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Mastering Report Writing Skills: A Guide to Communicating Complex Information

By Jody Bruner

June 21, 2023

Writing Skills

Mastering Report Writing Skills: A Guide to Communicating Complex Information - Mastering-report-writing
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Mastering Report Writing Skills: A Guide to Communicating Complex Information - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1

It’s a reality that business writers often need to create reports that serve the needs of more than one group of readers. For business writers communicating highly technical information, the challenge intensifies: satisfying both technical and non-technical audiences with the same document is no small feat. Here’s how to boost your report-writing skills.

Know who you’re writing for and why

Take time to understand the answers to the questions who and why before you begin to draft. Readers come to your reports seeking the information they need to do their jobs. Keep these questions in your sightlines to help you write technical reports that are useful.

First, analyze your audience:

  • Who are your readers?
  • Where are the potential gaps in their knowledge?
  • What are their needs?
  • How will they use the information you’re presenting in your report?
  • What will they be looking for?

Next, define your own reason for writing that report:

  • What’s your main purpose?
  • Do you want to inform or persuade?
  • What’s your desired outcome?
  • Should anything change as a result of the report being out in the world? If so, what?

Wait until you have clear answers or your reader won’t have them either.

Use plain language

Plain language, aka plain English, is writing that can be read and understood in a single pass. Let that be your standard. Don’t make your readers work harder than necessary.

Consider the level of formality in your report writing. Does it mirror the way you speak to those readers? Compare these pairs:

  • Advise / Say, tell
  • Endeavour / Try
  • Utilize / Use

If you write with words from the formal column but speak to those same readers with words from the conversational column, ask yourself why. Does it help the reader?

Remember Einstein’s maxim: Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Break information into sections

Business readers skim technical reports to find sections of interest to them. Structure your report with that in mind: think in terms of sections instead of long narrative passages that act as discouraging walls of text. Short paragraphs in logical groupings allow readers to find the information they need to do their own work quickly and easily.

To meet the needs of technical and non-technical readers alike, structure the report so that the main body isn’t bogged down with extensive technical details, such as spreadsheets or functional specifications. Instead, refer interested technical readers to appendices organized by data type and write a detailed table of contents so they can easily find what they’re looking for.

Use subheadings to highlight important concepts

Use a system of headings and subheadings to help readers skim (they’re going to do it anyway) as I’ve done with this article. Load your headings and subheadings with a distilled version of that section. A well-written set of headings and subheadings provides some readers with enough information to do their jobs—and they value the effort you made to make that possible.

Information-rich headings also help the reader navigate a report to quickly find a section of interest. Use verbs in your headings to energize them and make them concise.

  • Recommendation to Upgrade Existing Laptops
  • Committee Approved Pay Raise
  • How to Prepare for Meetings

Steer clear of unnecessary jargon

Jargon is industry- and discipline-specific shorthand that saves time among members of that industry or discipline, but it can leave non-technical readers confused.

Acronyms are one kind of jargon. They can be handy space savers for readers who can crack the code. If you’re unsure if all readers of your report know an acronym you want to use, define it with the first use.

The AML (anti-money laundering) department is being relocated to Halifax.

Sensitize yourself to your own industry or discipline jargon. Try the neighbourhood cocktail party test: would you use that term or phrase with friends? If not, it’s probably jargon. Share the secret handshake in context. For example:

Heavy water, which contains significantly more hydrogen and is 10% denser than ordinary water, is used as a moderator in some reactors.

Last words

Practicing empathy for your reader’s needs results in technical reports that meet their needs, and that means improved information flows through the organization. Skilled report writers know it’s time well spent.

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