Yeah...What is the best way to begin writing a report?
This is the first question participants ask me when I teach report writing.
There is also the more emotional and colorful version:
Where do I begin writing this stupid ass report???
Oooh...I feel your frustration.
When I worked in the non-profit sector, my job took me to new places, where I met interesting people, made a difference in their lives...
But...There were always the reports! Oh the reports! The intend-to-break-your-spirit reports! Always I was writing a report.
I have to come clean with you. Before I was good enough to teach anybody about writing a report, procrastination was the best way I knew how to begin writing reports.
But my philosophy in life is simply this: If I can’t avoid doing something, I 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 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.”
The first step answers the question for you and I will share that step with you shortly. But I have a question for you:
Are you sure you know what is a report?
Ah huh! Now you’re hesitating and you’re about to check before you answer.
Save yourself the trouble!
A report is defined as an account of some event, situation, project, etc, prepared for the benefit of others, which usually provides information obtained through research and or investigation.
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 reports above, including the last two.
So, in response to your question: What is the best way to begin writing a report?
You prepare for the process.
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.
Whatever it is, it includes the following 4 steps:
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 your boss, find out exactly what is required. 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.
You may have started to do some research into let’s say...the best way to slice bread so that a slice has only one side. 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 (pun intended).
2. Identify the objectives/purpose of your report
If you work for an organisation long enough, sooner or later you will be asked to write a report. If you’re very lucky, here's what will happen. You will be given clear terms of reference, the organisation will have a specified format for writing a report and the purpose will be obvious and valid.
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 bosses can't write a decent report themselves, (Yes! I said that!) which makes them even less likely to be able to explain what is required to you.
What happens? 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 your boss, your client or whoever has 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, that question works best when you have already identified your next career move!
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 shit 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
Now that you know what you are reporting on, you are clear on the purpose of the report and you have attempted to identify and assess your users, you can now determine what data you will have to collect.
This should be easy because you will now collect the data that:
- 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.
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 your report not by starting to draft, but by preparing for the process.
I guarantee you that once you master this first step, you will be ready for step #2 and #3...and before you know it, just like me, you will become known for writing great reports!
Are you ready to give it a try?
To your report writing success...