I’m sure we've all experienced the feeling when we've spent hours creating a detailed report with important information only for the reader to skim it and put it aside.
What if they missed an important point? How will they make a decision based on a quick skim read?
Or you write a short report on an issue with well-thought-out recommendations, and the reception is not as positive as you expected.
Most people don’t have spare hours to read each report that arrives on their desk. But they need to be able to find the important information quickly to make decisions.
The answer is to use the right structure for your content so that the important information will be read and understood. Once they have the key information, the reader can then decide whether they will need to read the entire report to fill in the detail.
Before you start
Before you even start writing, decide on a structure you think will work for your content.
Write out the headings that you think you will need.
You may find that you need to adjust the structure and the headings to fit the content as it develops. But keep going back to check that the structure will still work.
Here are eight ways to structure your document so that the reader is more likely to find and understand the key points. These are not the only ways, and you may need to tailor them a little to fit your content, but they’re a useful start.
1. Chronological order or narrative
This structure is included as it's good to know about, and it's useful in some situations and industries, but it's an example of what not to do. Avoid this structure for business documents.
This structure is similar to that used for technical or scientific reports, and it is often the first format writers turn to. It follows the writer’s process of providing background information, doing the research, and coming to a conclusion.
However, this is the least user-friendly structure for busy people in a business environment.
While it may seem logical, this structure has the conclusions and recommendations at the end, which means that a reader has a lot of content to get through before they get to the information that’s important to them, and they may just skim it – missing the main points.
Here is the outline of the narrative structure:
This structure is useful for short reports or emails, especially if you need to acknowledge that a problem has occurred and make suggestions on how to fix it.
As soon as they start reading, the reader will feel satisfied that you understand the problem. This helps create a positive relationship between you and the reader, and will create better outcomes for both sides.
Here is the outline of the problem–cause–solution structure:
This format is similar to the problem–cause–solution format and is useful for short reports or emails that need to show a solution to a problem.
As before, it describes the problem first so that reader knows it is understood. But in this structure, the expected outcomes are stated next, not at the end, so that these are easily found near the beginning of the report. It gives the reader satisfaction that there will be an action with a good outcome before they read all the detail on the how, why and recommendations.
Here is the outline for the situation–objective–appraisal–proposal structure:
This structure places the most important information first, then filters down to the least important information.
This format gives the reader the option to choose how much they need to read. The reader can understand the most important information first from the key information section, and then choose whether to read the discussion and details.
A longer report will need more than just three sections, so you can combine it with another structure such as a long report format.
On the left are the headings to use for a short report. The subheadings on the right are used to divide the three main headings.
This is a traditional report format, and is often used by students. It builds an argument by identifying each issue and analysing it before coming to a conclusion.
However, in a business setting, it is best to use this structure in combination with the telescoping or problem–cause–solution structures so that the important information comes first.
School report format:
In a longer report, exposition on its own is not complex enough to convey the detailed content needed to build an argument.
Here is the exposition structure in combination with telescoping and problem–cause–solution:
6. Long report
This is another structure that is useful for a detailed report or consultation.
You may want to write the discussion, conclusion and recommendations first, then write the summary and introduction once your main content is complete. As you research and write the report, the focus may change, meaning the summary may also change.
The recommendations come at the end in this format, but the summary should include enough detail that the reader can use it to understand the issues and recommendations quickly. This gives the reader the option to ignore the rest if they run out of time. The summary needs to cover the main issues, the conclusion and recommendations.
Each section, including the summary, can have subheadings (using one of the structures above) to make the content easier to find and follow.
Here is an outline of the long report structure:
7. Instructions for procedures
If you are writing a technical manual or procedures for staff, a step-by-step process is useful. It needs to be clear, preferably by using principles of plain language, and show the order of the steps to be taken.
The introduction and context may be a paragraph or two, or just a heading and one sentence, depending on the purpose context of the instructions. For example, a sign above a piece of machinery will need to be brief, whereas staff procedures can include more detail.
Here's an outline of a set of instructions:
8. Q & A format
If you know that the reader will have a lot of questions, you can structure your content into a Q & A format, for example FAQs. You will need to anticipate the questions that the reader may have, and there is a risk that you leave something out. But it’s a good way to engage readers.
Using a question turns what would have been a boring heading into something more engaging. Using part of the question in your answer helps readers to follow the thought. And it’s OK to have one- or two-word answers if that’s all that’s needed.
Here’s an example of a Q & A format:
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