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by Phil Bartle, PhD

A Guide

PART D: Writing Better Reports:

Reports that are just filed without being read, or thrown in the trash, or just used to wrap ground nuts, are useless. A good report is a report that is read. So the question arose, "How can we encourage that a report will be read?"

Learning how to write better reports can be fun. Writing a report does not have to be a boring, tiresome and uncomfortable task that you loath to face each time a report is due. When you learn some skills and tricks, writing reports can be challenging., Text

You can turn report writing into an essential element of the professionalism of your job, and as a tool to monitor what you are doing. There is no magic or mystery in doing this; and this document will show some of those skills and tricks that you can easily learn and use.

Write reports so that they will be read, not simply filed away. To do that, you must write them so that they are easy to understand, and that they invite the reader to read all the way to the end. You must know who your intended reader is (your "target" audience), why your reader would want to read your report, and what your reader needs and wants to know from your reports.

There are many ways to find out what your audience wants to know (and therefore to read about in your report), and you probably know more than 80 per cent already. When you finish your first draft, put it to the test. For each sentence that you write, ask the question, "Will this interest my readers?"

No single individual should try to write a community progress report alone. The facilitator should make it a group activity by the community representatives, on behalf of the whole community, for approval first by the community.

Encourage members to ask for help from friends and colleagues, programmer, manager, staff and those who can assist in either concepts or in style. Think of preparing a report as a written form of "dialogue" in which each successive draft is a continuation of the process.

What is A Good Report?

A good report is one that is read and action taken because of it (not just filed and ignored). How can you make your report more likely to be read? The following are a few tips on making better reports. An effective report is one that is read; and that stimulates some sort of an action as a result of being read.

Very importantly, your reports should be "concise." To be concise means that they should be both brief and complete. Short reports are more likely to be read than long reports. But reports that miss important information are disappointing. One important way to shorten your reports is to omit unnecessary phrases (such as "During the reporting period ...") and repetitions of things included elsewhere in each report.

A report is easier to read when it is written in simple, straight forward language, with correct grammar and words easily recognized. Do not try to impress anyone with flowery language, esoteric vocabulary, or long and convoluted sentences. Use short, simple sentences. Use sub titles to separate sections (as in this document). Use short paragraphs. Avoid the passive voice.

Remember that many of those who should read your report know English as a second language. Always use the famous "KISS" principle ("Keep It Simple, Sweetheart...") when you write any report.

A Report Must be Easy to Read:

Once again, in workshops with mobilizers in the field, I asked participants to tell me what made a report more likely to be read. You are a manager and a report has come across your desk. Are you going to throw it away? Are you going to file it without looking at it? Are you going to just skim it and not read it carefully?

Are you going to read it carefully and think about what it says enough to make some decisions? What characteristics of that report are more likely to make you read it carefully?

The participants came up with the following suggestions. It should have or be:

  • Short but complete (concise);
  • Containing only what is necessary;
  • Simple; written in good language;
  • Having no repetition, no redundancy;
  • Including no preaching, lecturing;
  • Containing interesting and relevant information;
  • Well structured and organized;
  • Neat and tidy (typed or well printed/written).

This, too, would be a good check list (a) for yourself when you are writing reports or (b) training community leaders in report writing.

Tips on Writing Better Reports:

Once a famous West African musician was asked by some young musicians what advice he would give them to become as skilled as he. – "I can give you three tips," he said. "My first tip is: Practice. My second tip is: Practice, and my third tip is: Practice."

The same advice can be given in writing or any sort: Write several drafts. Proof read in between. Ask a friend to "proof" it (review it and offer suggestions). Ask for feed back and advice: be your own teacher. The three tips are: "Rewrite! Rewrite, and Rewrite!"

You might believe that rewriting your document would be a waste of time and effort. Far from it. Professional writers may write as many as seven drafts before they allow a document to stand with their good name. You should write at least three drafts: a rough first draft, a second draft, and then your final draft.

Be prepared to rewrite even the final draft. Re-writing it allows you some time between writings to get a more objective yet critical look at your document, remove many of the obvious errors, and avoid writing a document that you will later regret.

Another tip is to first write an outline. Before you start the first sentence, write down an outline of the topics that you want to cover. Make it a short list of three word notes. Just use a scrap of paper; it is for your eyes only.

You may wish to re- arrange the order of topics as soon as you see them on paper. You can use that outline as a personal guide while writing your first draft.

A few more words about the passive voice. It is disease of many bureaucrats. It is a way to obfuscate ─ that is to write words as if you are being informative, but really hiding some of the important information. Experienced readers will recognize your use of the passive voice immediately.

The passive voice, like statistics, has some times been compared to a bikini bathing suit (What it reveals is interesting but what it hides is vital).

What Makes a Report Good?

What Makes A Good Report? Again I asked the participants in the workshops to tell me what made good reports, or reports good. They suggested the following:

  • Attractive
  • Straight forward, honest, no deception (no lies)
  • Interesting illustrations, designs. (colour if possible)
  • Brief, short
  • Neat and readable (good handwriting)
  • To the point
  • Simple English (or whatever language)
  • Well spaced
  • Has title and sub titles
  • Organized or structured.

Like the two lists above, this list can be combined with them to make an overall check list for checking through any report that you may write, and for holding a report-writing workshop with participating community members. See Errors for a short list of common writing errors that you can correct.


Remember that writing reports need not be boring, look upon the task as a challenge.

Emphasize results over activities. Go beyond description; be analytical. Know your audience and the needs of your readers. Write in easy to read, simple language. Avoid the passive voice. Write concisely (briefly but completely). Organize your reports by using an outline and by using subtitles. Write several drafts before the final one.

By using these tips and guidelines, you can teach yourself and your community clients to improve your report writing. Remember, it is not necessary to be bad to get better.


A Visit to the Community Project Site:

A Visit to the Community Project Site

© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2012.07.08

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