from your report an item which answers their additional question “SO WHAT SHOULD I DO? They will therefore look for one other section in the report. It will be entitled Conclusions, or Recommendations, or possibly Actions to be taken.

You will see that the Conclusions in this report have been recorded under the subtitle “Action Programme for Authors”.

You now have two types of reader, those who are going to read on, and those who will close the report when they have read the ‘conclusions’ section.

The needs of the latter group should be respected. This means that you should write so that the Title, Contents, Summary and Conclusions could stand alone as a self-explanatory document.

In this very special sense you are therefore writing two reports, the “Title, Contents, Summary and Conclusions” report
and the whole report. But the former cannot be started until you have written the body of the report.

You might find it helpful to close this report now and re-open it to decide to which group of readers you belong.

If as a result of that action you have returned to this point, then you will want to know how to start your own writing. The next two sections deal with two aspects: shaping the report and giving it substance.

4. The Body of the Report

4.1 The Material Content

No one can write a good report unless they have a stock of well thought out ideas, with some data and results to communicate and explain.

A very useful first step therefore is to write down all the points you wish to make. This list of words and phrases can then serve as a store of ideas to be drawn upon as and when needed. Make a note of any relevant thoughts you have immediately they occur to you and store them. It does not matter at this stage that the list has no logical order.

This report, for example, was developed out of a sheaf of notes, a book with markers for some passages, and a three-page typed note on the subject.

4.2 The Drafting Framework

4.2.1 Content Dependence

You now need to hang the potential material for the report onto a logical framework. In addition the shape of the framework needs to be self-evident for the reader’s benefit.

Subject matter plays an important part in defining what a suitable framework is. A technical report describing how someone should use a newly-designed piece of equipment might for example call for a framework on the lines of Fig 2. This shows how the subject matter may have to be broken into parallel themes although physically it will require a series presentation.

Fig.2 The framework which might be used for a report on how to use a new piece of equipment

The point to stress is that there can be no absolute right or wrong way of setting up the drafting framework. There will probably be two or three equally acceptable alternatives. What matters is that your reader is quickly made aware of the one you have selected. This means that you must tell him. The contents list is a useful guide which should, of course, be reflected in the layout, headings and insets of the report as the pages are turned.

4.2.2 Landmarks

You may need to give more guidance than these headings, so that your reader can always answer the question WHERE AM I IN THIS REPORT? As a guide, therefore, you should end some sections of your report with an indication of where the reader is going next and sometimes where he has been. This principle must of course be applied sparingly so that undue repetition and padding are avoided. Note for example how the closing sentences of sections 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 3.1 and 3.4 of this report achieve this. Sometimes it is more appropriate to put these landmarks at the beginning of a section, as illustrated in 3.3 and 3.4.

4.2.3 Parallel Concepts

There is one very common situation where these landmarks are particularly important. I have called it the ‘parallel concepts’ problem. Briefly, it arises when the subject matter requires two or more distinct ideas to be explained before their implications can be brought together, or the report continued in a meaningful way.

Once the first of these concepts has been presented then you will have to change the subject to present the next. This may confuse the reader who might reasonably expect the report to follow on. When this problem arises the obvious solution is to tell the reader in advance what to expect. Figure 3 illustrates how these special landmarks should be introduced. Also, an example from this report will be found at the end of Section 2.3.

Fig.3 Introducing landmarks into a report to notify the reader that the subject requires development in parallel stages.

4.2.4 Numbering

This report demonstrates a hierarchical numbering system. One advantage of such an approach is the help it can give the reader in understanding the structure of the document. For example in this case the numbers 4.2.4 serve as a reminder of both the level of importance and the position of this section called ‘NUMBERING’ as a subject within this report.

Thus:
4. Body of the Report
4.1
4.2 The drafting framework
4.2.1
4.2.2
4.2.4 Numbering

Numbering can be overdone, however, and there will be occasions when some relaxation of such a system should be allowed. No reader is going to appreciate a further sub-set such as 4.2.4.1 – 4.2.4.2 etc, when the letter a) b) c) will serve the purpose equally well. Examples occur in sections 5.3 and 5.4. This type of numbering also helps to control the format of the written page. Nothing is more off-putting to the busy reader than a page of typescript which is perfectly rectangular in shape. If such pages still occur even with a numbering system check to make sure that you have not included too much material in one section or neglected some structuring of your idea which would help the reader.

5. Writing

5.1 Good English

In section 4.1, I pointed out that you must have material that is useful and well structured if you’re reporting is to hold its readers. But it is equally important to ensure that the reader does not close the report through boredom or irritation. Also, he must interpret your meaning correctly. These important additional requirements can only be met by thinking clearly as you write and by expressing these thoughts in good English. In this context good English means being clear, interesting and informative. Of course that needs a substantial vocabulary and an understanding of English grammar. These themes are not developed here. For the reader who needs that kind of help the following books are recommended.

REPORT WRITING by A. E. DARBYSHIRE published by EDWARD ARNOLD LTD.

PLAIN WORDS by SIR E. GOWER published by PENGUIN BOOKS LTD.

ROGETS’ THESAURUS published by PENGUIN BOOKS LTD.

ROGETS’ THESAURUS is the converse of a dictionary. That is to say, instead of telling you what a given word means, it provides alternative words to fit a meaning you already have in mind. For example the word “Roundabout” used in the next section was found by looking up “Long-winded” in the thesaurus. Finally you will need a dictionary or spell checker, both to check spellings which you doubt, and to ensure the meaning you are attributing to a word is correct.

5.2 Selection

Factual correctness and completeness are two important considerations in scientific writing and they must be respected. However, they can lead you into difficulties. Respect for correctness must not become an insistence on caveats because the writer is reluctant to omit some additional facet of the subject which has occurred to him. I provided an example of this at the end of Section 3.2. The passage in brackets serves no useful purpose and should have been omitted. Disruptions to the continuity of subject caused by such interjections should be avoided. It is your task to think about their relevance and not to impose that burden on your readers.

The fact that you spent many hours studying records which subsequently proved unnecessary may show your diligence and thoroughness. However, to include a lengthy description of that experience in a report means that you are failing to consider your reader’s needs.

The keys to avoiding these pitfalls have already keen discussed. In Section 2.2 I posed four questions. You should always carry the answers to these in mind. (See Appendix) The other safeguard is to make frequent reference to the drafting framework.

5.3 Style

This aspect of report writing can be explored at great depth, (see the reference in Section 5.1). In general, however, the choice of style for report writing reduces to one criterion: Consideration for the Reader. You should therefore write in a style which reflects that:

a) He is a busy person – so be brief and simple.
b) He is looking for facts – so be clear and informative.
c) He is likely to be a comparative stranger to you – so be appropriately formal.

Views differ on this last point. Some writers avoid personal pronouns completely in an effort to strike an impersonal note. Unfortunately it can lead to roundabout phraseology. You will see from this report that I did not consider such a style appropriate here.

By responding to the above considerations your writing will remain interesting. For interest does not derive- from complexity and the projection of the author’s personality, it rests on sending a clear message along the communication channel. The answers to the questions of Section 2.2 also indicate the style which is appropriate. (See Appendix)

5.4 Revisions

A good report will normally require: -

a) A first draft (read it and improve its structure and consistency).
b) A second draft (add the title and summary).
c) A third draft (get a second opinion from a constructive critic, eliminate errors and improve the format).
d) A carefully edited and corrected final version.

5.5 Appendices

Two main purposes can be served by appendices. The first is to provide detailed and specialised information for some of your readers. These readers will normally be your peers. They may wish to take the work on from where you have left off, or they may have to implement your recommendations. Your task, then, is to explain your assumptions, provide data and bring them to the same state of knowledge as yourself.

If this is the purpose of an appendix, it must be possible for the report to stand without it. Therefore, there must be a self-contained statement in the main report which enables the reader to follow your theme without reading the appendix.

The second purpose is to provide a source of information which is frequently needed in the report and which would otherwise have to be repeated several times. It is important to ensure that your reader has easy and quick access to the information. Under special circumstances this may require you to set the appendix on an extending page or provide it loose in a pocket at the back. This is the purpose of the Appendix to this report, and it is on coloured paper to help you find it when necessary. So far you have been referred to it three times.

5.6 Diagrams

Scientific readers usually find tables, graphs and drawings acceptable. They will often flip the pages searching for the key ideas of the report, pausing only to examine the diagrams. Other readers will not search for information in this way. They will tend to pass over diagrams very superficially.

The way to meet this double need is to ensure that the text and the associated diagram can stand almost independently. The main points about a diagram should therefore be stated in the text. Equally the diagram should be supported with a full title and be largely self-explanatory. In this way both mental attitudes are catered for. Providing the duplication of information is not excessive it will help to reduce the risk of misinterpretation. The figures in this report are given as examples.

5.7 Some Don’ts

Many reports begin with a section entitled ‘Introduction’. This word means “the act of leading in”. Your reader will be about to start on the first page when he reads it. But the word tells him nothing about the content of the section. He may be about to read:

a) An Historical Background
b) Aims of the report
c) The Terms of Reference of the Study.
d) How the Report is structured.
e) A confused mixture of these by an author who did not know how to get started.

Do not write a section called ‘Introduction’. Call the first section by a name which describes it. (As an example look at Section 1 of this report)

Similar remarks apply to the Preface. If it is a preliminary section concerned with acknowledgements, or the structure of the report, then say so. If there is a clear case for a preface then it should be on a left-hand page over-weighed by the content list or summary on the right.

These cautionary words complete the advice this report has to offer. You will recall that Section three discussed the parts of a report which might be selected by busy readers. Section four discussed the importance of structuring your material; while section five covered some of the practical points about writing it.

But you have to start writing if your report is ever to exist. So get your materials ready, retreat to a quiet corner, open section six and start.

6. Action Program for Authors

6.1 You and Your Reader

There is a blank form in the Appendix — Fill it in.

6.2 Your Material

Write down all the things you can think of which you consider should go into your report. Rough notes in any order will do. If you think of any more later add them to your list.

6.3 Your Drafting Framework

Either with a diagram or by means of a preliminary contents list design the framework which will guide and structure your writing. Figure four provides a broader structure within which your framework should fit. Now you have a picture of all the writing you have to do.

Fig 4. All component parts of a report showing how they can be filtered by the reader who receives it.

6.4 To get you started

On your top sheet of paper write the following words “The aim of this report is to answer the following question” now you are on your own.

6.5 Your Style

Once you have written a few sentences you should consider the style of writing you are using. Check that it is appropriate for the number and type of readers you have in mind.

6.6 If you get stuck

You may feel unsure about exactly what to write in some of the sections you have defined in your drafting framework. If that happens, number the section and leave it blank. Move onto another section where you are clearer about what you have to write. Later you will find it easier to return and fill in the omission.

6.7 Your Conclusions

Assuming that you have now written the bulk of your report, review your aims before you write your conclusions. These aims are recorded in the appendix which you completed in section 6.1.

6.8 Your Contents Page

Systematically work through your report recording the headings and reading it as you go. Make sure that your numbering is correct. Are you satisfied with the structure? If so, complete the contents page and review it as a document in its own right. If not make the necessary changes.

6.9 Your Summary

Having just read through your report prepare a one-page summary. This is a very important part of your report so you should take particular care. Every word and phrase should be scrutinised to ensure that you have expressed clearly and briefly the essence of your report. Do not forget that it, too, needs a clear structure.

6.10 Your Diagrams and Typing

Typists are not artists nor are typewriters drafting machines, so do not expect your diagrams to re-appear in final form when you have handed your manuscript over to be typed. Talk to the typist, explain clearly what you want and seek her advice about the size and location of diagrams. Normally you will have to draw these for your self or use professional help. Add the title.

6.11. Revision

Now that you have a second draft you should show it to a constructive critic. Do not be surprised, angry, or discouraged if you are advised to make very extensive changes in form or content. Hopefully this report will have reduced the risk of that happening. Be reassured that it is the fate of most ‘first’ reports, and start again.

6.12 The Finishing Touches

Eventually you and your critic will be satisfied. At this point you should check every spelling you doubt with a dictionary, to make sure that all the numbering and cross-references are correct, put all the diagrams in their proper place and send it for reproduction.

Appendix 1

YOU’RE AIMS AND YOUR READERS
Questionnaire

What is the Title of Your Report? ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

What action do you want this report to trigger off? …………………………………………………………………………………………

What group of people will be the readers? ……………………………………………………………………………………………………

How many of them are there? ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

What is their level of knowledge of the subject? ……………………………………………………………………………………………

Appendix 2

RESPONSE TO THE ABOVE QUESTIONNAIRE

What is the Title of Your Report?

How to Write a Technical Report
Why Should I read this?
Report Writing.

What action do you want this report to trigger off?

I want this web page to be read in order that visitors to this web site will understand some of the factors which will go into writing good reports and subsequently to use it as a set of guidelines to aid their own writing both now and in the future.

What group of people will be the readers?

In the first instance organisations and clients, but possible colleagues will find is page useful. Essentially it is for fire safety officers and fire consultants, secondary it is for and anybody who may find it useful, researchers and project leaders who might be helped in structuring their theses.

How many of them are there?

There is no answer to this question it could be nobody to thousands. However it is not so important as only one copy is required which can be read by as many person who wish to.

What is their level of knowledge of the subject?

Providing they are English speaking, they will have no difficulty in understanding the subject and the content. However people that do not have English as their first language may wish to read it so the content will need to emphasise the practice and planning of report writing.