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Better report writing isn’t just about getting your information in the right place – it’s also about communicating it appropriately. That means using the language, styles and conventions of academic writing. But ‘writing academically’ isn’t necessarily the same as ‘writing like an academic’. If you are a research postgraduate, journal articles can be a good model. But for most other students, this kind of written communication may be at the wrong level for the research you have been doing.
The key is to think of your proposed readers – who are you writing the report for? Is your audience likely to include readers outside of your discipline who will not understand highly technical terms? Or is it for your peers or colleagues (real or hypothetical)?
Writing academically means writing in such a way that your information sounds credible and authoritative. It does not mean:
• Using long words
• Writing complicated sentences with lots of semi-colons and colons
A good piece of advice is to ‘write to express, not to impress’. When you write a report you are communicating your knowledge about a set of actions to a reader. The key word here is communication. Long words, jargon, technical terms and overly complex sentences will make it more difficult for your reader to understand what you are trying to say.
Here are some suggestions to make your writing better and more academic:
Reports are a type of informative writing so conciseness is important in order to convey the crucial information to your audience as effectively and quickly as possible.
Here are some strategies to help you write concisely:
Important features of clear and concise writing also include accurate grammar and appropriate use of tenses and technical terms:
Grammar is the set of rules we all tacitly agree to use when we speak a language. Having a single set of rules is what makes it possible for us to communicate with each other by assigning meaning to words placed in a particular order. If you are a native English speaker, you have probably not thought very much about English grammar. However, careless use of grammar can distort your meaning and make your communication ineffective.
A thorough description of English grammar is beyond the scope of this website but simple strategies like reading your work aloud will often make mistakes like fragmented sentences obvious. If you want to improve your grammar generally, an excellent resource with lots of exercises and activities is The Internet Grammar of English which is free to users from UK Higher Education institutions.
The more you can impose control and structure on your writing, the easier it will be for others to understand what you are trying to say. So as well as structuring your overall report carefully, each paragraph you write should also be structured.
Keep to one main point per paragraph. Start with an introductory ‘topic sentence’ which shows what the paragraph will be concerned with e.g. ‘Another important thing to consider with psychological testing is the environment in which the testing takes place’. Follow this with your arguments or statements, supported by evidence and critical analysis where appropriate. Close the paragraph with a concluding sentence that sums up what’s been presented.
An important difference between essays and reports is that while essays are written in a single narrative voice from beginning to end, reports are written in sections which may use different styles of writing, depending on the purpose of the section.
So, for instance, your Methods and Results sections will be factual and descriptive, your Introduction will be explanatory, and your Literature Survey and Discussion sections will be discursive and analytical.
There are also conventions for when you should use different tenses. The general rules are:
So you might write: ‘Smith (2005) argues that the precise dimensions of this variable are not crucial. However, our experiment showed wide variations in results when the variable was altered even slightly. We conclude that the correct choice of dimensions is a significant factor in achieving success with this procedure.’
It always used to be recommended in academic writing that you used the passive voice – ‘the experiment was conducted’ rather than ‘we conducted the experiment’. Most people recognise now that this can make writing pompous and overly complicated. Using the active voice (i.e. ‘I did’, ‘we did’ instead of ‘It was done’) makes your writing clearer and the actions you are reporting easier to understand.
However, you should check any instructions you have for guidelines on this. If you are in any doubt, it may still be safer to use the passive voice.
Do use appropriate technical terms but try to avoid jargon – consider who is likely to read your report and whether they will understand the terms you use. Abbreviations and acronyms are used if you have terms that are likely to be used a lot and are commonly known by their abbreviated form or acronym (for instance, dia. for diameter; NSPCC for National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).
It may be helpful to briefly explain a technical term the first time you use it. Likewise, when an abbreviation or acronym may be new or unfamiliar to the reader, the first time you use it you should also show the full term, for example ‘the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE)’. Thereafter you should just use the acronym.
There may also be lists of standard abbreviations that are used for the most important journals in your discipline. Ask in your department or check your library’s Reference section.
For some reports you may be asked to provide a glossary – a list of specialist terms used in the report. This may include technical terms, abbreviations and/or acronyms. You only need to include those terms that may be unfamiliar to the intended reader: for instance, you would not need to explain that ‘Sept.’ was short for ‘September’.
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