How to Write A Report That Will Be Read

Although this material can apply to any report, it is primarily intended for reports based on data. This tutorial covers the following topics:

  • Problems with reports
  • The need written reports
  • The difference between data and information
  • Tips on converting data into information
  • Using a format to reach different audiences efficiently
  • How to evaluate your reports
  • Reports for business vs. journals

Problems with Reports

Often after reading a report, the reader has the following problems:

  • the reader doesn’t know what the recommendations are
  • the reader doesn’t know what the conclusions are
  • the report style is often a barrier to having the reader try to read the report

Due to their style, many reports are not really read, but skimmed – thus “reading” used above means any activity that the reader chooses.

Don’t believe it? Try the following exercise. Select a report that you have written and give it to three people. Ask them to read it (often a challenge in itself). Then, ask everyone to state the recommendations and conclusions of the report. Do these match what you intended?

The Need for Written Reports

There is sometimes a tendency to forgo writing a report and instead verbally summarizing the results of a study (almost always “to save time”).

The advantages of writing a report are:

  • experience has shown that written recommendations and conclusions often differ from verbal recommendations and conclusions
    • there is a different psychology involved between preparing a verbal report (e.g., largely ephemeral even if minutes are taken) and preparing something in writing
  • documentation: written recommendations and conclusions will be available if needed in the future
  • legal, GMP, etc.

Data and Information

Definitions:

Data – Facts and figures

Information – Knowledge gained from data

The goal of a good report is to transform data into information or, putting it another way, have the report do the work – not the reader.

A prerequisite for a good report is to have a clear goal that is being addressed. Many problems, including unreadable reports, stem from unclear goals.

Assuming that:

  • there is a clear goal
  • meaningful data have been collected to address the goal

then the task is to transform data into information through

  • data analysis and summaries
  • and putting the information into an easy to read format

Below is a somewhat extreme example of the difference between data and information.

These are data

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M1TE&.#EA/“\`+,“”\O_U-3_W%Q_Y”0_[*R_]/3__W]_____P“““““

M““““““““““`”‘Y!`$“`<`(?X<56QE860@1TE&(%-M87)T4V%V

M97(@5F5R(#(N,“L““`#P`/“`!/_PR$FKO<=<H[‘_X-15(\6%:”J6TED5

MK”I;1D&S=9SILY>3K`+LUL/PA”0;!9GD]5ROH4C9(E`GS.(M9K”:K@7O4JJE

MD2<$PJB[%+>R98LPZ#X0*.E2?@.=U<Y=:F@B`W=8=2M.*&&”:`-4`QT%A2)[

M7V<?3HPCDX8’D1($CXY7!T*8F7UMC7:CGQT#H*:4;:@@?SJBGIT2`C8&L2VQ

M8)9^ISBZ$[$:OAD”ALE5Q45″5B7`K@3/!\T%S08″LEV%BBF!=9.CX`/<-@,”

M&N]*Z:Q`JA]AA53>H`0!!@’NA#.U;1:M),?\B”(G@5^&@`$/1!0`CZ”K*6GF

ME$F7+>*[9P#_NP2PH>VBJ309G7!8J5(;2#L!`1;R)Y&=/UDG8UD+P>&43RX?

M2?Z+I9.F/T/C=-K*5`UERB4″`K`;\&_2/P!6[W2AJ”].AFI$E7;P-_(=,`”%

MJ’*@*K6>US<+*8831`”`J’`#T,*C^M((2Y9/:KP+0%A-7JZ^!*!=P\BITY_E

M4(P+H%<NO’11`U@FBO+8O51_FJ8):QEOT8R>(]L[A9*H9<)X86S.VU8U:)^.

M’9,YZ^NCXDAD-3_Z#/HO\0S:I*X+6L@N<M]BWY(013B2S+J1N!8H##<L:ML>

M\E&D&[“`*GF`=[A>Z5&;HTRW’,>&S%@V$@1O87CXM,SSWQ=”>-1_P”MX”>2

M5BZY90)@/C2&CCRFQ+05-S:-U!!1I<37%”:3?$.1’3#!%$\SSS&D84(6+*2$

M-NZ$J%X&$#:D2X8^K&3$0I(,!(X=%9EE4`F-@>>#+AT`4Y$W!)%44#K7A`”

M$RCA08LV!&D53″@’30&?0@_*$HPWT%P4#4)”?H6(*$I@,XLAO$A#XP[@A?;”

M0;P`XPF:E2!B@CE;2C,”GG9BD64@;YKSF9-X”!)(GDTNQ=-GB^:)AB<GE?*’

M=%$`Z48QD7Y1YBU/(BJCIEP<U\.3)W%2SZ5$2/=#%&,$\>:G?IG1’B:O8@K$

B!H”@XJBN9C31*K”/#KLGL<7NBFP1.IBZ[`:ST$9;000`.P“

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end

 

The above data have been converted into information.

In this example, the ‘data’ have the same content as the ‘information’ (the data is the uuencoded gif file, whose alternative representation is shown by the above figure).

Data Analysis Tips (A longer version of this section is covered in actual training sessions)

Some suggestions for converting data into information.

Convert raw data into:

  • plots
  • tabular summaries
  • other summaries

The progression is data->information as one goes from the raw data to data summaries to plots.

Brainstorming about unsummarized data is often appropriate during the data analysis phase, but “discussing” (e.g., summarizing) raw data at a meeting because the report does not have summaries, is inefficient.

Use units that are meaningful to the reader. For example, use concentration rather than response units and resist the temptation to be esoteric (a glucose value of 320 mg/dL means more to most than a glucose value of 310 nanoamps).

Focus on the question being addressed. Example: Is A different than B?

If the report contains only two columns of results (A and B) then the reader must perform the subtraction, which is implied by the question is A different than B. In a better report, this subtraction has already been done as a third column.

A Report Template

Here is a report format that highlights information – not data.

  1. PURPOSE
  2. BACKGROUND/PROTOCOL OUTLINE
  3. RECOMMENDATIONS
  4. CONCLUSIONS
  5. RESULTS
  6. DATA

Attributes of this report format are:

  • Within 3-6, and going from bottom to top
    • data are being transformed into information
    • sections get shorter
    • for a correctly written report, each section is supported by the one below it
  • People know where the recommendations and conclusions are
  • People who only want to read the recommendations can do so quickly

Descriptions of the report sections:

Purpose describes why you are writing the report, i.e., why was the experiment performed.

Background contains introductory information about the project and often contains an outline of the protocol (the full protocol is often appended).

Recommendations are actions such as: use 1 mmol/L phosphate (rather than: 1 mmol/L was found to be optimum, which is a conclusion). The purpose and background sections should be short enough so that the recommendations start on the first page.

Conclusions are a concise summary of results. Individual recommendations and conclusions should be numbered and placed in separate paragraphs

Results are a description of the assumptions, data analysis methods, theory, etc. Results contain data summaries, tables, plots This is also a good place to document the system configuration, i.e., serial number, lot numbers, etc.

Data are the numbers or inputs to the experiment. Data can also contain summaries but there should be a trail to the raw dat

Symptoms of problem reports and remedies

 

Symptom Remedy
People call and ask ” what’s the bottom line” Use recommendations
You have to call a meeting to discuss the report Use report format
You get no response (because no one has read it) Use report format
You get back a marked up copy Use proper English, a spell checker, don’t go overboard on fonts

 

Reports for businesses vs. journals

I was invited to write a Letter to the Editor about this topic for the journal Clinical Chemistry. This resulted because during a review of a manuscript I pointed out a problem that the conclusions were not supported by the results and suggested that the report format suggested above might be helpful. The Letter was published (1). However, the editors decided not to adapt this suggestion.

References

  1. Jan S. Krouwer: Proposal to add an optional Recommendations section to Clinical Chemistry Abstracts. Clin Chem, 2002;48:2292.
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