Helpful Advice for Producing Effective Academic Reports
The careers enjoyed by academics, scientists, medical practitioners and many other highly educated professionals tend to be tracked and recorded careers. A developing curriculum vitae or résumé that is updated each year with new publications, new research projects and new teaching duties is a perfect example of this fact. Reports of all kinds – academic, scientific, business, financial, technical, medical and so on – are another means of recording, verifying and disseminating information about plans, activities and progress, and, like résumés, they are produced for a variety of reasons.
For postsecondary and postgraduate students, reports can be an essential part of completing course work, earning grades and academic credit, and winning a place in higher degree programmes. For scholars, instructors and researchers, reports can validate important projects, substantiate procedures and theories, and both gain and retain necessary funding. For business professionals, reports can demonstrate the practicality and economic feasibility of projects, record progress and suggest new directions for development, and analyse and improve products, policies and practices. For all of these individuals and many others, reports can lead to career opportunities and advancement, but only if every report reflects well on its author and his or her professional activities.
Scholarly and professional reports must be written in language that is absolutely clear and correct, yet reports tend to be required of those who are not comfortable with expressing themselves in writing just as frequently as they are required of those who are. If articulating your ideas, plans, procedures, results and conclusions clearly in text is a challenge for you, writing a report may prove particularly daunting and require a considerable amount of time. Errors in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, spelling and punctuation not only look unprofessional and sloppy, but can also confuse and mislead readers, so they must be avoided at all costs, as must simple typing mistakes and errors or inconsistencies in factual information. Having someone who possesses a greater expertise in scholarly writing than your own read your report with a critical eye and offer corrections and improvements can be immensely helpful, so do recruit a trusted mentor or colleague or perhaps engage the services of a professional academic or scientific proofreader to assist you in polishing your writing.
It can be useful to remember that reports that are packed with information of a complex and sophisticated nature are significantly enhanced by strategies that increase accessibility and enhance the comprehension of readers, many of whom must understand very quickly and yet very thoroughly the content of the reports they read, although in many cases they may not be specialists in the relevant subject areas. A document divided into sections and subsections is much easier to navigate than one without them, especially if catchy and informative headings introduce and define each section. The careful use of white space to highlight the divisions can also improve the effectiveness of these organisational tools. Lists, tables, graphs, charts, maps and other figures can present in immediately discernible forms material that would be tedious and obscure for many readers were it described and explained in text. Tables of contents, indices and appendices can render long, complex and detailed stretches of information manageable even for those readers unfamiliar with the material. A summary of the key points and most vital information can appear at the beginning of a report or at its close, and it is sometimes helpful to provide such a summary in both places.
Keep in mind that elements of structure and formatting will only be successful if they are thoughtfully designed with the anticipated readers in mind and then carefully implemented with precision and consistency throughout a report. Inconsistent heading patterns, for instance, can confuse a reader they are meant to assist, and tables and figures that are poorly labelled and full of undefined abbreviations will muddle rather than clarify important data and trends. These aspects of reports must therefore be carefully checked and adjusted to ensure the best possible presentation before a report is shared with its intended audience.