Report writing – the nuts and bolts

Last week freelance writer and guest blogger Suzanne Elvidge gave us some tips on how to find work in the potentially lucrative field of report writing. This week she shows us how to go about producing the copy.

Reports, particularly company annual reports, aren’t high on the list of most people’s bedtime reading. They can be hard to read (though according to a 2006 University of Michigan study this might be intentional), and often tend towards combining tedium and complexity.

There are a lot of different types of report a freelance might be called upon to write, for a wide range of different audiences:

  • reports from meetings and conferences;
  • reviews of products or topics, such as green energy or influenza;
  • annual reports on a company or charity;
  • budget and credit reports;
  • reports on an ongoing or completed trip, project or research;
  • policy reports and recommendations for future planning.

To write a good report, the writer first needs to answer two questions:

  1. who is it for?
  2. what is it for?

Language and layout

The language used in the report will depend upon who the audience is – it’s no good writing complex technical jargon for a lay audience, or using overly simple language for a report intended for scientists or medics. The audience will also decide the writing style, whether it’s going to be formal or informal.

Because reports can be complex and very ‘information-dense’, the report still needs to be clear and easy to read, using active rather than passive language, keeping sentences short with one idea per sentence, and splitting blocks of text up into short paragraphs. The layout can also help the readability, including informative subheadings, which break up the page and draw the reader’s attention, and bulleted lists, which can make complex lists a lot clearer. Other visual aids include call-out boxes (a box containing supporting information), pull quotes (a bold quote, often in a larger font, that emphasises a point), graphs, photos and other illustrations. These not only support the content but also break up the page visually.

If the report is going to be printed, work with the designer if possible, to balance between the needs of the design and the message in the text – one can overpower the other if this balance is not maintained.

Style and content

Think about the purpose of the report. This will determine the content. It’s a good idea to research similar reports to get a feel for the sections required. Reports need to tell a story, so make sure that the sections fall into a logical order – this will also help the reader.

Obviously, the report should be accurate and internally consistent, because people may use it as a basis for important decisions. It should also be concise – if it is over-long, readers may never get to the end, where the important conclusions might be, or miss useful content in the middle. Reports should generally be objective, unless commissioned specifically to give a particular point of view.

Annual reports, especially those for publicly-listed companies or charities, have very specific requirements for content, and it is important to have these requirements clear before beginning writing.

And finally …

Reports don’t have to be hard to read (though they may need to be a little dull, depending on the audience) provided the writer keeps things clear, concise and simple.

A bit of extra reading

Related posts:

  1. Report writing – finding work
  2. Calling for guest bloggers

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2 comments on “Report writing – the nuts and bolts

  1. Pingback: Report writing - finding work at The Crafty Writer

  2. Thanks ! That was very interesting and informative

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