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How Can I Improve the Quality of Reports I Write? I do Project Progress Reports, Variance Reports, and Proposals.

The best reports are accurate, brief, and clear. If the report is for a specific person, always take into consideration what that person finds useful. Some people want details, others prefer highlights and will ask for more information only if it is needed.

Some reports will be read by several people, each with his or her own approach to processing information. If you expect the report to pass through many hands, to please as many readers as possible, provide a summary of results at the beginning of the report and then back it up with specifics. A reader can study the summary and select the backup pages desired. Use graphs, charts, and diagrams where appropriate. Many people prefer to study a visual than to peruse text or tables.

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When you sit down to write a report, there are seven steps to follow:

  1. Define the problem. It may be obvious to you, but it may not be so obvious to those who are reading your report for the first time. Before a single word of a report is put down, this thought needs to be completed: "The purpose of this report is. …" The problem statement itself should be precise, descriptive, and defensible (think "workable"). When you put it in writing, it should take no more than twenty-five words.
  2. Develop a work plan. Likely, your proposal will need a work schedule; that is, the estimated time to complete the project and the specific tasks with it. But you may also want to develop a work plan for completion of the proposal itself. Envision the final report in terms of scope, depth, length, and format. How can you facilitate its completion?
  3. Gather relevant data. Complete and accurate findings are the basis for all well-received reports. If all the information you need isn’t at hand, you might wait for the missing material, or write without it
  4. Process your findings. Once you have your data, you need to analyze and organize your findings while also drawing tentative conclusions from them. Additionally, by force-fitting findings in various combinations, you may come up with some unexpected results.
  5. Develop conclusions. Always remember that conclusions are derived exclusively from analysis of findings. If a reader detects the slightest break in this necessary link between findings and conclusions, your credibility is shattered. Only when conclusions naturally flow from documentable findings can the reader trust your writing.
  6. Generate recommendations. The final step is extracting recommendations from the conclusions. Arrange your ideas by priority and sequence, making them consistent with the problem statement, providing options whenever appropriate, and expressing them in a manner most likely to secure their acceptance.

If you have some doubts about the finished document, you may want to show it to a colleague to review. This review provides a final check on the accuracy of findings, the logical consistency of the conclusions and recommendations, and the tone and readability of the document.

One other tip: Reports fall into four categories: informational reports, narrative reports like meeting minutes, interpretative reports, and recommendation reports that contain results from a feasibility study or problem and solution tied to a proposal.

Informational reports contain the following:

  • Executive summary
  • Overview/background
  • Work completed to date
  • Work in progress/actions initiated
  • Anticipated problems
  • Forecast for the next stage

Narrative reports take a sequential format, like meeting minutes begin with information about the attendees, date, time, and place of the meeting, then the purpose of the meeting, the summary of what took place, and finally actions to be taken and by when.

Interpretive reports follow this model:

  • Executive summary
  • Overview/background
  • Present situation
  • What’s being done to pursue the opportunity or solve the problem and the time schedule
  • Expected results

Recommendation reports have different formats, depending on their purpose. For instance, feasibility reports begin with an executive summary with recommendations, overview or backgrounder, review of the problem, criteria for the solution, analysis of the option, risks and solutions, and finally, recommendation. Comparison reports include criteria for analysis of the options. Proposals begin with a description of the problem or situation then solution, followed by benefits of the solution and its costs, implementation (steps to be taken), and the conclusions.

To determine which of these models is the best one for that report due next week, ask yourself these questions:

Why am I writing this report, and how will it be used?

Am I trying to persuade, inform, report, request, or analyze?

Do I want the reader to take action or to simply review my report?