Plan and produce a report
There are many reasons for producing a report. Your report may cover any topic, in a variety of ways. However, instead of thinking about the “Why?” of a report or the “What?” of a report, think first about those to whom the report will go.
Will your report be read by:
- those who now fund your work?
- potential sponsors?
- the supervisor of your education or research?
- university or college bodies?
- research councils?
- steering groups, pressure groups, professional bodies?
- the media?
- potential staff?
- government agencies?
- international organisations?
- random enquirers?
Whatever your current purpose and intended readership, remember that you may wish to use the report for some other purpose at a future date.
Why is a good report important?
Reports serve such varied functions that you, the reader, will now have to select from what is written here. A report seen only by one supervisor, for example, is unlikely to justify the expense of employing a commercial writer.
A good report can increase the chances of continued and new funding. Without funding, almost all work is impossible.
Your report lets you tell your story to the world – your aims, achievements, results of your work and challenges yet to be faced. Only you can make it accurate and inspiring.
A good report encourages staff and colleagues.
A good report may attract a higher quality of applicant.
A clear view is given of how funds have been spent.
A good report is informative and positive. It shows your work to be competent and professional. It enhances your credibility and that of your organisation.
Beginnings – before you write
Always allow plenty of time – at least three months for a 10,000-word report. Remember, too, that consultation takes time and people always seem to be away on holiday when you want an urgent answer from them.
Organise all those who will write material for the report. Write out a clear production schedule, specifying deadlines. Make sure that all contributors – from professors to typists – have a copy of that schedule and understand that they will have to stick to it.
Prepare a print specification (eg number of colours, weight and type of paper or covers). Always obtain two competitive quotations, at the very least, from printers. Be suspicious of any quote which seems ridiculously low. Beware of any printer who cannot refer you to a local, satisfied customer.
Find out about the people who will receive your report. Keep that knowledge in mind as you produce the report. It may be best to produce a full, and a shortened, version of your report, to suit the needs of different readers.
Do not confuse roles. A good writer may be a poor editor. A good printer may be a poor graphic designer. A good typist may be a poor organiser. Most people are lucky if they are good at one thing. Do not hesitate to seek advice.
What should be in a report?
Some aspects are common to almost all reports.
- Begin with a summary (150 words at most).
- Specify your aims. Give your address and contact details.
- List the contents.
- Give the background – the reasons this work was carried out.
- Describe your main results. Support these with facts.
- Interpret those findings.
- Reach conclusions.
- Detail your organisation and activities.
- Give financial information.
- Specify future needs.
Make sure that the clear structure you decide on is acceptable to all those involved – whether as contributors or in a supervisory capacity. Never plan by committee. Once accepted, stick to that structure until the report is published. Any clever ideas can be adopted in the production of the next report.
Increase your finishing power
Specify everything fully and in writing.
Make sure that contributors understand the purpose of the report and are aware of its importance.
If funds permit, hire a writer and employ an editor. If your report could gain you funding of £1 million, a few hundred pounds on such professional skills will be a worthwhile investment.
Pay for good graphic design – or look at a variety of reports and, from a report that you admire, adapt a design.
When you circulate drafts for approval, allow sufficient time but stamp a final return date on each copy that goes out. Three days before that date, phone all those who have not responded. Ask that they fax or phone any important corrections to you the next day. Take a careful note of any reasons given for failure to respond, in case of any subsequent queries.
Keep to your deadlines.
Only a good picture is worth a thousand words. If your artwork is smudgy or your photo is unclear, leave it out. Graphics should aid communication, not act as puzzles.
The ideal report
Put a picture on the front cover – but do not use several small pictures.
For a series of reports (eg successive annual reports), make sure that the front covers are visibly different from each other- eg by colour of cover.
State objectives clearly.
Convey a sense of enthusiasm and excitement.
Financial aspects should be easily understood by all readers.
Style and feel should be appropriate – they encourage you to open the report and read it.
The report shows an understanding of the needs of your main readers.
Include a reply device (eg a fill-in card for further information).
By spreading your name, address and contact details, a good report allows people of all kinds to get in touch with you.
For potential sponsors, prepare a presentation pack of other material, to send out with your report, once published.
Make good use of illustrations – eg simple charts and graphs rather than masses of data.
Caption photographs and pictures – and avoid boring shots of people doing nothing.
Use only professional-quality artwork and photos.
Your writing must be clear and concise.
Text must be legible – preferably at least 12 pt in size and certainly no less than 11 pt.
Design should be effective and attractive – with white space and breaks in text.
Everything is there: even if written by many people, the text reads smoothly and easily.
Any lengthy lists (eg of names) that must be included should go at the back of the report, out of the way.
Demonstrate a sensible use of resources – eg no extravagant full-colour printing on luxuriously thick covers if you are a small poverty-stricken charity.
Ensure paper quality is good enough to avoid excessive show-through.
Print at least 10% more copies of your report than you expect to use. It will be much cheaper than having it reprinted.
Please contact neil at wordpower.org.uk if you find this guide useful.