How (not) To Write Reports and Papers

The following is a replica of a page I originally posted at  http://caia.swin.edu.au/reports/howto.html on Dec 15th 2003 (Edit: see the closest example on Archive.org). The replica is (retrospectively) posted here in case the original disappears.


How (not) To Write Reports and Papers

Grenville Armitage, 2003

Introduction

Reports and papers should convey information and insights. They are not simply a regurgitation of someone else’s facts, nor are they a place for unsubstantiated creative thinking.

This web page lists some of the issues you need to keep in mind when developing reports or papers on your own work or the works of others.

This is your best work
Readers will assume this is your best work. Drafts are not your best work, but once you submit your paper do not expect us to read between the lines. If contexts, citations or explanations are missing we will assume you never knew enough to include them. Spelling and punctuation errors will dilute the brilliance of your work. And, naturally, you should supply some meaningful content.
Facts, not fantasy
If you pull facts out of thin air readers will treat them as fantasy. If another report is your source then cite that report. If your own experiments are the source then summarize the experiment (or cite a previous report that describes the experiment).

Don’t even bother including ‘facts’ into your report that do not have an identifiable and justifiable source. Conclusions based on such ‘facts’ will be ignored.

Cite your sources
See above. If you didn’t generate the facts from your own experiments you must have got them from somewhere. Tell us where. But don’t include loads of distracting source material in the body of the paper – put citations at the end, in a “References” section.
Explain your experiment
If you did an experiment, we want to know the circumstances. Not necessarily the gory details, just the key decisions, techniques, short-cuts, and assumptions. There’s an art to knowing how much is too much or too little detail here. Document all the assumptions that you believe have had a material impact on the experimental results.

If you’d like more details of your experiment to be archived along with the report, put them into an Appendix. The report MUST be readable without the appendix – the appendix simply gives more complete information for those readers who are interested.

Read it again
Please don’t submit a report that you have not even re-read yourself. Allow some time to just leave the report alone for a day or two, then read it back to yourself. You will find mistakes that were not apparent when you were immersed in writing it the first time. (Anyway, if you can’t be bothered reading it why should anyone else?)
Size does matter Keep sentences short and to the point. Structure your report with clarity in mind. Chapters, paragraphs, and sentences should all reflect a plan for educating the reader. Do not overwhelm readers with a torrent of information.

A report that consists of really long sentences, even sentences that seem quite important and full of meaningful phrases and side observations about everything you can possibly think of (despite the obvious fact that your mind is full of wonderful pieces of trivia the reader might find useful some other time), can be incredibly hard to follow and led to confusion in the minds of your esteemed readers (who have other things to do, which isn’t entirely surprising, but there you go…) as they read (and possibly mark) your work.

It’s true. Shorter sentences reflect precision of thought. Spend the time to make things smaller.

Introduction, Conclusion and the rest
Papers and reports have structure for a reason. Except in unusual circumstances your submission should have: Abstract, Introduction, review of prior/related work, general content (possibly multiple sections), Conclusion, References, and (where appropriate) Appendices. Each section has a purpose.

Don’t write the entire report in the Introduction. Do summarise what the report is about and why the reader should find the report interesting or relevant.

Don’t write a wimpy Conclusion. Do write a Conclusion that concisely re-states your methods, findings and (where appropriate) recommendations. (Yes, the conclusion will repeat things stated in the body of your report. That’s fine. Some people will only read your Introduction and Conclusion.)

Summarize your Introduction and Conclusion into one paragraph – that’s your Abstract. Put facts in, take fluff out. Yes, it might seem like a repeat of what’s in the body of the report. Do it anyway.

Standard Formats
Your creativity must be focused on the report’s content, not the report’s layout. Use the fonts, columns-per-page, and general layout specified by your examiner or supervisor. (You could use the CAIA Technical Report template if you have been given no other particular guidance – click here for the OpenOffice (.sxw) version and here for the Microsoft Word (.rtf) version.)

 

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