Online Technical Writing: Technical Reports
In this chapter you learn about technical reports, their different types, and their typical audiences and situations. In a technical writing course, your task is typically to pick a report topic, report audience and situation, report purpose, and report type. This planning leads directly into proposals.
About the Technical Report
The major focus of many technical writing courses is the technical report. Just about everything you study, everything you write, is geared toward preparing you to write this final report. The early, short assignment involving instructions or descriptions and the like give you practice using headings, lists, notices, and graphics; in handling numbers and abbreviations; and of course in producing good, clear, well-organized writing.
For many students, the technical report is the longest document they've ever written. It normally involves some research; often the information comes not only from published sources in the library, but also sources outside the library, including nonpublished things such as interviews, correspondence, and video tapes. It may also be the fanciest document: it uses binding and covers and has special elements such as a table contents, title page, and graphics.
As you think about what you want to write about for this project, don't shy away from topics you are curious about or interested in, but don't know much about. You don't need to do exhaustive research; normally, you can pull together information for an excellent report from several books and a half-dozen articles. Your real focus is the writing: how well adapted to a specific audience it is, how clear and readable it is, how it flows, how it's organized, how much detail it provides. You are also focused on format: how well you use headings, lists, notices; how well you incorporate graphics; how well you handle the front- and back-matter elements; and how nice a job you do of turning out the final copy of the report.
You don't need to be a trained graphic designer to produce a fine-looking report. Basic word-processing skills and a decent printer and access to nice (but inexpensive) binding are all you need. Plan on doing a first-rate job on the report; remember that past students have shown prospective employers their reports and have benefited by doing so.
If you are planning a technical report, your job in this unit then is define the following:
Front cover of a final report. Do a great job on your final report, and then put a copy of it in your fancy briefcase when you go job-interviewing.
You can do these in any order: for some people, it helps to start by defining an audience or a report type first. For others, beginning by picking a topic is more stimulating. Once you have defined these elements, you can start testing your report-project ideas by asking yourself these questions:
Types of Technical Reports
Depending on the technical writing course you are taking, you can choose to write one of the following types Of reports (details on contents, organization, and format for some of these reports can be found in report structure):
Technical-background report. The background report is the hardest to define but the most commonly written. This type of technical report provides background on a topic—for example, solar energy, global warming, CD-ROM technology, a medical problem, or U.S. recycling activity (see Figure 2-2 for more topic ideas). However, the information on the topic is not just for anybody who might be interested in the topic, but for some individual or group that has specific needs for it and is even willing to pay for that information. For example, imagine an engineering firm bidding on a portion of the work to build a hemodialysis clinic. The engineers need to know general knowledge about renal disease and the technologies used to treat it, but they don't want to have to go digging in the library to find it. What they need is a technical background report on the subject. (For details on contents, organization, and format, see the section on technical-background reports.)
Instructions. These are probably the most familiar of all the types of reports. Students often write backup procedures for the jobs they do at their work. Others write short user manuals for an appliance, equipment, or program. If there is too much to write about, they write about some smaller segment—for example, instead of instructions on using all of WordPerfect, just a guide on writing macros in WordPerfect. (See the details on contents, organization, and format of instructions.)
Feasibility, recommendation, and evaluation reports. Another useful type of report is one that studies a problem or opportunity and then makes a recommendation. A feasibility report tells whether a project is "feasible"—that is, whether it is practical and technologically possible. A recommendation report compares two or more alternatives and recommends one (or, if necessary, none). An evaluation or assessment report studies something in terms of its worth or value For example, a college might investigate the feasibility of giving every student an e-mail address and putting many of the college functions online. The same college might also seek recommendations on the best hardware and software to use (after the feasibility report had determined it was a good idea). In practice, however, it's hard to keep these two kinds of reports distinct. Elements of the feasibility and recommendation report intermingle in specific reports—but the main thing is to get the job done! (For further details on contents, organization, and format, see the section on feasibility and recommendation reports.)
Primary research report. Primary research refers to the actual work someone does in a laboratory or in the field—in other words, experiments and surveys. You may have written a "lab report," as they are commonly called, for one of your previous courses. This is a perfectly good possibility for the technical report as well. In this type of report, you not only present your data and draw conclusions about it, but also explain your methodology, describe the equipment and facilities you used, and give some background on the problem. You can modify this type by summarizing other primary research reports. For example, you could report on the research that has been done on saccharine. (For further details on contents, organization, and format, see the section on primary research reports.)
Technical specifications. In this report type, you discuss some new product design in terms of its construction, materials, functions, features, operation, and market potential. True specifications are not much on writing—the text is dense, fragmented; tables, lists, and graphics replace regular sentences and paragraphs whenever possible. Thus, specifications are not a good exercise of your writing abilities. However, you can write a more high-level version—one that might be read by marketing and planning executives. (For details on contents, organization, and format, see the section on technical specifications.)
Report-length proposal. As you may be aware, proposals can be monster documents of hundreds or even thousands of pages. (Please, not this semester.) Most of the elements are the same, just bigger. Plus elements from other kinds of reports get imported—such as feasibility discussion, review of literature, and qualifications; these become much more elaborate. The problem with writing a proposal in our technical-writing class is coordinating it with the proposal you write at the beginning of the semester (a proposal to write a proposal, come on!). Several students have set up scenarios in which they proposed internally to write an external proposal, in which they went after some contract or grant. (For on contents, organization, and format, see the section on proposals.)
Business plans. If you are ambitious to run your own business, you can write a business plan, which is a plan or proposal to start a new business or to expand an existing one. It is aimed primarily at potential investors. Therefore, it describes the proposed business, explores the marketplace and the competition, projects revenues, and describes the operation and output of the proposed business. (For details on contents, organization, and format, see the section on business plans.)
Don't feel constrained by this list; if there is a type of technical document you want to write not listed here, talk to your instructor. It may be that we are using different names for the same thing.
Audience and Situation in Technical Reports
A critical step in your early report planning is to define a specific audience and situation in which to write the report. For example, if you wanted to write about CD audio players, the audience cannot be this vague sort of "anybody who is considering purchasing a CD player." You have to define the audience in terms of its knowledge, background, and need for the information.
You also have to define the audience in terms of who they are specifically: that means things like names, organization or company, street address and phone numbers, and occupation or position.
Just as critical to the planning process is defining the situation. When you define audience, you define who the readers are, what they know or don't know in relation to the topic, what experience or background they have in relation to the topic, and why they want or might need the information. Sometimes this leaves out a critical element: just what are the circumstances that bring about the need for the information.
See the section on analyzing and adapting to audiences.
Topics for Technical Reports
Just about any topic can be worked into a good technical-report project. Some are a little more difficult than others; that's where your instructor can help. And, that is why some technical writing course include a proposal assignment: it gives your instructor a chance to see what you want to do and to guide you away from problems such as the following:
Editorializing. For the report project, avoid editorial topics. For example, don't attempt to write a technical report on the pro's and con's of gun control, abortion, marijuana, and the like. You can, however, develop these topics: for example, describe the chemical, physiological aspects of marijuana or the medical techniques for abortion or the developmental stages of the fetus. These get into substantial technical areas. But avoid editorializing—there are other courses where you can do this.
Fuzzy topics. Some topics just don't work, for some reason. For example, dream analysis can be very fuzzy and nebulous. So can UFOs. You want your report to have hard factual data in it. The preceding topics are difficult to pin down this way. However, good reports have been written on the apparatus used in dream research laboratories. Maybe somebody can even figure out a good way to handle UFOs.
Tough technical topics. As mentioned earlier, don't shy away from interesting topics that you don't feel you know enough about. No one expects a doctoral thesis. Use the report project as a chance to learn something new. Of course, it's common sense that we often write better about things we know about. If this is a concern for you, look around you in your work, hobbies, or academic studies.
At the same time, however, don't be concerned that your has to be about computers, electronics, or some other "technical" topic. Remember that the word technical refers to any body of specialized knowledge.
Instructors as brainstorming devices. And of course if you are absolutely stumped, get with your instructor. Use your instructor as a brainstorming device. Here are some areas in which you can look for topics as well:
General Characteristics of Technical Reports
You're probably wondering what this technical report is supposed to look like. Ask your instructor to show you a few example reports. In addition to that, here is a brief review of some of the chief characteristics of the technical report:
Checklist for the Technical Report
Use the following questions to ensure that your technical report is structured properly according to common expectations:
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