Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018
Business-style report writing
Planning and structuring more assignments
As we have seen, researching your assignment, and carrying out the reading required for it, are part of an iterative process. You learn as you go along. You find out about the literature that exists - and that you can gain access to - and this shapes your further searching. You read the best and most appropriate material that you find for your assignment, and annotate and make notes on what you find, and doing so shapes your further searching and reading. All this can be a delightful exploration of a topic, but you don’t have unlimited time. And even while you are carrying out your searches, and reading, annotating and note-taking, you need to be thinking about the structure for the assignment you are going to write and begin writing it.
Chapter 3 explored the structure of essays and the structure and writing style of practical reports. This chapter considers five kinds of assignment: business-style reports, critical reflective accounts, presentations, posters and dissertations. Business-style reports writing and critical reflective accounts are almost at two ends of an academic writing spectrum. Business-style report writing usually has a highly structured, no-nonsense approach, often being written in an impersonal style. Critical reflective
writing, on the other hand, is likely to be written, at least in part, from a subjective viewpoint and in a personal style. Both kinds of assignment have become commonplace on some vocational degrees. Critical reflective writing has gained momentum as a means of integrating personal experience with academic knowledge, so promoting deep learning.
Presentations and posters are both highly visual forms of communication and any words used need to be thoughtfully integrated with visual elements. In the case of presentations, words spoken need to complement, not simply repeat, any written text that accompanies images.
Dissertations tend to be the longest and most detailed documents that undergraduates and taught Master’s students write. They are usually highly structured, with chapters, sections and subsections, and with clear navigation to enable the reader to find their way flexibly through such a long document.
6.1 Business-style report writing
A report, as its name suggests, reports on some well-defined area of investigation. A report has a clear structure and adopts many conventions appropriate to the discipline in which it is written. There are numerous kinds of report, for example:
✵a practical report on a scientific experiment (see Section 3.5)
✵a technical review of a topic in engineering
✵a report on the findings of a questionnaire survey
✵a business-style report that gives recommendations based on analysis of a situation.
It is the analytical, business-style report that is considered here. Business-style reports are unusual in that apart from being highly structured, they may use more overt tactics to persuade the reader. Words are kept to a minimum, and the ’facts’ or data and their interpretation and analysis are kept concise.
Analytical report structures
Analytical reports often contain all or most of the following elements (although the order of elements in the front and end matter may vary):
Table of contents
Main part of the report:
1Executive summary. One or a few paragraphs summarising: context; the purpose of the report; the report’s scope, aims and objectives; methods (sometimes); main findings; conclusions and recommendations.
2Introduction/Background/Context. A few paragraphs giving: the context that triggered the need
for the report; the report’s purpose, scope, aims and objectives.
3Methods/Methodology. Present in most but not all business reports.
The validity of the results obtained depends on the methods used. This section should help convince the reader of the strength and validity of the results.
4Findings/Results. Presents the data collected: it shows summary data, not raw data; the data is usually presented in charts and/or tables; text introduces the charts and tables and refers to them; text draws out key points from the charts and tables.
5Discussion.This interprets, explains and analyses the results with respect to other sources of information: it may evaluate the strength and validity of the findings on the basis of the methods used; depending on the nature of the report, it may give several options, giving the risks and benefits of each, finishing with the preferred option.
6Conclusions and Recommendations. These may occupy separate sections or be combined. The conclusions refer to the original purpose of the report, summarise the main findings rather than simply repeating them, highlight the significance of the findings and their implications, and may suggest further research. If recommendations are included, they suggest what action should be taken.
Appendices. Contain detailed information that would disrupt the flow of the argument in the main part of the report. Such information is needed to convince the reader that the investigation was properly carried out. Material in an appendix might include raw data, statistical analyses, sample questionnaires or interview transcripts.
Notice that in the main part of the report, the sections are numbered. This is a common convention in business and technical reports, and the specific form used here is called decimal numbering. Main sections have a single number (e.g. 3), subsections have two numbers (e.g. 3.2) and subdivisions of subsections, three or more numbers (e.g. 3.2.1). Decimal numbering organises the parts of the report into a clear hierarchy, which follows a logical structure. This makes it easy for the writer to crossreference between different parts of the document and for the reader to navigate through the document
and locate, refer to and discuss specific parts with colleagues.
Most people who read a business report, whether it is an assessor on your course or a manager who is reading the document to help with her work, will first read the contents list, the executive summary, the conclusions and any recommendations. Your assessor should, of course, read your report in detail, but it is those sections that summarise the content, and that are often read first, which will shape the assessor’s view. First impressions count.
Aim or objective?
In a report, there is normally a distinction between the two. An aim is what is being sought overall. Objectives are the means of achieving the aim (the how). For example:
Brief: Investigate whether the university library should install group-study rooms. If so, what is the likely demand and how could it be met?
Part of the response to this brief could involve:
Aim: Determine whether there is student and/or staff interest for group-study rooms in the library.
(a)Raise the issue at Students’ Union, Teaching & Learning Staff Committee and Library Staff meetings to gauge the level of support for group-study rooms, before proceeding further.
(b)Based on the findings of (a), if appropriate, assess the demand and specific requirements for group- study rooms by undertaking interviews with selected students and staff.
Other analytical report structures
A business-style report may have a different structure from the one above. Business reports tend to be driven by the pragmatic needs of the organisation, and the organisation may have its own standard template for reports. In any case, if you are set an assignment for a business-style report, you may not have been given detailed guidelines for the structure (although I suggest you ask for them). If that is the case, you could structure the main part of the report to respond logically to the guidelines (the brief). You would ’top and tail’ the report as normal, with an executive summary, and conclusions and recommendations, but the main part of the report would follow a logical narrative. For example, if you were asked to write a report on the need to upgrade the virtual learning environment (VLE) of an organisation, and the implications of doing so, the main part might look like this:
2The need for change
2.4The need for expansion and modernisation
3Option A. Upgrading existing VLE
4Option B. Changing to a new VLE
5Summary comparison of options
6Conclusions and recommendations
A report or a proposal?
Strictly, a report contains information about what has happened in the past. It records and interprets ’facts’ and it seeks primarily to inform the reader. A proposal considers what might happen in the future. It puts forward arguments, usually making one or more recommendations to help persuade the reader to make a decision. It may well express opinions. In practice, analytical reports may contain elements of reports and proposals, as in the alternative analytical report structure example above. The more like a proposal a business document is, the more likely it is to contain overtly persuasive argument.
Analytical report writing style
As we have seen, business-style reports are formally structured:
✵With clear headings and subheadings
✵Often employing decimal numbering to aid navigation
✵May include tables or graphs.
The direct, no-nonsense approach is also reflected in the writing style:
✵Is largely in the past tense, to report on what has happened, but using the present tense to refer to figures and tables, what the findings show, and what applies now. The future tense is used to point to
what will, or could, happen.
✵A report is often written in the impersonal or third person, using the passive voice: ’The survey was carried out ...’ rather than the active voice: ’The project team carried out the survey .. ’.
✵Often assumes that the reader has some relevant technical knowledge, so that basic terminology does not need to be explained. Technical terms may be listed and defined in the Glossary.
✵Uses abbreviations (acronyms), with the word or phrase being given in full at its first appearance, e.g. ’natural language processing (NLP)’, but then abbreviated thereafter.
✵Is written with clarity and precision, avoiding vagueness. For example, ’Frontline staff were emailed and directed to complete and submit the online questionnaire survey within seven days,’ instead of ’Various kinds of staff member were asked to fill in the online questionnaire survey.’ The need for clarity and precision applies to most forms of academic writing.
✵Is concise, with any unnecessary words removed.
✵Wherever possible, sentences and paragraphs are kept short.
✵May use bullet points to summarise items, rather than flowing prose.
As always, be acutely aware of the purpose of your report and its audience. Match the language you use to your audience.
Keep it short and simple (KISS)
In business and technical reports, writing clearly and concisely is encouraged. Imagine you have been given the information below by a teacher and you want to simplify it for other teachers. Using bullet points, reduce this 185 words to 100 words or less.
The rules for using clay in class are designed to meet health and safety requirements, enable effective classroom management and ensure that children have an enjoyable experience and can produce objects of which they can be proud. Among the rules relating to health, safety and hygiene are: children must wear protective aprons; no eating of clay; avoid getting clay in hair; and cleaning all work surfaces thoroughly with water and sponge to remove clay deposits, which would otherwise dry and become dust. Those relating to classroom management include: children not making objects that are offensive to others; no throwing of clay; and no handling of other people ’s clay objects. Those concerning the proper use of clay are: the need to wedge (knead) the clay to make it pliable and to remove air; making objects with clay that have no parts thicker than a thumb; covering clay in plastic bags or cellophane to keep it moist; joining modelled clay pieces by scoring and slipping while moist; ensuring objects to be fired are thin or hollow; and not glazing the underside of clay objects to be fired.
One solution to this task is given at the end of the chapter. How does yours compare?
Putting the pieces together
Clear and concise sentences are a key feature of good report writing. Shorten this account of 101 words to fewer than 75 and make it easier to comprehend. Do so by using the active voice, removing
unnecessary words or phrases, and splitting long sentences into two or more shorter ones.
The use of the new remote server and its associated management system was found by the project teams to circumvent three of the problems apparent in the original system: project teams could now routinely access the latest version of the software, they could see who had changed which features of the software, and they could track people ’s comments about the software as it was being developed. We envisage, in the future, implementing most aspects of the new system, but we will have to review the system for providing commentary, so that commentators can choose who they wish to view their comments. (101)
When you’ve finished, compare your solution with the example given at the end of the chapter.