The 7 DEADLY SINS of Report Writing

By Feierman, Joanne | The Journal of Government Financial Management, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The 7 DEADLY SINS of Report Writing


Feierman, Joanne, The Journal of Government Financial Management


It's unanimous: everyone agrees that reports must be clear and concise. However, achieving that goal is fraught with peril. Here are seven pitfalls or "sins" to he armed against if you want your reports to excel.

1. Not understanding today's reader

The first principle of effective communication is "know your reader," and it is here that many financial managers fall short. That's because they envision readers going through their reports page by page in printed form. In fact, many readers, if not the most of them, read reports on laptops, tablets and even smartphones. They might read the report in a quiet office or a noisy airport. And these multitasking, busy readers demand that they receive essential information quickly. Today's readers are impatient - they don't like to scroll down to find the conclusion. They also have short attention spans, so they expect to receive only essential information. They want to see an executive summary on the first screen. The days of long introductions are gone.

2. Not creating easy-to-read sentences

Readers should be able to understand each sentence without struggling.

Here's a finding taken from an audit report: "Inadequate internal controls at the Office of the Commissioner of Probation over the indigence determination process and improper maintenance of court records by district courts has resulted in inadequate assurance that $50 million in legal services was provided to eligible defendants." Most readers will have to read this sentence several times before they understand the important point being made in it. That's because it is buried in an avalanche of words.

To make sentences clear, writers should keep three points in mind. First, when writing for the public, writers must use the language of their readers, not their professional jargon. (In this case, citizens will probably not know what internal controls are or what the indigence determination process is.) Second, active sentences are clearer than passive ones. Third, sentences should not be overly long. Applying these three good writing principles to the sentence from the report produces a very different sentence: "The Office of the Commissioner of Probation did not ensure that those who received free legal services were, in fact, eligible for those services. As a result, $50 million in legal services may have been provided to defendants who were not indigent."

3. Putting everything in the report

Report writers must be discriminating. They should recognize that although they will discover many things as they delve into their topic, only a few of those discoveries will appear in the report. Each fact conveyed should be there for a reason; facts that do not help make a point will simply distract your reader's attention from the main message.

The following advice for writers is attributed to Chekhov, the Russian playwright and short story writer: "If you mention in a story that there is a gun on the mantel, then that gun has to be fired by the end of the story." The same advice is good for financial managers. Don't include points that do not contribute to your main messages. If you do, you will simply distract your reader.

Keep in mind that the word "report" means to carry back. As a writer you are carrying back selected information to the reader. Don't be guilty of the sin of pride - thinking that everything you know or have learned in the research is worthy of carrying back to the reader.

4. Not trying to identify the main issues as you conduct the research

A few months ago, I was speaking with a budget analyst who told me that as soon as she begins research for a report, she starts asking herself questions: "What are the most important things I want to communicate about this topic? What will probably be worth putting in the executive summary?" This is an excellent approach, and maintaining it throughout the fact-gathering and writing process will help writers produce valuable reports. …

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