Sanjeev Nanda on How to Write a Good Report

1 Jul

This post describes how to write a good report. This is based on common mistakes I have observed over a period of time. While most of the following apply in general, they have been written with management and engineering students in mind.

Sanjeev Nanda how to guides

Report writing is nothing short of an Art

Structure of a report

The following should roughly be the structure of a report. Note that these are just guidelines, not rules. You have to use your intelligence in working out the details of your specific writing.

  • Title and abstract: These are the most-read parts of a report. This is how you attract attention to your writing. The title should reflect what you have done and should bring out any eye-catching factor of your work, for good impact.The abstract should be short, generally within about 2 paragraphs (250 words or so total). The abstract should contain the essence of the report, based on which the reader decides whether to go ahead with reading the report or not. It can contain the following in varying amounts of detail as is appropriate: main motivation, main design point, essential difference from previous work, methodology, and some eye-catching results if any.
  • Introduction: Most reports start with an introduction section. This section should answer the following questions (not necessarily in that order, but what is given below is a logical order). After title/abstract introduction and conclusions are the two mainly read parts of a report.
    • What is the setting of the problem? This is, in other words, the background. In some cases, this may be implicit, and in some cases, merged with the motivation below.
    • What exactly is the problem you are trying to solve? This is the problem statement.
    • Why is the problem important to solve? This is the motivation. In some cases, it may be implicit in the background, or the problem statement itself.
    • Is the problem still unsolved? The constitutes the statement of past/related work crisply.
    • Why is the problem difficult to solve? This is the statement of challenges.
    • How have you solved the problem? Here you state the essence of your approach. This is of course expanded upon later, but it must be stated explicitly here.
    • What are the conditions under which your solution is applicable? This is a statement of assumptions.
    • What are the main results? You have to present the main summary of the results here.
    • What is the summary of your contributions? This in some cases may be implicit in the rest of the introduction. Sometimes it helps to state contributions explicitly.
    • How is the rest of the report organized? Here you include a paragraph on the flow of ideas in the rest of the report. For any report beyond 4-5 pages, this is a must.

    The introduction is nothing but a shorter version of the rest of the report, and in many cases the rest of the report can also have the same flow. Think of the rest of the report as an expansion of some of the points in the introduction. Which of the above bullets are expanded into separate sections (perhaps even multiple sections) depends very much on the problem.

  • Background: This is expanded upon into a separate section if there is sufficient background which the general reader must understand before knowing the details of your work. It is usual to state that “the reader who knows this background can skip this section” while writing this section.
  • Past/related work: It is common to have this as a separate section, explaining why what you have done is something novel. Here, you must try to think of dimensions of comparison of your work with other work. For instance, you may compare in terms of functionality, in terms of performance, and/or in terms of approach. EAlthough not mandatory, it is good presentation style to give the above comparison in terms of a table; where the rows are the various dimensions of comparison and the columns are various pieces of related work, with your own work being the first/last column.While in general you try to play up your work with respect to others, it is also good to identify points where your solution is not so good compared to others. If you state these explicitly, the reader will feel better about them, than if you do not state and the reader figures out the flaws in your work anyway :-).Another point is with respect to the placement of related work. One possibility is to place it in the beginning of the report (after intro/background). Another is to place it in the end of the report (just before conclusions). This is a matter of judgment, and depends on the following aspect of your work. If there are lots of past work related very closely to your work, then it makes sense to state upfront as to what the difference in your approach is. On the other hand, if your work is substantially different from past work, then it is better to put the related work at the end. While this conveys a stronger message, it has the risk of the reader wondering all through the report as to how your work is different from some other specific related work.
  • Future work: This section in some cases is combined along with the “conclusions” section. Here you state aspects of the problem you have not considered and possibilities for further extensions.
  • Conclusions: Readers usually read the title, abstract, introduction, and conclusions. In that sense, this section is quite important. You have to crisply state the main take-away points from your work. How has the reader become smarter, or how has the world become a better place because of your work?

Refinement

Sanjeev Nanda how to guides

Start Writing early don't wait for the last moment

No report is perfect, and definitely not on the first version. Well written reports are those which have gone through multiple rounds of refinement. This refinement may be through self-reading and critical analysis, or more effectively through peer-feedback (or feedback from advisor/instructor).

Here are some things to remember:

  • Start early, don’t wait for the completion of your work in its entirety before starting to write.
  • Each round of feedback takes about a week at least. And hence it is good to have a rough version at least a month in advance. For a good quality report, it is good to have a rough version at least 2 months in advance.
  • Feedback should go through the following stages ideally: (a) you read it yourself fully once and revise it, (b) have your peers review it and give constructive feedback, and then (c) have your advisor/instructor read it.

Recommended strategy for producing a high-quality report

Based on the above, I recommend the following strategy for students who want to produce a high-quality report, which would then have a high potential for being turned into a publication:

  • Think through the outline of the report even as you are working on the details of the problem. Such thinking will also lend focus to your work and you will end up optimizing the returns on the time invested.
  • Two months before the actual deadline, you have to have at least a paragraph-level outline of the report, with all details worked out.
  • After one round of critical analysis by yourselves (or by your group), have another student or another group review it, perhaps in exchange for you reviewing their work. Have them check your flow of ideas. While it may be good to get someone working in the same area, for much of the feedback, this may not really be necessary.
  • Now you are probably about 6-7 weeks from the deadline. At this point, have your advisor/instructor give feedback on the paragraph-level outline. Getting this early is important since, based on this, you may have to reorganize your report, rework your theorems, or rerun your experiments/simulations.
  • Have a pre-final version of the report ready 2 weeks before the deadline. Again, go through one round of self/peer-feedback, and then advisor/instructor feedback.
  • With these 3-4 rounds of revision and critical analysis, the quality of your report is bound to improve. And since many of the student theses are of good quality, quality of writing dramatically improves chances of publication.
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