When familiarity with a topic makes you unaware of content gaps or lack of clarity in a paper or report, the following checklist will help you locate and correct five common errors:
- Faulty organization
- Insufficient context to orient readers
- Failure to guide readers through the content
- Insufficient description and detail
- Poor use of illustrations
1. Faulty organization. Why is logical organization so important? A well-chosen structure for a paper or report guides readers comfortably through the content and increases readers’ understanding. Within standard paper and report templates, use familiar organizational patterns such as the following:
- Order of importance for readers who are apt to agree with your conclusions and recommendations. Begin the paper or report with the information of greatest interest to readers. Provide an informative abstract or summary for busy decision makers.
- Reverse order of importance for readers who may at first disagree with your conclusions or recommendations. In persuasive documents, create common ground and present your rationale before your recommendation.
- Chronological order for site visit reports and trip reports. Since methodical time order can bury critical information, preface your chronology with a summary that captures your most important findings and recommendations.
- Spatial or sequential order for process and procedure descriptions. Before taking readers into the details of your spatial description (moving north to south, left to right, or clockwise, for example) or of your process or procedure, orient your readers with an overview. Also, ensure that the process or procedure is described in absolute sequential order.
- Comparisons to juxtapose the advantages and disadvantages of two or more solutions. In order of importance to decision makers, present the criteria for successfully resolving the problem and evaluating the solution.
2. Insufficient context to orient readers. Are readers prepared intellectually to understand your findings, conclusions, and recommendations? Begin with an Introduction to help ensure readers understand the importance of your topic and how your topic connects with their interests and goals. And consider providing a Background section that further explains the heritage of the work. Explain the assumptions that are the basis for your approach and findings. Introduce and define any specialized terms and abbreviations. Write a purpose statement that predicts the contents of the paper or report.
3. Failure to guide readers through the content. What format devices have you used to make your paper’s or report’s structure immediately evident to readers? Use a Table of Contents as well as specific, predictive topic headings and subheadings. Introduce each new section with a lead paragraph or topic sentence. Use transitional sentences to introduce illustrations. Also, use lists to increase the accessibility and readability of content you want to emphasize.
4. Insufficient supporting description and detail. Consider your readers: Do they understand the significance of the information? Do they share your level of expertise? Anticipate and answer readers’ questions such as Who?, What?, Where?, When?, Why?, How?, and even So What? Provide definitions and examples. Explain the benefits/rationale of approaches and features. For example:
- Project Status Reports. Answer the questions: What is the status of the project? and What happens next? Describe positive outcomes achieved in this reporting timeframe and the benefits to the organization of those outcomes, any significant information (such as increased/reduced risk to schedule, budget, or outcomes) that the Management Team should be made aware of, and any Lessons Learned or solutions to problems that are important to share.
- Recommendations. Provide enough context/background to help readers understand the problem and your proposed solution. Define the criteria for successfully resolving the problem and evaluating the solution. Explain the advantages and disadvantages of your solution versus alternative solutions.
- Commendations. State what was done and how it was done as well as the benefits to the organization of the achievement/contribution. Explain how the achievement aligns with the organization’s mission or a specific goal.
5. Poor use of illustrations. Where can you add depth and visual appeal to your paper or report? Illustrations add interest and texture. In your text, to illustrate your topic, provide definitions and examples. Also use graphics such as charts, drawings, tables, etc., to clarify your topic or provide supplementary content. Apply these suggestions:
- Select the type of illustration to best make your point. For example, keep in mind that tables make data quickly accessible but are less memorable than other types of illustrations. You may require several versions of one illustration, such as an overview and then different aspects of the overview presented with more detail.
- Ensure that each illustration can stand alone for readers who may look at only your illustrations or at your illustrations first and then the text. Increase the specificity of illustration titles. Focus readers’ attention with arrows or shading. Use a caption to highlight the illustration’s “take away”—what readers should conclude from viewing your illustration.
In the next two blogs, watch for additional Tips to Correct Errors in Technical Papers and Reports.
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