Suggestions regarding preparation, presentation and style of technical report writing for engineers

Reports

The average engineer spends around twenty per cent of their time writing technical and semi-technical reports, memoranda and instructions. Your report writing ability may be as important as your mastery of the technical field, particularly when in a senior position.

There is no single solution to the problem of writing an acceptable report or letter. Different styles and layouts may be entirely satisfactory. However, a good report should be concise, clear, and free of irrelevant material, should be easy to read and understand, logical in presentation, balanced in layout, and should be expressed in a way suited to the person who is expected to read it.

The following suggestions regarding preparation, presentation and style are intended as a guide only. You should at least consider their merits before you decide to depart from them.

Preparation of the Draft Report

The preliminary steps in drafting a report include the collection, classification and selection of material to be included. You should:

  • Check and assess the accuracy of your "facts".
  • Separate facts from opinions and inferences.
  • Classify your material. A large report may need a card index or filing system for ready access to collect material with separate sections for, say, History or Background, Administrative Aspects, Research Work, Estimates, Costs and so on.
  • Select only the relevant material, keeping in mind the purpose of the report and the knowledge, authority and requirements of the reader for whom it is intended.

Presentation

There is no standard layout for a report although some organisations have their set requirements. Often the purpose or the topic influences the arrangement of the material. Here are three examples:

Example A Example B Example C
Title page
Preface
Letter of transmittal
Table of contents
Abstract
Plain text
Conclusions
Appendices
Index
Title page
Summary
Introduction
Symbols
Apparatus
Test procedure
Results
Analysis and discussion
Conclusion
Appendices
References
Illustrations
Title
Contents
Abstract
Introduction
Main text
Conclusions and Recommendations
Summary
Acknowledgments
References
Tables and figures
Appendices
Index

Common Arrangements

  1. Title Page: Descriptive title, author, date, possibly the name of the organisation, the authority, sponsor or client's name, and a distribution list.
  2. Summary: Brief, factual, generally following the same order of presentation as the report, normal English, not in note form.
  3. Introduction: Object, origin or background, including reference to previous work, authority or sponsorship, proposed method of treatment of the topic in broad, general terms. Avoid analytical detail of qualifications which should be placed in the main text: definition of terms, if necessary.
  4. Main Text: Logical development (not necessarily in chronological order); elaboration of issues mentioned in introduction; balanced treatment of issues, in accordance with their relative importance; exclude irrelevant material; possibly, mention conclusions or inferences As each topic is treated. In a long report, subdivide with appropriate sub-headings. Numbering of headings of sub-headings is common but frequently it is not necessary.
  5. Conclusion: Summarise findings and inferences mentioned in Main Text; be as brief as possible with firm statements and few, if any, qualifications; no new material.
  6. Recommendations: These may be listed separately or given in the Conclusion. Bear in mind your relationship to the reader in fixing the tone of your recommendations. Are you entitled to recommend firmly, or merely suggest? Should you leave it to your reader to decide upon the necessary action from your Conclusion? Each case must be decided on its merits.
  7. Appendices: Detailed information not strictly relevant to the Main Text but nevertheless of value or interest. Experimental results, data, table, graphs which would clutter up the Main Text. Avoid note form.
  8. Acknowledgments: It is a matter of honesty as well as courtesy that acknowledgment be made to the works of others which have been used in the preparation of the report.
  9. Reference: Credit to written or published work of others: this enables the reader to confirm your extracts or investigate a matter in more detail. Be precise and accurate, eg author's name and initials, title of book, paper, journal or report, publisher and place, edition, date, first and last page number (and, possibly, price).
    a. A bibliography may be a list of books to which reference has been made, frequently it is a list of additional readings.