1. Know your purpose
This is the major aim: the reason you're writing the report in the first place. Because it determines the kind of report you write, it's a critical (and often neglected) first step.
Give it a think. Are you writing a factual, instructional or leading report? Remember:
Once your major aim has been defined this way, your subsidiary aims will fall into place - you inform in order to explain, and inform and explain in order to persuade. This starting point gives you vital focus, and drives absolutely everything else.
Before you start writing your report, consider its audience. Why? Because you can't hit the nail on the head if you can't see the bleedin' nail. In short, to be successful, a report must ensure that its target readers can:
Achieving this demands more than presenting the facts accurately. It also means that you must communicate acceptably and intelligibly to the reader. But who is he/she?
We can get a clearer picture of our reader by asking three questions:
By matching the purpose to the reader, you are ready to set your objective. In other words, what do you want the reader to think and do after reading your report? (People are not brainiacs - often, you have to make it explicit. 'Do this...!')
Here's an example of an objective:
To persuade my MD to authorise a proposed system of flexible working hours
The words "persuade" and "authorize" are the biggies here. They show that you must produce a logical and consistent case: one that will spur your MD to act. Also, once you've set the objective, you can anticipate the likely problems in meeting them - such as the fact that your MD likes to see all staff standing briskly to attention at 7am.
I recommend a top-down approach to writing a report. This starts with the thesis statement (pretentiously also called the "terms of reference"), follows with the information-gathering and continues into three stages of ongoing refinement.
5. Decide on structure
Here are 11 basic elements of a standard report. I'm not a masochist, so this structure does not need to be rigidly adhered to. Instead, bring your own circumstances, needs and creativity to the mix, and use whatever's appropriate.
6. Use the right style
Use hard facts and figures, evidence and justification. Use efficient language - big reports with too many words are awful. The best reports are simple and quick to read because the writer has interpreted the data and developed viable recommendations.
7. Consider layout
Remember that reports are conservative and often formal documents, so your font choices should not be cutesy, clever or sexy. For the body of the document, choose a serif font such as Times Roman or Cambria with a point size of 11 or 12. You can use a sans serif font such as Arial or Calibri for bolded headings to complement the body text.
8. Leave time to refine
No report is perfect, and definitely not when it's still Draft 1. Unfortunately, well-written reports are those that have gone through the mill a couple of times, either with your gimlet eye or under the skeptical gaze of someone else. Leave as much time as you can afford to check, check and double-check, and then ask yourself:
A final word
I'm going to ignore my own advice here and stubbornly refuse to write a proper conclusion. I hate them. They're completely boring. So let's just use this space to congratulate you on having read this far - you're a champ! - and that's that.