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Getting to grips with writing reports

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VOL: 97, ISSUE: 38, PAGE NO: 34

Jacqueline Wheeler, DMS, MSc, RGN, is a lecturer at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College

Reports are used to record and communicate information, and to help managers make decisions. They should be a permanent, comprehensive and coherent account of an investigation, study or piece of research.

Writing a report requires logical thinking and planning because you need to be able to organise your ideas carefully and express them coherently. If you do not research the work thoroughly you will not be able to write a factual report and may be deemed incompetent, affecting your prospects of promotion and career development. Effective report writing, on the other hand, can improve your status.

When to use a report

The main reasons for producing a report are to provide information and analysis as an aid to decision-making, to inform others on how a project is progressing, or to discuss how professional innovations will require a change in practice. Anyone can produce a report for circulation to senior staff, managers, colleagues or junior staff.

Before writing a report, it is essential to identify that it is necessary and that it is the most appropriate form of communication. There are other means of communication that do not result in volumes of paper arriving on a manager’s desk.

One reason a nurse might be required to produce a report is to justify an increase in spending that will result from a change in practice, such as the introduction of a more expensive but better quality dressing. Nurses involved in investigating a complaint or poor practice are also required to submit reports to substantiate the sequence of events surrounding the incident.

How to write a report

A general rule is that a report consists of three parts: an introduction and summary, the main body of text, then the appendices (Fletcher, 1983).

Once you have established the aim of the report and have estimated the cost of producing it, you will need to obtain authorisation for the expense involved. Don’t put pen to paper without having completed rigorous research on the subject. You can use your own observations or reference books and journals. When extracting information from research material, check all the facts to ensure that you are not reporting opinion or inferences.

Next, plan the framework for the report. Your document should convey information clearly and logically. When writing a report, an awareness of the target audience and their knowledge of the subject will enable you to pitch the report at the right level - neither too complex nor oversimplified (Mort, 1983).

Title page

On a separate cover page present the title of the report, which should be comprehensive enough to inform readers of the subject matter (but not unnecessarily long), the organisation’s name, the date, circulation list and name of the author(s).

Foreword

A foreword may follow on a separate page. This is a statement from another person, usually to give added credence and authority to the report.

Summary

The summary comes next, but is best written once you have completed the main body of the report. It should be no more than 10% of the length of the entire report and should not introduce any new information. It should be precise and clear enough to prevent questions: in fact, a miniature version of the report itself. Begin with a brief explanation of how you have reached each conclusion and be as objective as possible, discussing the positive and negative aspects of each point to present a balanced view. Use headings, bullet points or visual markers to make it easier to read.

Table of contents

A table of contents, produced on a separate page, is essential as it allows readers to locate the sections they are interested in. Wait until you have completed the report before filling in the page numbers as this will ensure accuracy.

Introduction: what, why and how

The introduction identifies the subject (what) and purpose (why) of the report and the method (how) by which it was developed and gives a broad overview of the subject.

The first sentence must clearly state the purpose of the report to help readers judge whether they wish to read on. The introduction should outline the scope of the report and how it is structured. It may be necessary to provide some background information. However, if the background information includes a review of previous research or formulas and is consequently wordy, it should be placed in its own separate section.

One thing to avoid in the introduction is the use of sweeping statements that are not related to the specific purpose of the report.

Body of the report

This is the most important part of your report and is where the issues outlined in the introduction are expanded. It must contain your methods, findings or results, and evaluation or analysis. The information can be organised with the most important facts presented first (sequential), or where general statements are worked through into subsidiary points (hierarchical).

The main body of the report is where discussion occurs, but ensure that the development of the argument is logical, the evidence is relevant and the reasoning is clear. Although you can put forward your views and interpretations, they must be supported by your findings to make them credible.

References

The text should contain references to other documents obtained during your research to support your conclusions. These references then appear in a list at the end of the report so that any interested reader can locate the necessary documentation to confirm the reliability of your report and for further study.

The format for documenting references varies from organisation to organisation. You should therefore use house style, which is the style favoured by your organisation. If it does not have one, use a style you feel comfortable with but ensure that it is consistent.

Footnotes

Footnotes are used to expand or verify a point and are placed at the bottom of each page. They should be brief and used sparingly. Make sure that they can be distinguished from the references and the main body of text.

Conclusion

The conclusion is used to summarise the findings and implications of the report and must not contain any new ideas or information that has not been mentioned in the main body of text. Repetition is inevitable to emphasise the importance of some points, but copying complete sentences or paragraphs must be avoided.

Recommendations

You cannot make recommendations that are not explicitly connected to the results, nor issue them as a directive if you have no authority to make them. Recommendations may include instigating change or plans for further research.

Appendices

Appendices include supporting information, such as raw data, that has formed part of the research but would be distracting if included in the main body. They should be referred to at appropriate points in your report.

Bibliography

This is a list of the reference sources used. It shows the reader how widely the subject has been researched and gives credence to the report’s findings.

Glossary

Readers may not understand some of the terms and abbreviations used if they are not familiar with the subject. List these alphabetically, with a brief explanation of each. Sometimes it is better to explain any terms and abbreviations as they arise, provided that this does not detract from the discussion of the report.

Acknowledgements

This section allows the people who have helped to research or write the report to be thanked or acknowledged.

Index

In any report that is more than 30 pages long an index may be required to cross-reference key items of information for easy location by the reader. This is one of the last items to be completed by the writer of the report.

Presentation and style

Once you have completed the nitty gritty of researching and writing your report, it is worth spending some time on its presentation. Appearance is important, as a neat and orderly page predisposes the reader to think that the person who prepared the report is similarly neat and orderly, and therefore reliable.

Most organisations have an established set of rules regarding the preferred layout of reports and you should follow your own department’s criteria. Simple layouts work best.

Illustrations

Small illustrations help to break up the text and can aid communication. They may be placed close to the text to which they refer. Larger illustrations can affect the layout of the report and are better placed towards the end of the document.

Margins

Margins are required for a number of practical purposes: on the left to allow for the report to be bound, and on the right so that none of the text is lost in the copying process. It is impossible not to leave a margin at the top of the page because of the way the paper fits into the printer, but some space has to be left at the foot of the page for the page numbers. It is also desirable to leave a certain amount of space to allow the reader to make notes.

Paragraphs

Some organisations have extremely elaborate rules on types of headings and sub-headings, paragraphs and sub-paragraphs. A relatively simple system reduces the likelihood of errors.

Spacing

The length and purpose of the report will determine whether you use double, single or one-and-a-half spacing. Draft reports are usually double-spaced, which gives readers room to mark corrections and changes. Single-spacing is recommended for long reports to save paper.

Conclusion

Producing a report should not be seen as a chore or a necessary evil at the end of a research project or investigation, but as a means of communication. In some cases the production of the report is the main purpose of the work.

Once it has been printed, make sure you have enough copies to distribute to all relevant parties and that these are complete and in order. They should be distributed as soon as possible to prevent the information becoming out of date. Delays caused by having the document bound can be overcome by using staples. Finally, after all the hard work, remember to keep a copy for yourself.

- Part one in this series, ‘How to delegate your way to a better working life’, appeared in Nursing Times on September 6. Part two, ‘Thinking your way to successful problem-solving’, was published last week.

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