1 The Formal Technical Report

For technical reports, formal and informal, readers are generally most interested in process and results. Clear presentation of results is at least as important as the results themselves; therefore, writing a report is an exercise in effective communication of technical information. Results, such as numerical values, designed systems or graphs by themselves are not very useful. To be meaningful to others, results must be supported by a written explanation describing how results were obtained and what significance they hold, or how a designed system actually functions. Although the person reading the report may have a technical background, the author should assume unfamiliarity with related theory and procedures. The author must consider supplying details that may appear obvious or unnecessary. With practice, the technical report writer learns which details to include.

The formal technical report contains a complete, concise, and well-organized description of the work performed and the results obtained. Any given report may contain all of the sections described in these guidelines or a subset, depending upon the report requirements. These requirements are decided by the author and are based on the audience and expected use of the report. Audience and purpose are important considerations in deciding which sections to include and what content to provide. If the purpose is to chronicle work performed in lab, as is typical for an academic lab report, the audience is typically the professor who assigned the work and the contents usually include detailed lab procedure, clear presentation of results, and conclusions based on the evidence provided. For a technical report, the audience may be colleagues, customers, or decision makers. Knowing the audience and what they are expecting to get out of reading the report is of primary consideration when deciding on sections to include and their contents.

There are certain aspects to all reports that are common regardless of audience and expected usage. Rather than relegate these overarching report-writing considerations to a secondary position, these items are presented before detailing the typical organization and contents for technical reports.

Universal Report-Writing Considerations

The items listed in this section are often overlooked by those new to technical report writing. However, these items set the stage for how a technical report is received which can impact the author, positively or negatively. While in an academic setting, the author’s grade could be impacted. While in a professional setting, it is the author’s career that could be affected. Effective communication can make the difference in career advancement, effective influence on enacting positive change, and propelling ideas from thought to action. The list that follows should become second nature to the technical report writer.

Details to consider that affect credibility:

  • Any information in the report that is directly derived or paraphrased from a source must be cited using the proper notation.
  • Any information in the report that is directly quoted or copied from a source must be cited using the proper notation.
  • Any reference material derived from the web or Internet must come from documentable and credible sources. To evaluate websites critically, begin by verifying the credibility of the author (e.g. – credentials, agency or professional affiliation). Note that peer reviewed materials are generally more dependable sources of information as compared to open source. Peer review involves a community of qualified experts from within a profession who validate the publication of the author. Open source information may be created by non-qualified individuals or agencies which is often not reviewed and/or validated by experts within the field or profession.
  • Wikipedia is NOT a credible reference because the information changes over time and authors are not necessarily people with verifiable expertise or credentials.
  • Provide an annotated bibliography of all references. Typically, annotations in technical reports indicate what the source was used for and establish the credibility of the source. This is particularly important for sources with credibility issues. However, an annotation can clarify why a source with questionable credibility was used.
  • See Appendix A for information about citing sources.

Details to consider that affect the professional tone:

  • Write in an active voice using the third person in most instances. Avoid using “will” before a verb; strive to get to the verb as directly as possible.
  • Passive voice: “The circuit resistance will be measured with a digital multimeter”.
  • Active voice: “Measure the circuit resistance with a digital multimeter”.
  • Avoid using personal pronouns such as “you”, “we”, “our”, “they”, “us” and “I”. Personal pronouns tend to personalize the technical information that is generally objective rather than subjective in nature. The exception is if the work as a whole is meant to instruct than to inform. For example, technical textbooks whose only purpose is to instruct employ personal pronouns.
  • Use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Pay attention to and address spell and grammar check cues from writing software such as MS Word.

Details to consider that affect the professional appearance:

  • All figures and tables must be neatly presented and should be computer generated. Use a computer software package, such as Paint, Multisim or AutoCAD, to draw figures. If inserting a full-page figure, insert it so can be read from the bottom or from the right side of the page. ALL figures and tables must fit within or very close to the page margins.
  • Generate ALL equations using an equation editor and provide each equation on its own line. Under normal circumstances, there is no reason to embed an equation within a paragraph. Depending on presentation and how many equations are involved, number the equations for easy reference.
  • If the report is long enough to require a Table of Contents, then all pages of the report after the Table of Contents must include the page number. The title page and table of contents page are NOT numbered pages. Page 1 should be the first page with content after the Table of Contents.
    • Refer to appendix B for information on how to automatically create a Table of Contents and properly number pages.
  • If the report includes an abstract, it should be on an unnumbered page after the title page and before the Table of Contents or it can be included on the title page.
  • For all hard copy reports, all pages of the report must be 8 ½“ X 11” in size. Any larger pages must be folded so as to fit these dimensions. HOWEVER, in this day and age, an electronic submission may be required. Keep in mind that with an electronic submission, it is easier to provide an appealing look with color since a color printer is not required.

Details to consider that affect readability:

  • Every section and sub-section of the report needs to start with an introductory paragraph that provides the context for the section or sub-section.
  • Every figure, graph, table, and equation needs to be introduced to the reader prior to being presented to the reader. This introduction provides the context.
  • ALWAYS NUMBER AND PROVIDE A TITLE FOR ALL FIGURES.
  • Make sure that the verb used can actually operate on the noun. For example, stating “the goal for this report is to observe …” implies that the report can observe when it is likely that the goal of the work reported on is to make certain observations.
  • Check for spelling and grammar errors which are often highlighted with cues by the text editing software. Follow capitalization, punctuation, and indentation norms. Remember to capitalize the names of proprietary items such as licensed software.
  • Define acronyms and abbreviations prior to using them.

Finally, always consider carefully the context of information provided. Know your audience. Thoughtfully consider if a statement is clearly supported by the information provided without leaving your reader confused. Remember that by the time you are writing a report, you should know the information inside and out but your reader does not.

Standard Components of a Formal Technical Report

Technical reports should be organized into sections and are typically in the order described in this section. While this is the recommended order, certain reports may lend themselves to either reordering sections and/or excluding sections.

Title Page

The format for this page may vary, however, the following information is always included: report title, who the report was prepared for, who the report was prepared by, and the date of submission. This is not a numbered page of the report.

Abstract

An abstract is a concise description of the report including its purpose and most important results. An abstract must not be longer than half a page and must not contain figures or make reference to them. Technical authors are generally so focused on results that they neglect to clearly state the purpose for the work. That purpose is derived from the objectives or goals, most commonly provided by the person who assigned the work. In stating the purpose, it is critical to include key words that would be used in a database search since searches of paper abstracts are commonly used by professionals to find information they need to do their jobs and make important decisions. Results are summarized in the abstract but how much quantitative information is provided varies with report audience and purpose. It is common to include maximum percent error found in the experimental results as compared to theory. Do not use any specific technical jargon, abbreviations, or acronyms. This is not a numbered page of the report.

Table of Contents

Include all the report sections and appendices. Typically, sub-sections are also listed. This is not a numbered page of the report.

The Table of Contents is easy to include if you properly use the power of the software used to generate the report. The Table of Contents can be automatically generated and updated if the author uses built in report headings provided in the styles menu. It is worth the time and effort to learn these tools since their application are ultimately time-savers for report writers. Directions are provided in Appendix B on creating a Table of Contents using section headings.

Introduction

The length of the Introduction depends on the purpose but the author should strive for brevity, clarity, and interest. Provide the objective(s) of the work, a brief description of the problem, and how it is to be attacked. Provide the reader with an overview of why the work was performed, how the work was performed, and the most interesting results. This can usually be accomplished with ease if the work has clearly stated objectives.

Additionally, the introduction of a technical report concludes with a description of the sections that follow the Introduction. This is done to help the reader get some more detailed information about what might be found in each of the report sections included in the body of the report (this does not include appendices). This can feel awkward but providing that information is the accepted standard practice across industries.

Be careful not to use specific technical jargon or abbreviations such as using the term “oscope” instead of “oscilloscope”. Also, make sure to define any acronyms or abbreviations prior to using them. For example, in a surveying lab report a student might want to refer to the electronic distance measuring (EDM) device. The first time the device is referred to, spell out what the acronym stands for before using the acronym, as demonstrated in the previous sentence. Apply this practice throughout wherever an acronym or abbreviation is used but not yet defined within the report.

Background Theory

The purpose of this section is to include, if necessary, a discussion of relevant background theory. Include theory needed to understand subsequent sections that either the reading audience does not already comprehend or is tied to the purpose for the work and report. For example, a report on resistor-capacitor electric circuits that includes measurement of phase shift would likely include a theoretical description of phase shift. In deciding what should or should not be included as background theory, consider presenting any material specific to the work being reported on that you had to learn prior to performing the work including theoretical equations used to calculate theoretical values that are compared to measured values. This section may be divided into subsections if appropriate. Keep the discussion brief without compromising on content relevant to understanding and refer the reader to and cite outside sources of information where appropriate.

Design

The purpose of this section is to provide detailed development of any design included in the report. Do not provide a design section if there is no design aspect to the work. Be sure to introduce and describe the design work within the context of the problem statement using sentences; a series of equations without description and context is insufficient. Use citations if you wish to refer the reader to reference material. Divide this section into subsections where appropriate. For example, a project may consist of designing several circuits that are subsequently interconnected; you may choose to treat each circuit design in its own subsection. The process followed to develop the design should be presented as generally as possible then applied using specific numbers for the work performed. Ultimately, the section must provide the actual design tested and include a clear presentation of how that design was developed.

Theoretical Analysis

Although a theoretical analysis might be part of a design, the author needs to decide if that analysis should be included as part of the design section or a separate section. Typically, any theoretical work performed to develop the design would be included in the design section but any theoretical analysis performed on the design would be included in a separate section. Do not provide a theoretical analysis section if the theoretical work is all described as part of background theory and design sections. However, in most cases, a theoretical analysis section is included to provide important details of all analyses performed. Be brief. It is not necessary to show every step; sentences can be used to describe the intermediate steps. Furthermore, if there are many steps, the reader should be directed to the appendix for complete details. Make sure to perform the analysis with the specific numbers for the work performed leading to the theoretical values reported on and compared to experimental values in the results section of the report. Worth repeating: perform the analyses resulting in the numbers that are included as the theoretical values in the results section of the report. Upon reading the results section, the reader should be familiar with the theoretical values presented there because the reader already saw them in this section.

Procedure

This section varies depending on requirements of the one who assigned the work and the audience. At a minimum, the author discusses the procedure by describing the method used to test a theory, verify a design or conduct a process. Presentation of the procedure may vary significantly for different fields and different audiences, however, for all fields, the author should BE BRIEF and get to the point. Like with any written work, if it is unnecessarily wordy, the reader becomes bored and the author no longer has an audience. Also, the procedure section should never include specific measurements/results, discussion of results, or explanation of possible error sources. Make sure all diagrams provided are numbered, titled, and clearly labeled.

Depending on the situation, there are two likely types of procedure sections. In one case, a detailed procedure may have already been supplied or perhaps it is not desirable to provide a detailed description due to proprietary work. In another case, it might be the author’s job to provide all the detail so the work can be duplicated. The latter is more common in academic lab settings. The writing guidelines for each of these possible procedure sections are provided below.

Procedure Type 1

Use this procedure type if you have been supplied with a detailed procedure describing the steps required to complete the work. Briefly describe the method employed to complete the work. This is meant to be a brief procedural description capturing the intention of the work, not the details. The reader may be referred to the appendix for detailed procedure steps. The following list are considerations for this type of procedure section.

  • While describing the experimental work performed from the perspective of the objectives, include important details to appreciate the scope of the work but DO NOT describe the procedure as a sequence of steps.
    • Example: For measurements made over a range of input settings, provide the actual range without including the details of the specific input settings or order data was taken (unless order affects results).
  • If required by the person who assigned the work, include the detailed procedure in the appendix.
  • MUST provide detailed diagram(s) of all applicable experimental set-ups (i.e. circuit diagram) that include specific information about the set-up, such as resistor values.
  • Provide diagrams and/or pictures that will further assist the reader in understanding the procedural description.
  • Provide a details of any work performed for which prescribed steps were not provided and that the author deems necessary for the reader’s comprehension.
  • Examples:
    • Acceptable writing:
      • To test the theory of superposition, the circuit shown in Figure 1 is employed. The circuit is constructed on the lab bench and using MultismTM, a circuit simulation software. In both settings, a multimeter is used to measure the output voltage, as shown in Figure 1, for the following three cases: (1) Source 1 on and Source 2 off, (2) Source 1 off and Source 2 on, and (3) both sources on. These measurements are compared to the output voltage derived using theory as described earlier. Refer to the appendix for further detail or procedure.
    • Unacceptable writing:
      • In order to test the theory of superposition, first each team member must calculate the output voltage for the circuit shown in Figure 1 for the following three cases: (1) Source 1 on and Source 2 off, (2) Source 1 off and Source 2 on, and (3) both sources on. Then one team member is assigned to build the circuit on the lab bench while the other team member constructs the circuit in Multisim. Once constructed, turn Source 1 on and Source 2 off then connect the positive lead of the meter to the positive end of the output voltage and the negative lead of the meter to the negative end of the output voltage. Record the meter reading. Next turn on Source 2 and turn off Source 1. Again measure the output voltage using the meter ….

Procedure Type 2

Use this procedure type if you have not been supplied with a detailed description of the steps required to complete the work. The reader should be able to repeat the work based on the content supplied in this section.

  • Describe in detail all necessary steps or processes required to complete the work. This may include, but is not limited to, the following:
    • Equipment use
    • Equipment maintenance
    • Define terms specific to the technology
    • Measurement techniques and/or calibration
  • The description should be sufficiently clear so that the reader could duplicate the work.
  • Do not assume that the reader has prior knowledge or access to prior reports, textbooks, or handouts.
  • If part of the procedure was successfully described in a previous report, either repeat the procedure or include that report in the appendix and refer the reader to it.
  • MUST provide detailed diagram(s) of all applicable experimental set-ups (i.e. circuit diagram) that include specific information about the set-up, such as resistor values.
  • Where appropriate, provide additional diagrams and/or pictures to assist the reader in understanding the procedure.

Results and Discussion

Present the results of the work performed, within the context of the problem statement, using neatly organized and completely labeled tables and/or graphs whenever possible. When comparative data is available, present the data in a way that facilitates the comparison. For example, if theoretical and experimental values are available, present the values alongside one another accompanied by percent error. If it would help the reader understand the results, include a few sample calculations but put lengthy calculations in an appendix.

ALWAYS accompany results with a meaningful discussion. The discussion explains what the results mean and points out trends. In some cases, the results speak mostly for themselves and the discussion may be brief, i.e., “Table 2 shows that the designed variable modulus counter works as expected” along with a sentence or two stating how a variable modulus counter works and referring to parts of the table that verify/justify the statement. In other cases, the meaning of the results may not be as clear requiring more detailed discussion. In most cases, the results include data from more than one source to be compared to establish validity. Meaningful discussion immediately follows presentation of results and include:

  1. commenting on percent difference making sure it is clear to the reader which values are being compared and establishing comparative size of the difference in relation to expectations (negligible, small, large),
  2. cause for the difference (error sources are discussed further in the next paragraph), and
  3. how the results inform the reader as framed by the work’s objectives.

All three of the points are important to a meaningful discussion but the third one is most often overlooked. Discussion related to (3) may provide a statement about the theory used to predict the measured data. That statement often includes the theoretical assumptions made to predict the results and what the measured results indicate about the applicability of those theoretical assumptions to the experimental setting.

ALWAYS discuss the possible significant sources of error and how accurate the results need to be in order to be meaningful. Do not include a discussion of possible sources of error that would not add significantly to the observed error. What counts as significant depends on the situation. For example, if the components used have a tolerance of 5% and the accuracy of the equipment is within 0.5% of the measured value, then the equipment does not add significant error. However, if the components used have only a 1% tolerance then equipment with 0.5% accuracy is problematic. In general, it is impossible to obtain error-free results, therefore when there is 0% error there is still cause for discussion to comment on the situation that may result in error-free results or meaningful justification for expectation of error-free results. Expecting some error is not an excuse for lack of attention to detail when conducting procedures that minimize the error. Errors are different from mistakes. It is unacceptable to report mistakes. If a mistake was made, the work must be repeated until acceptable tolerances are achieved before submitting a report. Please find more on discussing percent error or percent difference in Appendix C.

When working in industry, it is imperative to know how accurate results need to be. It is worth your time and effort (and in the best interest of your supervisor or client) to provide the appropriate level of accuracy. If that means repetitive measurements to check for accuracy within tolerance, then do it. If it means performing a detailed analysis prior to making measurements, then do it. In the academic setting, the result of laziness or lack of effort may only be a bad grade. In the workplace, you may get fired!

Other information pertaining to writing Results and Discussion section can be found in Appendix C. This information includes

  • How to calculate percent difference/error.
  • Typical magnitudes of percent error for courses where circuits are constructed.
  • What to consider writing about based on questions posed by the person assigning you to write the report.
  • Guidelines for graphs provided in a report.

Conclusion

In this final section of the body of the report, the author should briefly bring everything together. It is similar to the abstract except that now specific results are concluded upon in a quantitative way. Therefore, the conclusion should be a concise description of the report including its purpose and most important results providing specific quantitative information. The conclusion should not contain figures or make reference to them. As with the abstract, the reader should be able to read this section on its own which means that there should be no specific technical jargon, abbreviations, or acronyms used.

References

Anywhere within your writing that you have either copied or paraphrased another source, you must cite that source. This entails two steps. One is to provide a parenthetical citation at the location in the report where the material that is not your own resides and the other is to provide the complete bibliographic information in a References page following the Conclusion section of the report. If an annotated bibliography is required, include an annotation for ALL sources describing what the source was used for within the report and establishes the source’s credibility.

Using the APA style, the parenthetical citation at the location in the document where the copied or paraphrased material exists includes: author, publication date, and page number(s). For sources with no author, the name of the reference material is used. All this information is included within parentheses thus being referred to as a “parenthetical citation”.

The full bibliographic information for all reference material cited within your writing is collected on the References page. In technical papers, the referenced sources are usually listed in the order they are referred to in the body of the report and, in fact, many published engineering papers will simply number the references and then use that number in square brackets to replace the parenthetical citation within the body of the report. Those new to this form of technical writing, often ask about how and where to list references used but not explicitly cited in the body of the report. However, if the reference is important enough to list, that generally means that there is an appropriate place to cite it in the body of the report, perhaps in the introduction or background theory. In Appendix A you can find further information about creating citations using citation generators available on the internet that will create a properly formatted citation for you when provided with the relevant information. Although citation generators are readily available, the one I recommend is from Calvin College called KnightCite and can be found at http://www.calvin.edu/library/knightcite/.

The References section begins on a new page; not on the same page with the conclusion. Refer to Appendix A for information on preparing the References section. A wealth of information about citation styles, including lengthy guides and short handouts, can be found at http://libraryreference.sunydutchess.edu/citations.htm.

One final note on references and providing bibliographic information concerns use of sources that may appear to be questionable. There is no doubt that information from a wiki is questionable since, by definition, it can be changed by users including unqualified users. Although most wikis are reviewed and erroneous or misleading information corrected, at any given time there could be erroneous and misleading information. However, depending on the work presented in the report, internet sources including .com sites that have industry bias and .org sites that have policy bias may have valuable information. Even .edu sites can be problematic if the page is from an individual rather than an educational group within the institution since the former is likely not to have any editors and the latter is likely to be monitored and curated by the group. In order to establish credibility or usefulness of a source, especially a questionable one, provide an annotation to the bibliographic information that provides further information as to why the source was included and perspective on its application to the work reported. Information about annotated bibliographies is provided in Appendix A.

Appendix

This section may not always be present. Materials included in an appendix may include lab sheets, parts list, diagrams, extensive calculations, error analyses, and lengthy computer programs. Introduce numbered or lettered appendices rather than putting different items in one appendix.

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