When deadlines are tight, or you don’t know where to start, it’s tempting to put off writing, dash off a first draft at the last minute and submit it in its rough state. Although you might have met your deadline, will your report get the results you need?
The tighter your deadline, the more disciplined you need to be in your approach. To help you overcome writers’ block or procrastination, and to save time writing your report, follow these four stages. Working backwards from your deadline, set yourself interim deadlines and hold yourself to these dates.
Stage 1. Plan
Investing time planning your report will save you hours of time rewriting the report later. Never begin writing your first draft without planning your report first. The planning phase is about discussing, investigating and organising. Take brief notes, but don’t write complete sentences. There are 5 steps in the planning stage:
- Analyse your audience and identify their needs.
- Identify the purpose of the report and the result you wish to achieve.
- Research and compile all background information, resources, data, quotes and other content.
- Brainstorm ideas and note key points (who, what, where, when and why).
- Order the information into a logical structure of headings and subheadings (outline).
You can do your planning effectively away from your computer. For example, you can jot down key points on Post-it® notes and then order the notes into a logical sequence. If you’re working as a team, you could brainstorm ideas together using a whiteboard. For long complex reports, consider using mind mapping software.
Stage 2. Write
The key task of this stage is to write all your content in rough form based on the structure of your outline or mind map. The goal is to get your ideas down as quickly as you can. Don’t worry about whether your sentences are too long or whether you’re using the right words. Resist the temptation to edit as you write – it’s far more efficient to write a rough draft and then return to it using the checklists below.
Stage 3. Revise
No matter how well you have planned your report, you will still need to revise it thoroughly before submitting it for comment by senior team members. Even professional writers go back and refine their work multiple times to make it more concise and smooth out rough edges. Revision is the difference between a half-baked report and a professional one.
Before you revise your draft, put it aside (at least over night) and come back to it. The longer the break, the more you will be able to see your work with fresh eyes and the more efficient you will be at revising. Ideally, revise your work in several stages with a minimum of 2 revisions.
- Is the objective clear and at the beginning of the report?
- Does the executive summary contain only high-level information?
- Is the content placed in the appropriate section of the template?
- Does the report follow a logical flow?
- Does the report contain just the right amount of detail?
- Are the observations separate from the causes and solutions?
- Are the recommendations clear and actionable?
- Does each paragraph have a clear topic sentence with one idea per paragraph?
- Are paragraphs 5 lines or fewer?
- Are the headings informative and accurate?
- Do bulleted lists follow a consistent structure?
- Are sentences between 15 and 20 words on average?
- Are the sentences easy to understand on first reading?
- Does the report contain 80% or more active voice?
- Is the report written in plain English and free from buzzwords?
- Has all unnecessary repetition been eliminated?
- Is the tone professional and appropriate?
- Is the language level appropriate for the audience?
Stage 4. Check
Applying style conventions consistently will give your report a polished finish and sends the message that you and your organisation are rigorous in all aspects of your work. Checking is not the same as writing or revising. When you check your work, resist the temptation to edit or refine sentences as doing so could create another error.
- Does the report contain typographical errors?
- Does the report contain grammatical errors?
- Are all names of people, organisations or brands correct?
- Are there any repeated or missing words?
- Have all acronyms been spelled out the first time they appear in the report?
- Does the report comply with the style and formatting requirements set out in your organisation’s writing style guide?
You may think you’ll save time by jumping straight into writing your first draft and revising each paragraph as you write. However, this unplanned approach is likely to result in a poor report and wasted time for you as well as your reader. Poorly written reports can result in lost productivity through misunderstandings or unclear recommendations that fail to be acted upon.
It’s always worth taking a rigorous approach to report writing. A well-written, professional report will not only increase productivity but will enhance your professional reputation and that of your organisation.