So what’s your approach to begin writing a report?
Is it something like this?
You sit at your computer and type a few sentences. Then you delete them. Next you type a few more, read them over carefully, all the time wishing that they made more sense.
The next thing you know, the deadline for the report is here and you have barely started.
How do I know this? I have been there….too many times.
But if you are in business, you will have to write reports, proposals, etc, at some level, sooner or later. (Incidentally, if you want to learn how to write a super proposal that will get you the business every time, click right here.)
And asking yourself “Where do I begin writing this stupid ass report???” is not the best place to start either.
Right now, I have to come clean with you. Before I was good enough to teach anybody about how to write a report, procrastination was the best way I knew how to begin writing reports.
But my philosophy in life is simply this:
If you can’t avoid doing something, you might as well learn how to do it well!
So, by dint of much trial and even more error, I became a specialist at writing reports.
I even took it a step further. I developed a system for producing reports which hit the target every time. It’s called the “The 7 –Step Write-On-Target Report Writing Process.” I am sharing the first step with you here, so that at least you can get over the biggest hurdle with writing a report, i.e, knowing how to start.
But before I do, I have a couple of questions for you:
What is a report?
A report is an account of some event, situation, project, etc, which usually provides information which the writer obtains through research, investigation or observation.
The key thing to note is that it is prepared for others to take some kind of action, mostly to make a decision or follow some recommendations.
There are many types of reports: financial, progress, project, research, case study, proposal, cost-benefit-analysis, health and safety, technical, periodic, workplace accidents, useless, full-of-it and the list goes on…
The benefit of my report writing system is that it can be applied to any of the report types above, including the last two.
Why does report writing matter?
The best way to explain this is to compare academic writing and professional writing
With Academic Writing, giving or sharing information may be enough. After all, in most academic writing you are trying to ‘show how much you know’ on a particular subject.
You are therefore writing to demonstrate your knowledge to experts who will (or may not) validate that knowledge. A thesis for a university degree is a good example of this.
In Professional Writing, you are the expert. You are the one who has first-hand knowledge of the project or circumstance. You have conducted the research or gained the experience.
In business, you are the one closest to the problem, situation or customers. You know more than the reader or user does. Your conclusions and opinions matter.
Professional Writing, under which report writing falls, is about action. It’s about change, getting results, making something happen. It’s also about decisions taken, recommendations followed and proposals accepted.
Nearly every time you write a business report some action will be taken, some change will take place.
That’s why report writing matters.
So now, I’m ready to answer your question:
What is the best way to begin writing a report?
Before I answer that question, in case you’re wondering, the full 7 steps are:
1. Prepare for the Process
2. Collect the Data
3. Analyse and interpret the data
4. Plan your Report
5. Write Intelligently
6. Produce the first full draft
7. Complete and handover the report
Now, to answer your question, “what is the best way to begin writing a report,” the obvious answer is: You prepare for the process.
Yes…that’s the first thing you have to do when you want to produce a meaningful report. Depending on the nature of your report, the process may be short or long.
But whatever the length of the process it includes the following 4 steps:
- Get clear about what you’re reporting on
2. Identify the objectives/purpose of your report
3. Identify and assess the user(s)
4. Determine what data you will have to collect
Now that you have the steps, let’s discuss them in detail.
1. Get clear about what you’re reporting on
What am I talking about?
Sometimes we start out intending or being requested to write a report on a very vague topic, for example “The habits of human beings.” Say what? A single human being can have thousands of habits!
When this happens, if you have been asked to write the report by someone else (for example, an organisation you represent) find out exactly what they want. If you have decided to write the report on your own, get clear on what you’re reporting on.
Here’s why this is important.
Let’s say you decide to write a report on the best way to slice bread so that a slice has only one side. So you begin your research and in the process, you discover some interesting but not related information about baking pans.
If you’re not clear on what you’re reporting on, you can find yourself placing a greater emphasis on the baking pans, thereby burning the bread in the process. (pun intended)
2. Get clear on the objectives/purpose of your report
If you are writing the report for an organisation or someone else, and you’re lucky, here’s what will happen.
You will be given clear terms of reference, they will have a specified format for writing a report and the purpose will be obvious and valid. And you will get this information, even before you begin writing the report.
On the other hand, when your luck is average (like the rest of us), it’s common for you to be required to write reports with only a vague idea as to what is actually needed. There is no stated ‘brief’ or specification and you’re expected to be nothing short of brilliant.
Moreover, many leaders don’t or (can’t) write a decent report themselves, (Yes! I said that!) which makes them even less likely to be able to explain to you what they need from any report.
So what happens next? You spend the next how-many-ever days agonizing over what the report should include, what it should look like and how long it should be.
Don’t put yourself through that! You can’t read minds, so ask for clarification. It’s the most sensible and logical thing to do.
Ask the person who requested the report, exactly what is its purpose and if they have an ideal format in mind.
You can also ask any other questions you think will help you including “is this report really necessary?”
Of course, if you’re not the boss, that question works best when you have already identified your next career move!
And what about when you decide to write a report on your own initiative?
The process still holds true. Following on from #1 above, you have to be very clear about the purpose for writing your report. You must know that it’s to show small bakeries that producing a slice of bread with only one side, will improve their bottom line.
3. Identify and assess the user(s)
Always remember that you’re writing the report for users and readers other than yourself.
Too often, we users are presented with mountains of paper and thousands of full-sized words morphed into something called a report.
We approach it guardedly, knowing from experience, this will be another load of the writer’s favorite bovine feces which we now have to read.
We begin hopefully, but pretty soon we give up in frustration and hold the report safely in our hands, while looking longingly at the paper shredder.
Dear Report Writer, before you write a single word, do try to identify and assess the readers/users of your report.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you write them a meaningful report:
- Who will use the report?
- Why do they want it?
- What specific action will be taken because of this report?
- What is the education level or background of the user?
- How will the document be used?
- What is their level of experience?
- What is their job role?
- Do they have a preferred style of writing?
- What issues are important to the user?
- Any other questions which I left out which you can think of…
When you identify the users in this way, you are already determining the style and tone of your report.
4. Determine what data you will have to collect
At this point, you are clear what you are reporting on. You are clear on the purpose of the report and you have attempted to identify and assess your users. Whew! You can now determine what data you will have to collect.
This should be easy because you will now collect the data which:
- supports the purpose of the report (decision-making/problem-solving)
- expands the understanding of the user
- helps to clarify your findings
- adds to the existing information about the topic of the report
When you make the four points above the basis of your data-collecting, you will collect data which is exactly relevant to the purpose of any report you’re writing.
Whoever are the readers or users of your report, whatever the purpose it will be used for, you are likely to use any one of the following six broad methods to collect your data:
- Surveys – when you need a great deal of information quickly
2. Interviews – for depth and insight and dialogue with the respondent
3. Desk Study – for reviewing existing documents
4. Observation – provides first hand, verifiable information
5. Focus Group Discussion (FGD) – to explore the perceptions of a group in detail
6. Case Study – if you want only depth of information
Are you ready to begin writing a report?
There you have it…the answer to your question: What is the best way to begin writing a report?
Notice that you begin writing a report not by starting to write, but by preparing for the process of PRODUCING a report.
This is the most important step in writing a report. Trust me, once you have mastered the first step, the others will be so much easier.
So…are you ready to use this first step to begin writing your next report? Go on, give it a try. You’d be glad you did.
To your report writing success…