In this post I thought we could look at how to write an effective report. Report writing is something that I’ve done a lot of over my career so far. It is easy to take it for granted but writing an effective report whether for your NEBOSH, IEMA projects or assignments or at work is harder than many people think. I won’t go into the intricacies of what you need to do for the reason that you are completing the report, more the background on what a good report should look and feel like.
When writing a good work report I guess we are looking to ensure that the message that we want to convey passes to the reader in a way that provides clarity and can be understood by the target audience (this may differ depending on the report type). The arguments that are being made should also aim to change the mind of the person reading the report.
1. Concise is best – writing a long-winded report that does succinctly describe the key points is poor report writing technique. Sometimes students think that they are going to achieve more marks by submitting more information for qualification assignments/reports. This is not the case, key points should not go MIA (missing in action) in waffle.
2. Always be correct – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen reports that don’t quote information correctly. Environmental management is, to a certain extent, a technical subject. If you need to reference legislation for example, make sure that it is relevant to the situation and is properly quoted including the date it came into force for example ‘Environmental Protection Act 1990’. Legislation changes over time, so the reader needs to be aware of which version you are discussing. Being correct also means being honest, you should state any assumptions that you have made and any limitations in the means of collecting information.
3. Structure properly – for most types of work report there is a common structure that should be followed. This will differ slightly depending on the type of report.
A good report should always start with an Executive Summary which succinctly describes the whole report, from start to end. You should write this when you have completed the report. Next, we have an introduction that covers the aims, objectives and methodology in addition to a description of the activities in the area covered by the report. Following this is the Main Body, this is the results section you basically write about what you have found in a lot of detail. Avoid the temptation to discuss the recommendations in this section, these come later. The Conclusions are the key findings from the main body, so basically the strengths and weaknesses. It is also common to state why the key findings should be rectified which in environmental management terms is usually moral, legal and financial issues. For each negative conclusion there should be at least one recommendation. Sometimes recommendations are in a separate section or the can be combined with the conclusions. These will cover information such as the task, responsibility, timescales and cost of correcting negative conclusions.
I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to follow a logical structure when writing a report.
4. Clarity – the use of correct language is important. There is a need to use some jargon in technical reports, it is usually unavoidable, if this the case it should be explained if it would not be recognised by the target audience. Try not to provide too much information such as document extracts, or background information as this can upset the flow of a report for the reader. Often this is better provided in the appendices if it is needed. Often it is a good idea before submitting a report to get someone else to check it to see if it is easy to read, even if the person is not a technical expert.
5. Convincing – an environmental management report is usually trying to inform, basically to highlight the strength and weaknesses of the organisation/project/activity etc in some way. It is important therefore to not be vague and ambiguous. A point should be made with conviction and should always be backed up by fact.
There we have it, just a few ideas to help improve your report writing skills.
John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MIEMA
With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.