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The Recipe for Good Reports

By Jane Watson

Some people write the same way as I learned to cook spaghetti.

When I was at university, I was taught a surefire way of cooking "perfect" spaghetti: Add noodles to a large pot of rapidly boiling water. When you think the pasta is about ready, use a fork to remove a strand from the pot. Flick the strand at the wall. If the noodle falls behind the stove, the spaghetti is not fully cooked. If it sticks to the wall, get ready to serve.

How to Write a Report

This is the same method some people use to write a report. They have a vast number of facts boiling in their minds, and they believe if they throw out enough of them, some will eventually stick in the reader's mind.

Bonnie Stern, the gourmet guru, claims the "throw the spaghetti at the wall" trick is useless — spaghetti will stick just before and just after it is "a le dente." (She claims tasting is the only way to determine if pasta is perfect.)

And, I believe throwing ideas into a report for the sake of covering off any potentiality is just as bad. All you end up with is a lengthy report filled with irrelevant information — and frustrated readers. People are busy; they don't have time to wade through an unwieldy mass of details searching for what interests them and for what they need to know.

Good writers take time to analyze their readers before they begin to write. They take into account the following details:

  • the information the reader already has

  • the information the reader needs to make a decision

  • the technical information the reader understands

  • the step you want the reader to take after reading your message

  • the reader's reaction toward the message

  • the sort of reports the reader likes to read

If you don't know this information, you are not ready to begin writing. Not only will you waste your reader's time in providing irrelevant or incomplete information, but you will waste your own time and weaken your professional image.

What If Your Reports Are Too Short

Some people have a problem with writing too concisely. They are told their reports don't have enough detail. The reason for this is that they are starting their reports in the wrong place. They are starting from what they know about the topic and from what they feel.

I once made cookies using only 1/8 cup of butter instead of the 3/4 cup required. (It was all the butter I had.) I rationalized this decision well: it would cut back on cholesterol. Despite my reasoning, the cookies were dry and tough.

You can't cut corners with writing either. If your reports are too short and lack necessary details, you must go back to the questions mentioned earlier. Always ensure the reader has enough information so he or she can comfortably take action.

If You Write for Multiple Readers

Be alert to secondary audiences. These are the people the primary reader may send your report on to. This audience usually has less background information and technical knowledge than your primary reader does.

If you write for multiple audiences, I recommend you chunk the information in sections according to needs. For example, you might explain the benefits of a new type of widget to all the readers. In the next section, you could explain why you need a widget and how it works for the less knowledgeable people.

Then write informative sub-heads for each of these sections so the reader can determine the sections he needs to read. Organize your reports so busy readers can "jump-skip" through the information to get the details they need to make a decision.

Remember, good writers can be compared to good cooks. They both have to end up with products that meet their audience's needs and tastes.

About Jane Watson

Jane Watson

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