Participants on our business writing training courses often say, ‘I wish I had known this years ago.’ Unfortunately, our school system and many university degrees don’t prepare students for writing at work. The onus is therefore on the employer to teach team members how to write reports.
In reality, many team members are unaware their reports are unclear. Yet, with appropriate and effective training, many common errors are easily identified and avoided. Here are 7 of the most common report writing pitfalls that can be overcome through effective report writing training.
1. The executive summary doesn’t provide the reader the information they need.
A poorly written executive summary typically includes too much detailed background but fails to include key points. A good executive summary will contain a high-level summary of the entire report.
2. The introduction doesn’t tell the reader what the report is about.
Beginning a report with detailed background, and omitting to tell the reader what the report is about, is a common error that leaves the reader confused and frustrated. The first paragraph of the report needs to tell the reader what the report is about, why you are writing it, and its scope.
3. Recommendations are mixed with findings in the body of the report.
The body of the report is for facts, findings, opinions and background. Although recommendations are drawn from the information in the body of the report, recommendations do not belong in the body. List recommendations separately at the end of the report. Begin each recommendation with an action and make the recommendation specific, measurable, and time bound.
4. The report is unstructured.
When writing your report, it’s much easier to dump your thoughts on the page without thinking about whether it follows a logical flow. However, this makes reading extremely difficult. The body of the report needs to follow a logical structure such as topic by topic, chronological, or problem followed by solution. Always start with the big picture and then move to the detail.
5. The report contains pages of unbroken text.
Looking at pages of dense writing will overwhelm the reader and discourage them from reading. Keep each paragraph at around 5 lines and add headings and subheadings. Bulleted lists are acceptable in business reports, but limit lists to a maximum of 8 bullet points and intersperse lists with paragraphs.
6. The content doesn’t match the headings.
During the writing process, it’s easy to digress. Make sure the content in each section of the report matches the heading. If the content doesn’t match the heading, either change the heading or move the content to a more appropriate place in the report.
7. The report content is too wordy.
Any sentence over 30 words will be difficult for your reader, no matter how carefully crafted the sentence. Aim for an average of 15 to 20 words with no one sentence over 30 words. Convert wordy phrases, such as ‘on a daily basis’ to a shorter alternative, such as ‘daily.’
A poorly written report is likely to be misunderstood or ignored altogether. The reader may have a different understanding and response from what the writer intends. This could lead to reduced efficiency, increased errors, lack of progress and even reputational damage. Every report must therefore be clear, concise and focused on its purpose and the needs of the reader.