This unit describes for you the basic considerations in planning the writing of a technical report on a specific subject. Technical report writing can be thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding if you take sufficient time to plan it in some detail. By “planning” we mean your thinking through the entire process of writing the report and identifying all the elements, small and not so small, that have to be taken into consideration from the beginning to the end. This requirement may appear rather demanding, but it isn’t really so once you come round to think about it. Your thinking must not be hurried; you will need to put pen to paper on a number of issues for several days, or even weeks. Then, you will have to review what you have done and each process of review should make you come up with an improved plan for the technical report you are about to write.
At the end of this unit, you should be able to:
• list the resources you will need for writing a technical report
• describe clearly the envisaged setting for your report
• organise the components of your report in a logical manner
• determine the relevant primary and secondary material you will need
to write the report
• justify your careful use of language and style in technical report
3.0 MAIN CONTENT
3.1 Before you Start Writing
You can avoid producing many unnecessary drafts of your report, or having to repeat procedures that could have been covered only once, if you take time to ask three fundamental questions as follows: What financial and material resources are available to you? How much time is at your disposal? What types of help do you need in the process of writing the report?
You must have a good idea of how much funds you can reasonably expect to be availableto you in writing the report. You should also know when the funds
will be made available and whether or not you are entitled to supplementary funding, should you exhaust your original _cost estimate. “Material resources” will almost invariably translate to mean “computational resources.” You must determine from the outset what –special
software packages you might need and the specifications of the computer system on which they can run.
How much time do you have for writing the report? Can you ask for more time if you cannot deliver on the original time schedule? Are you required to produce your report in phases, progress and interim reports, then a final report? is someone expected to review your report before you submit it to a final authority? What time limitations are imposed by the reviewing and final authorities?
You will not always be able to handle all aspects of your report by yourself. Therefore, identify from the outset your probable sources of help. For data analysis and interpretation for example, if you are not sure of the most appropriate statistical package for the analysis of your particular set of data, seek the help of statisticians rather than try it out yourself and risk invalidating a very important part of your report. Another important source of help is good proof readers. Most writers (and science writers in particular) fail to detect many errors of grammar and syntax in their writing. In addition, experienced research scientists can often easily detect illogicalities and other common faults in the writing of young scientists. The general rule in planning your report is to have a back-up for every activity, a ‘contingency plan’. Being caught unawares or having to repeat an activity that you have already covered suggests that you have embarked upon your report writing too soon. You will recoup many times over the time invested in planning every aspect of your report writing.
Every technical report should be written for a particular purpose and for a particular target audience. Therefore, take time to describe carefully the context of your report, and as early as possible in your writing. In doing so, you should ask a number of questions such as :
Was the report commissioned? If the answer is ‘Yes’, What are the agreed terms of reference? If it was not commissioned, what was your purpose in writing it?
The keyword in the second question is “agreed” which suggests that the context of writing your technical report has been duly negotiated and agreed with you, its writer. You must be completely satisfied with the terms of your contract because breaching any aspect of it may embroil you in protracted discussions or even litigation. If you suspect that there is a catch in the wording of the contracttake time to clear it with your lawyer before
putting your signature to it. You should be particularly careful not to sign away your intellectual property rights which are all protected under the protocols of the World Intellectual Property Organization.
On occasions, you may be one in a team of writers of a technical report. Whether your contribution is a major or minor one in such a context, you have the responsibility of satisfying yourself that you are making the contribution in an agreeable context. Take time to resolve any lingering doubts quickly; pulling out in the middle of a report writing exercise will upset other members of your team and give you a poor image.
If the technical report you are writing was not commissioned, then its context should be your sole, responsibility. In which case, you should take time to describe carefully the purpose of the report. You need to he explicit, bearing in mind the types of technical reports listed for you in Unit 1 of this course. If you have any doubt at all about the type of technical report you are writing, be honest with yourself by returning to the appropriate section(s) of Unit I of this course.
What are the managerial and technical capabilities of the organisation or institution targeted by your report? Who in the organisation are likely to read your report and what do they know about the subject? What are they yet to know?
You must take time to find out all that you can about the organisation or institution that will make use of your report — its material, technical, and managerial resources and capabilities. Note in particular that an organisation/institution may have sophisticated resources, but lack the technical or managerial capabilities to exploit them fully to corporate advantage. You must turn such deficiencies to your advantage; they are opportunities for you to demonstrate the relevance of your expertise in the specific organisational setting you are writing for.
But you must go beyond knowing about the organisation/institution as a whole to individuals, especially those likely to read your report. What do they know about the subject of your report, and what are they yet to know’? Your knowledge of what the key members of your target organisation/institution know or don’t know should, once more, be turned into an opportunity to make your report more relevant. For example, you could devote specific aspects of your report to addressing the deficiencies of the organisation’s chief executive or, indeed, its entire human resource development department whose key members you have taken time to study. If you tackle this aspect of contextualisation positively and with imagination, you would have assured yourself of several influential advocates for your report from the outset.
The contexts of your report could vary enormously, depending on whether you are writing for a public or private sector organisation. It is your responsibility to understand fully the nature and structure of policy and decision-making processes in either context. General rules will help you to make a good start, but your real challenge is to find out how the exceptions operate in the particular private sector organisation targeted by your report, or in a particular ministry or parastatal. It is always a fatal mistake to extrapolate from one private sector organisation to another, from one ministry or parastatal to another. In that sense, every technical report you write is unique.
To what end are your recommendations likely to be put?
Your technical report must contain a set of recommendations which clearly set out to achieve one or more of the following:
• provide a solution to a specified problem
• offer a better (more efficient, more cost-effective, or more
cost-beneficial) way of performing a particular operation
• demonstrate the need to invest additional resources in specific
processes, facilities, or human resources.
The list does not exhaust the possible areas that your recommendations may cover, but they are probably the most common. You must bear in mind that your recommendations are not designed to condemn but to help. It is a common mistake for young, inexperienced technical report writers to want to give the impression of being “experts” by running down an organisation, or even individuals, in their recommendations. The outcome of such short-sightedness is predictable enough: the “experts” will not be given a second chance of returning to the organisation.
The time you spend discussing your proposed recommendations with those who are likely to implement them is a time well spent. Let them feel a part
.of your work by making them comment freely on the recommendations that they, not you, will have to implement. You do not always have to use such comment, of course, but the process of consultation itself will help to build up an invaluable positive image of your personality and professional competence.
And the final word on contextualisation: let your clients be aware that you can be contacted on any problems that may arise from implementing your recommendations, at no additional cost to the organisation. This is an important public relations undertaking which many organisations decline to take up, but which does no harm whatsoever to your professional image. 3.3 Organisation
“Good organisation is the key to good writings” (Petersen, 1961). Much of what you’ve already learned in Unit 2 is relevant to this part of Unit 4. If you have mastered the content of Unit 2 as you should, this part will easily fall in place in your cumulative knowledge on technical report writing. By “organisation” here, we mean the need for you to take a decision on the most appropriate arrangement for the technical matter in your report. Typically, one of three approaches is adopted, depending on the nature of your report: (a) the chronological approach, (b) the subject development
approach, and (c) the concept development approach. It is useful for you to know something of each approach so that you will be confident about using any of them in technical report writing.
3.3.1 The Chronological Approach
Certain topics are best treated and understood in an evolutionary mode. The biological and geological sciences are examples where the chronological arrangement of technical matter confers a special advantage of being easily understood by the reader. In addition, the chronological order has been agreed and standardised; you have nothing whatsoever to contribute to it. You simply organise your technical data in accordance with the agreed chronological order. But, you must cite the authority(ies) for the approach you have taken accurately and fully (See –Units 12 and13 where citing and arranging references are discussed.)
3.3.2 The Subject Development Approach
Every established discipline has been broken down into its constituent parts in such a manner that one can see the organic links between the parts. The outcome of such an exercise is called a classification scheme, or a subject development approach of the discipline. A classification scheme could be very complex, even for a relatively “young” discipline. Many technical report writers have neither the time nor the inclination to understand such a complex document. Moreover, you will need to use only a small part of the document in any technical report. For practical purposes, therefore you should seek the help of a practising librarian, even when you feel confident about using it unaided to organise your technical data.
3.3.3 The Concept Development Approach
The organisation of material in a report using this approach is not very common in science and technology. The main reason is that it is rare to secure widespread agreement on the conceptual development of many topics in science and technology. In special cases, such as thesis writing, the approach may be used to tease out other approaches or to critique the more traditional approaches (the chronological and subject development). If you must use the concept development approach to organise your technical material, you will have to indulge in considerable explanation to enable your readers follow the message in your report.
3.4 Searching for Relevant Material
This is a critical aspect of planning your report writing. In order to maximise the resources available to you for writing the report, especially
your time, you must plan this aspect very carefully. In science and technology, your most fundamental decision will be which primary or secondary material to look for.
Primary sources include the following:
• on-the-spot observation (including experiments)
• interview with people directly concerned, and
• questionnaire administered on people who are in the best position to
Secondary sources are of two types:
• library or documentary sources, and
• interviews with those in a position to supply secondary material,
such as historians.
You should be aware that in science and technology, a much greater emphasis is placed on primary than secondary sources of material. Indeed, secondary sources are traditionally used to discuss, rather than report, the results of experiments or findings from field observations (see Unit 9). It would be an unusual technical report in science and technology which depends more on secondary than primary sources of material. Your planning must answer satisfactorily such questions as:
• What/which primary source material doyou need for the report?
• Who do you need to interview? Where? When?
• Who will respond to your questionnaire? Where? When?
• How will you collect your primary or secondary source material?
Effective planning means that you have answered the questions of
What’? Which? Who? How? Where? When? in as much detail as
possible from the beginning.
3.5 Language and Style
Many scientists and technologists seem to have the impression that they are not required to bother much about their language or style of writing, but they are wrong. In Unit 1 of this courseyou were given the answer to the
question, What is a technical report? Specifically, in sub-section 6 of the Unit, you were advised to be thoroughly familiar with the seven characteristics of technical reports (and scientific writing generally) – technical accuracy, consistency, clarity, mechanical accuracy, conciseness, persuasiveness, and interest. You were also advised not to proceed with the rest of the unit and the course until you satisfy yourself that you have
mastered the seven characteristics. That advice is repeated for your benefit here. Furthermore, you are invited to ponder seriously on the following extensive quotation from a well known book on good writing in science and technology:
There are four things that make this world go round: love,
energy, materials, and information. We see about us a
critical shortage of the first commodity, a near-critical
shortage of the second, increasing shortage of the third,
but an absolute glut of the fourth.
We in science, of necessity, must contribute to the glut [by writing technical reports and scientific papers]. But let us do it with love, especially love of the English, which is the cornerstone of our intellectual heritage; let us also do it with energy, the energy we need to put into the scientific paper [and the technical report] so that the reader will not need to use much energy to get the information out of the paper, and let us husband our materials, especially our words, so that we do not waste inordinate quantities of paper and ink in trying to tell the reader more than we know or more than the reader wants to know (Day, 1983:ix).”
Need we add anything to this in order to convince you of the importance of giving serious thought to language and style in planning your technical report writing?
Planning is of the essence in writing a good technical report. It is never a waste of time for you to spend as much time as is necessary to plan every aspect of technical report writing in as much detail as you can. In fact, much of your writing will be laboured and wasteful if you fail to devote sufficient time to planning it.
In this unit, you have been exposed to the ingredients of planning the writing of a good technical report. You are now set to start writing the technical report proper.
This unit is also the last of the first four study units comprising Module I of this course. Unit I of the module helped you to answer the question, “What is a technical report?” Unit 2 listed and described for you the components of a technical report while Unit 3 appraised the significance of technical report writing in science and technology. This final unit of Module 1 completes your necessary preparation for embarking on the writing of a good technical report on a subject of your choice.
In this unit, you have learned how to:
• identify and list the resources you will need for writing a good
• describe clearly and comprehensively the envisaged setting for your
• organise the components of your report in a coherent and logical
• determine the relevant primary and secondary materials you will
need to write the report; and
• justify your careful use of language and style in technical report
6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT
1. Identify and list the resources you will need for writing a good
2. Describe clearly and comprehensively the envisaged setting for your
3. Organise the components of your report in a coherent and logical