Writing a report can be one of the most difficult writing tasks we face, whether it’s for work or at school.
In my various professional incarnations over the years, as bureaucrat, administrator and private consultant, I have been required to write literally (no pun intended) hundreds of reports of just about every description you can imagine. In fact, when I did my MBA in the mid-1990s it was like a total immersion course in report writing; they seemed to be never ending.
So, to help people with their report writing I have put together a few tips that I have picked up over the years.
People often cringe at the thought of writing a “business report”. Granted, these are somewhat more complicated than business letters, but if approached in the right way, writing a business report can be a straightforward and reasonably painless process.
There are a number of different generic types of business reports including: general business report, business plan, business proposal, marketing plan, strategic plan, business analysis, project report, project analysis, project proposal, project review, financial plan, financial analysis, and others.
Although the technical content and terminology will vary from report to report, depending on the subject and industry context, the actual “report writing process” will be essentially the same. Whether it’s a short 10-pager, or a major 100-plus pager, that “process” will involve the same fundamental steps.
The following seven points are what I consider to be the essential steps for writing any business report. Follow these steps carefully and you won’t go wrong.
1. Confirm Exactly What The Client Wants
This is a very important initial step. Whether the client is you, or someone else, be sure that everyone is talking about the same thing in terms of final outcome and expectations. When determining this, always think specifically in terms of the final deliverable (usually the final report). What issues must it address? What direction/guidance is it expected to give? What exactly will it contain? What bottom line are they looking for?
2. Determine What Type Of Report Is Required
This is another very important initial matter to clarify. There are a number of different types of business reports. Although there is usually overlap between the different types, there are also important differences. For example, do they want: a business plan, a business proposal, a strategic plan, a corporate information management plan, a strategic business plan, a marketing plan, a financial plan, or what? Know exactly what type of final report is expected from the outset.
3. Conduct The Initial Research
Once you know exactly what the client (or you) wants, and the specific type of report they are looking for, you are ready to conduct your initial pre-report research. This stage may be as simple as collecting and reading a few background documents supplied by the client, or it could
involve developing questionnaires and conducting detailed interviews with the appropriate people. It will vary with each situation. The Internet of course, can really simplify and shorten the research process, but don’t forget to double and triple check your sources.
4. Write The Table Of Contents First
In my experience, drafting the Table of Contents (TOC), before you start writing the actual report is the single most important key to developing a successful business report. This document can normally be done before, or in parallel with, the first phase of project information gathering. This should be more than just a rough draft TOC. It should be a carefully thought out breakdown of exactly what you imagine the TOC will look like in the final report. Although this takes a certain amount of time and brain power up-front, it really treamlines the rest of the process. What I do is to actually visualize the final report in my mind’s eye and write the contents down. This really works! This TOC then becomes a step-by-step template for the rest of the process.
If you are writing the report for an external client, it’s a good idea to present the draft Table of Contents to them at this point in the process and get their approval. This will force them to think it through and confirm what they really want at this point. Once they have agreed to a TOC you will have their “buy-in” for the rest of the process, therefore significantly reducing chances of any major changes or reversals at the final report phase.
5. Do Any Additional Research
After thinking through the TOC in detail, you will know if any additional research is required. If yes, do this extra information gathering before you sit down and start to actually write the report. That way, once you begin the writing process you will have all of the information needed at hand and you will not have to interrupt the writing process to conduct any further research.
6. Create The Skeleton Document
A trick I always use when working with MS-Word is to create a skeleton document first. That is, before you actually write any of the text, enter the entire Table of Contents that you have already developed into MS-Word (see Point 4), heading by heading, including sub-headings. At this point, the document is essentially a sequential series of headings and sub-headings with blank space between them. Then, have MS-Word generate an automatic Table of Contents that exactly matches your planned TOC. You’re then ready to start filling in the blank spaces after each heading and sub-heading in the body of the document, with text.
7. Write The Report By Filling In The Blanks
That’s right, by filling in the blanks. Once the TOC skeleton framework is in-place as per the previous step, writing the actual report becomes almost like filling in the blanks. Just start at the beginning and work your way sequentially through the headings and sub-headings, one at a time, until you get to the end. Really. At that point, with all of the preparation done, it should be a relatively straightforward process.
If you follow the above steps in the “report writing process” you will be amazed at how quickly your reports will come together. Give it a try – it really works.