Online Technical Writing:
Other Types of Technical Reports

For the final report in some technical-writing courses, you can write one of (or even a combination) of several different types of reports. These choices are not meant to be restrictive, but to indicate a range of possibilities. If there is some other type of report that you know about and want to write, get with your instructor to discuss it.

This chapter briefly defines these different report types; some are covered in full detail earlier in this book; the rest are described here. But to get everything in one place, all the reports are briefly defined here, with cross-references to where they occur:

  • Organizational policies and procedures. These are the operating documents for organizations; they contain rules and regulations on how the organization and its members are expected to perform. Policies and procedures are like instructions, but they go much further. See the special resources for policies and procedures for full discussion and examples.
  • Feasibility, evaluation, recommendation reports. This group of similar reports does things like compare several options against a set of requirements and recommend one; considers an idea (plan, project) in terms of its "feasibility," in terms of some combination of its technical, economical, social practicality or possibility; passes judgement on the worth or value of a thing by comparing it to a set of requirements, or criteria. See the section on recommendation reports for complete discussion.
  • Technical background reports. This type is the hardest one to define but the one that most people write. It focuses on a technical topic, provides a certain background on that topic for a specific set of readers who have specific needs for it. This report does not supply instructions, nor does it supply recommendations in any systematic way, nor does it report new and original data. See the content, organization, and format guidelines for the technical background report in the following.
  • Primary research reports. This type presents findings and interpretation from laboratory or field research. See the content, organization, and format guidelines for the primary research report in the following.
  • Business plans. This type is a proposal to start a new business. See the content, organization, and format guidelines for the business plan in the following.
  • Technical specifications. This type presents descriptive and operational details on a new product. See the content, organization, and format guidelines for technical specifications in the following.

Technical Background Reports

The technical background report is hard to define—it's not a lot of things, but it's hard to say what it is. It doesn't provide step-by-step directions on how to do something the way that instructions do. It does not formally provide recommendations the way that feasibility reports do. It does not report data from original research and draw conclusions the way that primary research reports do.

So what does the technical background report do? It provides information on a technical topic but in such a way that is adapted for a particular audience that has specific needs for that information. Imagine a topic like this: renal disease and therapy. A technical background report on this topic would not dump out a ten-ton textbook containing everything you could possibly say about it. It would select information about the topic suited to a specific group of readers who had specific needs and uses for the information. Imagine the audience was a group of engineers bidding on a contract to do part of the work for a dialysis clinic. Yes, they need to know about renal disease and its therapy, but only to the extent that it has to do with their areas of expertise. Such a background report might also include some basic discussion of renal disease and its treatment, but no more than what the engineers need to do their work and to interact with representatives of the clinic.

Take a look at an example of a technical background report. This one is an exploration of global warming, or the greenhouse effect, as it is called in the report. Notice that it discusses causes, then explores the effects, then discusses what can be done about it.

Typical contents and organization of technical background reports. Unlike most of the other reports discussed in this course guide, the technical background report does not have a common set of contents. Because it focuses on a specific technical topic for specific audiences who have specific needs or uses for the information, it grabs at whatever type of contents it needs to get the job done. You use a lot of intuition to plan this type of report. For example, with the report on renal disease and treatment, you'd probably want to discuss what renal disease is, what causes it, how it is treated, and what kinds of technologies are involved in the treatment. If you don't fully trust your intuition, use a checklist like the following:

  • Definitions—Define the potentially unfamiliar terms associated with the topic. Write extended definitions if the terms are key terms or if they are particularly difficult to explain.
  • Causes—Explain what causes are related to the topic. For example, with the renal disease topic, what causes the disease?
  • Effects—Explain what are the consequences, results, or effects associated with the topic. With the renal disease topic, what happens to people with the disease; what effects do the various treatments have?
  • Types—Discuss the different types or categories associated with the topic. For example, are there different types of renal disease; are there different categories of treatment?
  • Historical background—Discuss relevant history related to the topic. Discuss people, events, and past theories related to the topic.
  • Processes—Discuss mechanical, natural, human-controlled processes related to the topic. Explain step by step how the process occurs. For example, what are the phases of the renal disease cycle; what typically happens to a person with a specific form of the disease?
  • Descriptions—Provide information on the physical details of things related to the topic. Provide information about size, shape, color, weight, and so on.
  • Comparisons—Compare the topic, or some aspect of it, to something similar or something familiar. With the renal disease example, you could compare renal disease to some other disease; the treatment to some treatment; the functions of the kidney to something familiar (an analogy); or even the treatment to something familiar, for example, the filter system for a swimming pool.
  • Applications—Explore how some aspect of your topic can be used or applied. If it's some new technology, what are its applications?
  • Advantages and disadvantages—Discuss the advantages or disadvantages of one or more aspects of your topic. In the renal disease topic, for example, what are the advantages of one treatment over another?
  • Economic considerations—Discuss the costs of one or more aspects associated with your topic. How much does treatment for renal disease cost? How much does the equipment and personnel cost?
  • Social, political, legal, ethical implications—Explore the implications or impact of your topic or some aspect of it in relation to social, political, legal, or ethical concerns. The renal disease example doesn't lend itself much to this area, but imagine the possibilities with a topic like cryogenics—suspended animation of human beings. Often, new technologies have profound impact in these areas.
  • Problems, questions—What problems or questions are there associated with your report topic or some aspect of it?
  • Solutions, answers—What solutions or answers can you offer on those problems or questions raised by your topic or some aspect of it?

There are many other items we could think up and add to a checklist like this, but maybe this is enough to get you started planning the contents of your technical background report. And remember that each of these checklist items may represent a full section in the report—not a sentence or two.

As for the organization of these parts of the report, again, your intuitions are in order. Some subtopics logically come before others. See the section on organizational patterns and applying them.

Typical format of technical background reports. See the format format for technical background reports. That chapter takes you from the front cover all the way to the last page in this type of report, showing the expected contents and format. Remember that in most technical-writing courses, you are expected to use a format like this exactly and precisely—unless you work out some other arrangements with your instructor.

Primary Research Reports

Primary research report is our name for that kind of report that presents original research data—no matter whether that data was generated in a laboratory or out in the "field." A secondary research report then would be a report that presents information gained largely from printed information sources or from other sources such as people.

You're probably already familiar with this type of report as the "lab report." The contents and organization of this type of report have a basic logic: you present your data and conclusions, but also present information on how you went about the experiment or survey. In other words, you enable the reader to replicate (the fancy scientific word for repeat) your experiment, or at least, visualize quite specifically how you went about it.

See the example of a primary research report. It is an experiment to see whether production of rainbow trout can be increased by varying water temperature. While there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the discussion of typical sections in primary research reports and the sections you see in the actual rainbow trout report, you'll find that most of the functions are carried out. Instead of a full paragraph, sometimes all that is needed is a single sentence. And sometimes certain functions are combined.

Contents of primary research reports. To enable readers to replicate your experiment or survey, you provide information like the following (each normally in its own section):

  • Introduction—The introduction to the primary research report needs to do what any good introduction to a report needs to do—get the readers ready to read the report. It may provide some background, but not more than a paragraph or two in a one- to two-page introduction. Some of the common elements of the introduction to a primary research report, such as the background or the purpose, can be handled in the introduction. If they require a lot of discussion, however, they may need their own sections. For details, see the full discussion of introductions.
  • Problem, background—One of the first things to do, either in the introduction, or in a separate section of its own, is to discuss the situation that has led to the research work. For example, you may find that there is something questionable about a commonly accepted theory; you may have noticed some phenomenon that could be used to advantage, and so on. Explain this somewhere toward the beginning of a primary research report.
  • Purpose, objectives, scope—Also toward the beginning of this type of report discuss what you intended to do in the research project—what were your objectives? Also, explain the scope of your work—what were you not trying to do?
  • Review of literature—After you've established the basis for the project, summarize the literature relevant to it—for example, books, journal articles, and encyclopedias. If you are doing a study on grammar-checking software, what books or articles have already been written on that subject? What do they have to say about the merits of this kind of software? All you do is summarize this literature briefly and enable readers to go have a look at it by providing the full bibliographic citation at the end of your report.
  • Materials, equipment, facilities—Remember that one of your goals in writing this type of report is to enable the reader to replicate the experiment or survey you performed. Key to this is the discussion of the equipment and facilities you used in your research. Describe things in detail, providing brand names, model numbers, sizes, and other such specifications.
  • Theory, methods, procedures—To enable readers to replicate your project, you must also explain the procedures or methods you used. This discussion can be step by step: "first, I did this, then I did that...." Theory and method refer more to the intellectual or conceptual framework of your project. These explain why you used the procedures that you used.
  • Results, findings, data—Critical to any primary research report is the data that you collect. You present it in various tables, charts, and graphs (see the section on creating, formatting, and incorporating graphics into your reports). These can go in the body of your report, or in appendixes if they are so big that they interrupt the flow of your discussion. Of course, some results or findings may not be presentable as tables, charts, or graphs. In these cases, you just discuss it in paragraphs. In any case, you do not add interpretation to this presentation of data. You merely present the data, without trying to explain it.
  • Discussion, conclusions, recommendations—In primary research reports, you interpret or discuss your findings in a section separate from the one where you present the data. Now's the time to explain your data, to interpret it. This section, or area of the report, is also the place to make recommendations or state ideas for further research.
  • Bibliography—The ideal of the primary research report is build upon or add to the knowledge in a particular area. It's the vehicle by which our knowledge advances for a specific topic. Your primary research report rests on top of all the work done by other researchers on the same topic. For that reason, you must list the sources of information you used or consulted in your project. This list occurs at the end of the report. For guidelines and format, see the section on documentation.

As for the organization of a primary research report, the typical contents just listed are arranged in an actual primary research report in just about the same order they were just discussed. Loosely, it is a chronological order. First, you discuss set-up issues such as the problem and objectives, then you discuss the procedures, then the data resulting from those procedures, then your conclusions based upon that data.

This type of report varies greatly in terms of how long the typical sections are, whether they get combined with other sections, and what they are called (their headings).

Typical format of primary research reports. In most technical-writing courses, you should use a format like the one shown in the section on report format. (The format you see in the example starting on page is for journal articles). In a primary research report for a technical-writing course, however, you should probably use the format in which you have a transmittal latter, title page, table of contents, list of figures, and abstracts and in which you bind the report.

Business Plans

A business plan is very much like a proposal, except for at least one big difference. The prospectus seeks to start a new business or significantly expand an existing business. A proposal, on the other hand, seeks approval to do a specific project. For example, a business plan might seek funding and other support to start a software company to create computer games. A proposal, on the other hand, might bid to do the development work for some specific computer game.

After you've read the following introductory material, refer to the special resources page for in-depth discussion of business plans.

Common sections in business plans. Many of the elements of the plans resemble those of the proposal—particularly the qualifications and background sections. Remember that these sections are only typical and not necessarily in any required order. For your plan, you'll need to think about the best sequencing of the sections and about other sections that might also be necessary.

  • Product or service to be offered—One of the most important sections of the business plan is the description of the actual product or service to be offered by your company. If it is a description of a product—a physical object—you need to use the techniques for technical description. If you are going to offer a service, explain it, and take readers on a step-by-step tour of how the service will be handled.
  • Technical background on the product or service—If your product or service involves technologies or technical processes potentially unfamiliar to your readers, explain these. Remember that business plans often go to nonspecialists who, despite their lack of technical expertise, have the investment funds or the legal understanding to get your business going.
  • Market for the product or service—Critical also to any business plan is the exploration of the existing marketplace into which your product or service fits. What other companies exist that offer the same thing you plan to offer? How much business do they do? How are they different from each other? How will your business differ from them?
  • Process by which the product or service is produced—If applicable, explain how the product or service will be produced. Explain how the proposed business will operate on a day-to-day basis.
  • Facilities and personnel needed for the operation—Plan to discuss the facilities (storefronts, warehouses, production facilities, vehicles) your business will require as well as the personnel that will be needed.
  • Projected revenues from the operation—Of obvious importance in any business plan is the discussion of the revenues you project for your business. If you know the estimate of total revenues for the market area in which you plan to operate, what percentage do you explain to win? Obviously, in your first few years, you may operate at a loss—at what point in time do you project to break even?
  • Funding necessary for startup and operation—The plan should also discuss the funding you'll need to get the business started as well as the operating costs—the funding needed to run the business on a daily basis.
  • Legal issues related to the proposed business—Your business plan may also need to discuss your business, its products, or its services in relation to government regulations—for example, environmental restrictions.
  • Qualifications and background of the personnel—Important too is the section that presents your qualifications to start and operate the business you are proposing. Of course, "you" can mean a number of people with whom you are working to start the business. This section can be very much like a collection of resumes, although you want to write an introduction in which you describe your group's qualifications as a whole.
  • Discussion of feasibility and investment potential—You'll want to include in your plan a discussion of the likelihood of the success of your business. Obviously, you believe that it will be a success, but you must find a way to support this belief with facts and conclusions in order to convince your readers. Also, you must discuss what sort of return on investment readers can expect.
  • Investment offering—And finally, you may need to present what kinds of investment apparatus you are actually offering.

In planning your business plan, remember that you try to provide whatever information the audience may need to consider your idea. Your goal is to convince them you have a good idea and to encourage them to invest in it (or to approve it in some way). It's okay to provide marginal information—information you're not quite sure that readers will want. After all, you section off the parts of a business plan with headings; readers can skip over sections they are not interested in.

Format for business plans. You can use the format for the formal report, the format for proposals, or some combination of the two. Business plans, even those for small operations, can run well over 15 pages—in which case you'll want to bind the plan (see the suggestions in the section on formatting reports). You'll also need a cover letter—examples of this are also in the section on report formatting.

As you plan the format of your business plan, you'll want to think about designing it so that readers can find and read essential information quickly. This means setting up an abstract, but calling it "Executive Summary" or "Prospectus Overview."

Also plan to group similar sections. In the preceding section that lists the various kinds of information to include in a plan, some of suggestions should be combined—for example, the sections on financial aspects of the proposed business.

And finally, make use of appendixes for unwieldy, bulky information. Enable readers to quickly find the main sections of the plan, without having to wade through tables and charts that go on for pages and pages.

After you've read the preceding introductory material, refer to the special resources page for in-depth discussion of business plans.

Technical Specifications

Specifications are descriptions of products or product requirements. More broadly, they can provide details for the design, manufacture, testing, installation, and use of a product. You typically see specifications in the documentation that comes in the package with certain kinds of products, for example, CD players or computers. These describe the key technical characteristics of the item. But specifications are also written as a way of "specifying" the construction and operational characteristics of a thing. They are then used by people who actually construct the thing or go out and attempt to purchase it. When you write specifications, accuracy, precision of detail, and clarity are critical. Poorly written specifications can cause a range of problems and lead to lawsuits.

Outline and two-column style used to present information in specifications. Graphics, tables, and lists are heavily used, but some details can only be provided through sentences and paragraphs.

For these reasons then, specifications have a particular style, format, and organization.

  • Make every effort to find out what the specific requirements are for format, style, contents, and organization. If they are not documented, collect a big pile specifications written by or for your company, and study them for characteristics like those described in the following.
  • Use two-column lists or tables to lists specific details. If the purpose is to indicate details such as dimensions, materials, weight, tolerances, and frequencies, regular paragraph-style writing may be unnecessary.
  • For sentence-style presentation, use an outline style similar to the one shown in Figure C-1. Make sure that each specification receives its own number-letter designation. In sentence-style specifications, make sure each specific requirement has its own separate sentence.
  • Use the decimal numbering system for each individual specification. This facilitates cross-referencing.

Graphics and tables used to for present information in specifications.

  • Use either the open (performance) style or the closed restrictive style, depending on the requirements of the job. In the open or performance style, you can specify what the product or component should do, that is, its performance capabilities. In the closed style, you specify exactly what it should be or consist of.
  • Cross-reference existing specifications whenever possible. Various goverment agencies as well as trade and professional associations publish specifications standards. You can refer to these standards rather than include the actual specifications details.
  • Use specific, concrete language that identifies as precisely as possible what the product or component should be or do. Avoid words that are ambiguous—words that can be interpreted in more than one way. Use technical jargon the way it is used in the trade or profession.
  • Test your specifications by putting yourself in the role of a bumbling contractor—or even an unscrupulous one. What are the ways a careless or incompetent individual could misread your specifications? Could someone willfully misread your specifications in order to cut cost, time, and quality? Obviously, no set of specifications can ultimately be "foolproof" or "shark-proof," but you must try to make them as clear and unambiguous as possible.
  • For specifications to be used in design, manufacturing, construction, or procurement, use "shall" to indicate requirements. In specifications writing, "shall" is understood as indicating a requirement. (See the outline-style specifications in the first illustration on specifications for examples of this style of writing.)
  • Provide numerical specifications in both words and symbols: for example, "the distance between the two components shall be three centimeters (3 cm)."
  • Writing style in specifications can be very terse: incomplete sentences are acceptable as well as the omission of functions words such as articles and conjunctions that are understood.
  • Exercise great caution with pronouns and relational or qualifying phrases. Make sure there is no doubt about words such as "it," "they," "which," and "that" refer to. Watch out for sentences containing a list of two or more items followed by some descriptive phrase—does the descriptive phrase refer to all the list items or just one? In cases like these, you may have to take a wordier approach for the sake of clarity.
  • Use words and phrasing that have become standard in similar specifications over the years. Past usage has proven them reliable. Avoid words and phrases that are known not to hold up in lawsuits.
  • Make sure your specifications are complete—put yourself in the place of those who need your specifications; make sure you cover everything they will need.

Contents and Organization of Specifications. Organization is critical in specifications—readers need to be able to find one or a collection of specific details. To facilitate the process of locating individual specifications, use headings, lists, tables, and identifying numbers as discussed previously. But a certain organization of the actual contents is also standard.

  • General description—Describe the product, component, or program first in general terms—administrative details about its cost, start and completion dates, overall description of the project, scope of the specifications (what you are not covering), anything that is of a general nature and does not fit in the part-by-part descriptions in the following.
  • Part-by-part description—In the main body, present specifications part by part, element by element, trade by trade—whatever is the logical, natural, or conventional way of doing it.
  • General-to-specific order—Wherever applicable, arrange specifications from general to specific.

Graphics in specifications. In specifications, use graphics wherever they enable you to convey information more effectively. For example, in the specifications for a cleanroom for production of integrated circuits, drawings, diagrams, and schematics convey some of the information much more succinctly and effectively than sentences and paragraphs. See the example of a graphics used in specifications writing in the second illustration on specifications. As you prepare to write a set of specifications, look ahead as best you can to determine which formats—graphics, tables (or lists), and sentences—will be the most succinct, exact, and practical for each of the sections of your specifications. For details, see the section on graphics.

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