Characteristics of Reports

Generally, the information in any report follows the same sequence.

1. Overview: This section states the purpose and/or problem that necessitates a report. (On a prepared form, the title and column heads may provide this information.) Sufficient information is provided for readers
to understand the context of the report.

2. Background: This optional section presents information dealing with methods of investigation as well as materials and equipment used.

3. Recommendations: This section identifies any conclusions and/or recommendations (usually in priority order). Sometimes a summary of the recommendations is placed near the beginning to save busy readers time, and then a more detailed discussion comes later in the report. Some informal reports do not need a separate section for recommendations.

4. Evidence: This section presents the results. Sometimes the results are summarized before being presented in detail. On a prepared form, this summary might be a final column showing net gain or good/fair/poor evaluation.

5. Discussion: This section explains or justifies the conclusions or recommendations on the basis of the supporting results. If the report does not contain recommendations, this section can review or summarize the major points. In an informal report, this section is often omitted.

You organize a document according to your understanding of your readers' attitudes. If they are generally receptive and positive, or at least neutral, your material should be organized with the most important information (problem statement and recommendations) first, followed by discussion and supporting details. If the readers have negative attitudes toward the subject of the document or might be opposed to its recommendations, the material should be organized with the recommendations at the end, to enable them to follow your reasoning.

To organize information for any kind of report, you will find the patterns introduced in this module particularly useful for responding to various situations and audiences. For some situations and audiences, only a straight chronological listing of actions or activities is required.

For example, a report describing a new accounting procedure could easily list the revised steps. Occasionally, spatial order will help you describe physical characteristics of objects, mechanisms, organisms, or locations. Cause and effect is valuable for projections and estimates; comparison and contrast is useful for reports surveying the similarities and differences between various equipment or services. In every case, the organization you use should be determined by your purpose and your readers' task.

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