3 Report Writing Mistakes That Make You Look Unprofessional and How to Fix Them
Listen to the podcast here.
Reports are a reflection of your credibility.
Credibility is the top character trait you need to be successful as a business leader, manager, or supervisor. If you are not credible, people won’t trust you or believe you.
Credibility is the quality or power of inspiring belief
Whether you are an inspector, field supervisor, manager, or business owner, you will eventually have to write reports. And your reports will be read by people other than your boss. Chances are good that they will be read by a third party like an engineer or safety professional. And the customer.
As a manager or supervisor, if you are passing reports up the chain of command, you are responsible for those as well. Those reports will reflect on your credibility.
What kinds of reports are we talking about?
If you search the web you’ll find thousands of articles on types of reports. Those articles break them into sub-classes and sub-sub-classes and can get quite confusing rather quickly. In this article, we’re referring to the general class of progress reports, though the ideas apply to all types of reports.
Why do we write reports?
Your boss, your customer, engineering, sales, legal, HR, or safety want to know what you are working on. There are three key pieces of information they are looking for when they read your report:
- Progress – They want to know how much progress has been made on the project and how much is left. They want a picture of the job flow.
- Proof – They want proof that the work is being done and that it is being done correctly. They want information that helps them build an image of the work going on.
- Pay – Your company wants to get paid – and they want to pay you. If you can’t help them get paid, what do you imagine the consequences would be?
The goal of most reports is to satisfy those three main reasons. There are other report types and reasons, such as analytic and statistical reports, and they also share the same issues. When you don’t create a clear picture of progress, with proof, your company won’t get paid. Both you and your company lose credibility.
The Three Mistakes
I interviewed executives, operations, and project managers. When I told them what I was writing about and before I could ask any questions each of them jumped in with this advice:
They each said that Mistake #1 is trying to make yourself look sophisticated. Their advice is to remember that when your reports are clear, concise, easy to read and understand, you will look intelligent. I know several managers whose job includes reviewing reports for accuracy and readability – and they all agree that people make the mistake of thinking that using big words and ideas will make them look more sophisticated.
Write like your reader doesn’t know anything about you’re work. Or write like you’re trying to explain it to an eighth-grader.
How do you do this? Use good grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Use fewer, shorter, simpler words and shorter paragraphs.
Here’s an easy way to get started: Write your report like you normally would. Then go back and edit it. Then edit again. Each time you are cleaning the report up, making it more concise and easier to understand. The more often you do this the more you learn, and eventually, the process gets faster and easier.
Good writing is good editing.
At first, the process of editing will feel clunky and time-consuming. There are tools that can help you with this.
The best tool is your brain. You know when you are trying to outsmart your audience. And they know when you’re trying to outsmart them. Stop, think, and ask, “Will they stumble on my words when they read it?” As soon as they stumble you start to lose them. When your words flow it makes it easier for them to keep reading.
The next best tool is surprisingly, your mouth. Trying this one idea will make a critical shift in your writing – for the better. When you write a sentence say the words out loud. The reason this works is because as we read our brains fill in missing letters and even whole words.
But when we have to read it out loud, we stumble and catch ourselves when words or letters are missing. You might be thinking that I just made the case for not worrying about the little details, but it’s different when we’re reading a report that we just wrote versus one that we’ve never read.
Ask yourself this, “When I read it out loud do I stumble or hesitate?” If you do stumble, stop, and fix it.
Finally, don’t rely on Word or Excel’s internal dictionaries and editors. They are incorrect so often I refuse to use them anymore. I use a software called Grammarly The free version will highlight possible issues and errors. But not always. And sometimes what Grammarly thinks is a mistake is perfectly acceptable. Ultimately, you are the final judge. (Remember the best tool?)
A final thought about using software to help you edit. Often software suggests you use higher-level vocabulary as if big words make you look smarter. Remember Mistake #1?
The most powerful report writers help the reader create a mental picture of what is happening. When all or part of your report is out of context the reader can’t create a mental picture. They can’t see the project or progress in their mind.
You can this by creating context in communication. If you can’t use images like photos, drawings, or charts, then give enough detail to help the reader ‘see’ the situation in their mind.
With today’s technology reports can and do contain images. But images or photos alone don’t always tell the whole story. If the photo doesn’t have all the detail then the caption must put the image in context.
Which caption would make more sense?
Here’s an example: It’s a photo of a man making a weld on a piece of pipe. By itself, the photo is not very meaningful to your reader. Anyone can do a web search for pictures of a man welding pipe. So, use a caption that creates context.
- “Making a weld”
- “Welding the final connection on the 24” liquid drain off of the #2 low-pressure separator.”
Caption #2 helps the engineer or project manager immediately ‘see’ what is going on and where.
When you add detail to the caption your reader has context. This helps them form an image of what is being worked on.
I’ll let you in on a secret – your report may eventually be read by an attorney, a judge, and maybe even a jury.
Why? Because you are a witness.
Whatever your title is if you are writing and submitting reports, you are a witness to the events that happened, and an important part of your job is to document those events.
Imagine you are in court on the witness stand or in a conference room giving a deposition. An attorney asks you to read your report out loud to everyone in the room. Then they ask you to interpret your report. Years later can you go back and do that? Can you tell the world with confidence that what you saw was documented properly?
And even if you can tell them, will they believe you? Keeping that in mind creates a good framework for understanding how to write better reports.
Report writing, like any other skill, takes time and discipline to develop. The more often you do something whether it’s writing, bowling, fishing, or operating equipment the better you can get. I say ‘can get’ and not ‘will get’ because you can’t just write – you have to focus, learn, and edit.
If report writing is part of your job your company will be evaluating you on your ability to be clear, concise, and conveying an image of the work. You don’t want your readers stumbling on your words. And you don’t want your career to stumble on them either.
If you know or even sense that you may have to write a report or just discuss a job or event with someone that may not be familiar with the topic, start your day with that in mind. Think about how you will describe the events and progress with them.
Make notes, take photos, create sketches, keeping everything possible in context.
Be proud of the fact that you are a writer!
Whenever you write for someone else to read, you are an author. Ask any of the millions of authors out there if they were born with good writing skills and they will all tell you, “No! Like any other skill I had to develop it.”