One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
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Firstly, make sure that you know exactly what you have been asked to investigate. If you are writing a report for an employer, you may only have received a verbal briefing. If you are unsure about the report’s scope or purpose, always discuss what is required before you begin and look at previous reports compiled in the same department or field of business.
Careful planning at this stage will ensure that you investigate the situation in an organized and thorough way. Think about what information you need, how you will obtain it, who you should approach, and any background reading or other research you might have to carry out. Should you need statistical data or illustrations to back up your research, think about how best to source them.
You will now have a number of tasks to complete, so you might find it helpful to draw up a schedule, listing key actions and the dates by which they should be achieved.
How you gather your information depends on what you are investigating. Do any background reading or other research at any early stage to familiarize yourself with the issues involved, taking careful notes. If you need to ascertain people’s views on a situation, decide who you need to approach and prepare a list of questions.
Write up any interviews or assessments as soon as possible after conducting them, while they are fresh in your mind.
Once you have researched a situation or topic and obtained all the information you need, you can then begin to organize your findings with a view to writing the report. Think about the structure of the report and how your information corresponds to the various headings.
Refresh your mind as to the original brief: have you stayed within its parameters? Now is the time to discard any irrelevant material: the report should be concise and focused on the issue in question.
You should also consider the most effective ways to display data (such as graphs, tables, charts, etc.) and decide whether this data is supporting information that should appear in an appendix or central to a point that you are making, and therefore to be inserted in the main body of the report.
In general, the language and tone of a business report should be formal and impersonal, reflecting the fact that it is essentially an objective assessment of a situation. Specific conventions, however, can vary in different fields.
For example, a scientific report is written for a particular audience (other scientists in the field) and its purpose is to present the results of an experiment in an objective and very concise way. As a result, the language is formal and technical, with passive verbs used in preference to active ones, and the tone is brisk and highly impersonal, as in this extract taken from a psychology journal:
The temperature of the copper stage was controlled with Peltier cells powered by a feedback-regulated, adjustable DC power source (PTC – 10; ALA Instruments). Temperature in the recording chamber was maintained within [+ or -] 0.5 [ degrees C. Electrode filling solution was freshly prepared …
Writing for a general audience is quite different from writing for a group of specialists. While general readers might know a few terms in a specific field, you will obviously need to provide them with more detail than you would a group of colleagues who share your training and expertise. You don’t want to lose general readers’ interest by assuming they know as much as you do about the topic, and so you should always explain any technical terms that you use.
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