Report Writing

by James Dixon

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Writing or editing a report can be a tough task, especially if you haven’t done it a few times before. My two-day ANU Centre for Continuing Education course, Report writing, teaches you how to get the task done with the least grief to produce a concise, effective, cut-through document.

If you’re writing for business, you’ll save (or make) money with a well-written report. If you’re writing for government, you can avoid becoming a target for critical leader writers:

Editorial, The Australian, 19 July 2008

“As the real debate begins about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, The Weekend Australian has a modest request: can we please have this discussion in English? The science and economics are diabolical enough for heaven’s sake without having to struggle with the tortuous prose most politicians, bureaucrats and, yes, even journalists regularly adopt at the first whiff of greenhouse gas …

“The torture continued in this week’s green paper. It was thoughtful of its authors to provide a 15-page glossary to help the uneducated hordes who don’t know their RMUs from their PFCs. But by geosequestrating a few tonnes of redundant clauses, they could have cut 516 pages in half, made their arguments more intelligible and saved a Tasmanian forest or two into the bargain.”

Erk. Sounds like those who prepared the green paper on emissions trading should have done my course.
I’ll show you proven methods for producing a coherent, cut-to-the-chase, report that delivers its message to your intended readership, whether that’s your boss, your board of directors, your departmental secretary, your minister or the Australian public.

I start with just enough grammar so that you can apply one particular writer’s and editor’s technique. When you learn it and use it, your report will make as much sense to someone who ‘skims’ it as to someone who reads every word. Since most reports aren’t read all the way through, it’s pretty obvious that this is a very useful tool.

Next up, some advice about how to project-manage a group of subject matter experts, writers, editors and other specialists:

  • estimating the cost of work by professional writers, editors, proofreaders and indexers
  • using some tools to create the document’s structure
  • assigning writing tasks to fill the structure
  • what to look for in non-text elements (charts, images, tables).

For the writing task, we look at:

  • finding information and assessing it logically
  • writing the text, including aiming for plain English and using that professional trick I mentioned (the one about how to write for ‘skimmers’).

We move on to the tasks of the substantive editor:

  • rewriting others’ work
  • constructing the executive summary.

And then to copyediting:

  • the 16 most common interventions by copyeditors—what to look out for and how to fix it
  • using some little-known functions of Word to perform otherwise tedious, repetitive copyediting actions
  • raising and resolving queries with writers.

And then to proofreading and indexing:

  • proofreading tips
  • using standard proofreaders’ marks to communicate with designers
  • verifying proofs
  • working with indexers.

All stages of my course use some written and cut-and-paste exercises, done individually or in groups.
I’ll also supply you with checklists used by professional proofreaders and editors, which will allow you to perform those tasks (mostly) one time only for each report.
At the end of the course, you should be able to produce reports that deliver value for money and get your information, policy argument or sales case across to your readers.
At the very least, you’ll avoid the ire of the leader writers at The Australian!

James Dixon

James Dixon is a writer and an accredited editor who has been based in Canberra since 2001. He has written and edited for most Australian Government departments, many national and state government agencies, large commercial consultancies, some notable think tanks and various international organisations and researchers.
James has a reputation for using clear, unambiguous, plain English. When he writes or edits a piece of work, no reader with an education to Year 10 level has to backtrack and read any of it a second time to understand it.

Updated:  30 May 2017/ Responsible Officer:  CCE Manager/ Page Contact:  CCE Webmaster