Report writing is not the easiest of jobs and one of the biggest mistakes made by many report writers is to neglect the final stage of their task - which is to edit and proof-read their report carefully.
It is almost inevitable that your report writing will contain textual errors. It is far better for you to find and correct those errors than for your readers to spot them and possibly become irritated by them. So often this final task of editing is done casually, if at all, whereas it should be done carefully and systematically.
So, how do you actually do it? Different writers will have different approaches, but most professional writers are likely to use the following seven techniques.
1. Print it! Read it! Fix it! Many people find it easier to edit a printed document than one still on the screen, so print and read it. If you stumble then your readers will almost certainly do so too. If you, the writer, cannot read your report without hesitating, then what chance have your readers got? Fix the obvious problems.
2. Shorten it! Draft reports are always too long. Remove anything that does not add value to your report. In fact, nothing like that should be in there but there will be something, maybe several things, so find them and delete them. Just because you sweated blood to discover a certain piece of information does not mean your reader needs to know it. If they do, include it; if they don't, leave it out. Be ruthless about this.
3. Keep your paragraphs and sentences fairly short. Try to achieve average paragraph lengths of around 5 or 6 lines if printed on A4 paper and aim for an average sentence length of just under 20 words. Short paragraphs and sentences look more inviting and are easier to read than long ones. Obviously some will be longer and some shorter than these guidelines.
4. Try to use plain English when writing reports – if your reader has to get a dictionary out to understand your report then you have not used plain English. When writing a report your job is to get your argument across to your reader, not to expand his or her vocabulary.
So replace unusual or obscure words with ones that are easier to understand. For example, don’t talk about a ‘paradigm shift’ unless you really have to, instead tell them about a different approach or change of attitude or process. Also, delete unnecessary words. A crisis is always serious and dangers are always real so you do not need to say ‘serious crisis’ or ‘real danger’. Are there trivial crises or imitation dangers?
5. Tighten up your writing by preferring active to passive sentences. This point of grammar can seriously improve your report writing! Active sentences will usually have a subject-verb-object structure whereas passive ones have an object-verb-subject structure. Clear as mud? Forget the grammar and just look at some examples.
For example, ‘The dog chased the cat’ (5 words) is an active sentence whereas ‘The cat was chased by the dog’ (7 words) is a passive sentence. Active sentences are normally shorter and a bit more direct. It is usually a good idea to aim for about 70-80% of your sentences to be active when writing reports. In technical reports you may have to lower your sights a little. Here are two examples from real reports:
- Three sites were visited by the inspectors. (Passive – 7 words)
- The inspectors visited three sites. (Active – 5 words)
- Children were encouraged to use exploratory play by their teachers. (Passive – 10 words)
- Teachers encouraged children to use exploratory play. (Active – 7 words)
6. Do the obvious checks. It is surprising how many people appear to skip the basic checks on punctuation, spelling and grammar. Grammar checkers are far from perfect but they will provide some help if used intelligently.
Most punctuation problems can be avoided if you use short sentences. Short sentences need fewer punctuation marks and the grammar checker is more likely to get things right too.
Set the spellchecker to the right version of English for your readers but do not rely on it. You must also check spelling by eye. A spellchecker cannot check your meaning. If you mistype a word so that it ends up as a correct English word it will not spot it (such as typing ‘work’ instead of ‘word’).
In grammar, ‘subject-verb-agreement’ usually means that you have muddled up singulars and plurals. Remember that ‘collective nouns’ such as ‘the board’, ‘the committee’ and ‘the industry’ are actually singular and take singular verbs despite referring to lots of people or organisations. So we write ‘the committee is very concerned, ’ not ‘the committee are very concerned’.
7. Finally, take a good look at it. Does it look good? Adding some white space in sensible places (such as an extra line space after sections) can make a report look more inviting.
Editing any document, but especially when you are report writing, is an important part of the production process, not an optional extra to be done if you have nothing better to do with your time. With any writing, especially a lengthy report, no matter how careful you are there will still be some errors. Careful and methodical editing can find most of them. It is far better for you to find them and correct them than for your readers to notice them and wince.
Report writing is not necessarily easy, but it can be rewarding and a good report can build your reputation. A bad one can too!
Author: Tony Atherton © Tony Atherton 2005
About the author: Tony Atherton is a freelance trainer and writer based in England. He has had four books published and about 90 of his articles have appeared in various magazines and journals. After an earlier career in industry he now runs in-company training courses in business writing, report writing (including technical reports) and taking minutes, as well as negotiation skills and time management. Over 6000 delegates have attended his courses. Further details can be found at http://www.tony-atherton.co.uk/reportwriting.htm