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How to write a sharp report

Published on: 31 Aug 2017

wed_report_istock [square]Reports are planners’ bread and butter. You don’t have to be Shakespeare to write a good one, but you do need a clear framework, a lively style and a capacity to write crisp analysis. The Planner shares five tips to enable you to be the toast of town planning when putting pen to paper.

Sitting at a desk and cranking out a lengthy formal report when you could be on site, meeting developers and advising councillors – it’s not exactly what you may have envisaged as an undergraduate.

Writing a report will always be somewhat exacting, but "formal" need not be code for "boring". Report writing can actually be uncomplicated, creative and satisfying. 

Pitfalls await even the most experienced of planners, however. The potential audience for a report can be very broad and many readers will not share your depth of knowledge or level of educational attainment.

So, whatever you’re writing, it’s important to balance the need for clarity with the need for technical accuracy and credibility, without being either too simplistic or too jargon-heavy. It goes without saying that every report has to be thoroughly fact-checked to avoid mistakes, too.

Writing trainer Judi Goodwin, who has worked extensively with planners, recommends defining your audience, purpose and objectives clearly at the outset and then getting the logistics organised as early as possible.

We’ve broken the RTPI’s guidance into five manageable chunks, from defining the topic to presenting a case and making recommendations.

1. Do your research

Check with your organisation whether they have a standard template to follow but bear in mind that it will probably need relevant adjustments. Then soak up as much information as possible: speak to the public, developers and planning officers (on site if you can); make more detailed enquiries to research bodies, trade unions and professional associations; and sift through and read academic papers.

2. Structure it correctly

Your report should be broken down into the following components:

- a front page that includes some or all of: title and subtitle, author(s) and organisation, who the report is for, the date of publication

- a table of contents

introductory pages outlining the purpose of the report and summarising your main findings

- the main body of the report, in sections, setting out the facts that lead the reader to a logical conclusion (see Building the body, below)

- concluding pages drawing together your main arguments and recommendations, which may contain conclusions on the present situation, problems and options, as well as recommendations for the future

- supplementary pages, including references, bibliography, further reading, glossary, appendixes.

3. The executive summary

This is 200-400 words long and will include your purpose, main conclusions and recommendations. Write your executive summary last. It’s convention in many types of planning document to summarise the findings and recommendations either at the end of the report or at the end of each section.

However, in the world of commerce, an executive summary appears at the front of a report, so consider this as an option.

Do include:

- the subject of the report

the scope of the study and its purpose

- your methods used

- results and recommendations.

Don’t include:

- the background to the study

complex figures

- anything not contained in the full report. 

4. Organise your team

If the report is to be produced by a team of people, you must clarify your roles – who will do what? Will there be multiple writers or just one?
You might appoint an editor to collate the information, ensure a uniform style and avoid repetition in the report. In terms of logistics, fix a printing date and create a schedule that works backwards from that.

5. Make it reader-friendly

A planning report is not a work of art but a functional document. As such, it must be tidy, accessible and inviting.
To achieve this, you might like to use pull-out quotes or experiment with fonts to emphasise important points.

Make sure that your text is well-spaced for ease of reading and that there is plenty of white space, too, so the reader doesn’t not feel overwhelmed by text. It’s also a good idea to break up chunks of text with photos, maps, graphs and graphics – but make sure they have explanatory captions.

Building the body

The main body is the most important part of any report, but it’s also the most daunting to plan and write.
The trick is to break the big task into smaller, more manageable jobs.

Start by asking yourself what your main purpose is and jot down a list of your initial ideas for chapter topics to get a sense of your journey from start to finish.

Next, brainstorm a more comprehensive list of ideas, highlighting key themes, and allocate them to your initial chapters.
These will form the basis of your research and help you to delegate tasks to your team (if you have one) and create your schedule. 

In general, your order of chapters and the development of points within chapters should follow logical steps from one topic to another and flow naturally towards your conclusion.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that you should highlight your most important or interesting points close to the beginning of the report. This is one reason why having an executive summary at the start of a report makes sense.

Click here to research report writing courses in the RTPI training and events calendar

Illustration | iStock