Information report writing is an important skill for our students to develop. Our students will need solid report writing skills in areas as diverse as technical, business, and scientific subjects.
But, report writing skills aren’t only useful in an academic context, they also have numerous applications in the world beyond the school (or university) gates. Reports are used widely throughout a broad range of industries and professions from construction to law.
Reports are usually short, concise documents that eschew arguments and opinions in favor of facts and objectivity. Often, information reports are used to bring interested readers and stakeholders up to speed on a given topic.
Whereas text types such as poetry and fiction writing make demands on a student’s creativity and imagination, writing information reports demands students possess some technical writing skills.
Fortunately, these skills can be taught and mastered with practice. In this article, we’ll examine five of the most important skills and abilities required when writing information reports.
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The Top 5 Information Report Writing Skills
Skill 1: Thorough Research
“To be prepared is half the victory.”
Miguel Cervantes, Spanish Novelist
Preparation is a skill and thorough planning is required to ensure a well-written and soundly structured information report.
While it’s likely your students already understand the importance of the prewriting stage of producing an information report (or any text for that matter), it’s vital that they also learn to use their planning and preparation time as effectively as possible.
This means applying a rigorous and repeatable formula to the process. We can break the research process down into three key elements.
i. Break the Question Down
The research process begins with the student closely examining the writing prompt or question that instructs them to write an information report.
Students need to analyze the specific wording carefully, isolate the key words and terms, and place these at the center of their research efforts by constantly referring back to them so as to avoid going off on any irrelevant tangents.
Students should be careful to respond to all parts of the report writing prompt. Often, there is more than one thing asked of them and they must ensure that they respond to each part of the prompt thoroughly in their completed information report.
ii. Define the Audience
The audience is a key player in the report writing process. Students need to clearly define their report’s intended audience before going any further in the writing process.
Demographics play a key role in how an information report is structured and written. For example, a report about the life-cycle of a frog aimed at an audience of first graders will differ wildly from a report on the same topic directed at zoologists.
Defining the target audience from the outset helps ensure students tailor their research, text organisation, and language register appropriately.
iii. Gather Research
Now, with a clear focus for their research efforts, it’s time for the student to gather up the necessary information for writing their report through online and/or print-based research.
While it’s essential that students draw on a variety of sources when writing their report, they need to also make sure that they evaluate the sources they use as they go.
Determining the reliability of the source is practically a science on its own, but some questions students should ask when evaluating sources for objectivity are:
- Who is the author?
- Who is the publisher?
- Is the content fact or opinion-based?
- Are the third-party sources and evidence used reliable?
Information Report Writing Skill 2: Impeccable Planning
The whole purpose of an information report is to inform. It says so right there in the title!
To achieve this purpose, reports need to be highly organized and a well-organized report is the result of impeccable planning.
When a report has been diligently planned, the writing process is much more efficient. The writer avoids wasting time with irrelevancies, and identifying sources and keeping track of references is much easier. All this helps alleviate any stress placed on the student and makes for an overall better text at the end of the process.
A helpful way to organize the planning is through the use of themes marked by headings and subheadings that can later be used in the finished text itself.
Often, in reports, the opening provides a broad overview of the paper’s focus and gradually narrows the focus as it goes into more detail on various aspects or themes of the report’s topic.
There are all sorts of useful tools to help facilitate the planning process including:
- Mind maps
- Custom-purpose graphic organizers
It’s worthwhile spending the time necessary to ensure your students are familiarized with these and to provide templates to help students practice these strategies. It will certainly help to facilitate an effective planning process for your budding report writers.
Skill 3: Coherent Writing
As mentioned, the purpose of this text type is to communicate information to the reader in a clear, easily understandable manner. To do this requires the student to take a few things into consideration.
i. Use Appropriate Vocabulary
Firstly, they’ll need to write in a way appropriate for the audience they are trying to connect with. They will have identified this audience back in the research stage of writing, but they will now need to take this information into account while writing.
Generally, it is good practice for the student to avoid jargon in their information reports or, at least, introduce difficult subject-specific vocabulary with a brief explanation when first mentioned in the text.
While the needless use of jargon should be discouraged, using subject-specific vocabulary is not only unavoidable, it should be encouraged. Where necessary, the student should consider including a glossary within their report to assist the reader to understand difficult, unfamiliar terms.
ii. Use Straightforward Sentence Structures
For the same reason that they should avoid obscure and needlessly complicated vocabulary in their writing, students should also write in a straightforward and easy-to-understand manner.
The most efficient way to inform the reader is to communicate in a direct and uncomplicated way. Students should not try to dazzle the reader with the beauty of sophisticated, grammatically complex sentences.
The purpose here is to communicate information, not to beguile with linguistic virtuosity. Reinforce with your students the importance of a no-nonsense approach to writing their information reports – the practical over the ornate, always!
One particularly useful strategy to help students write in a direct manner is to encourage them to picture a single individual they are writing the information report for.
This individual can be entirely imaginary, e.g. a hypothetical work colleague or boss, but having a clear image of the reader in their mind often helps the student to write in a more direct, straightforward manner.
Skill 4: Fitting Visuals
The text in information reports is often accompanied by visuals in the form of diagrams, charts, graphs, illustrations, and photographs. This serves three purposes:
- To add more detail and supplement the information contained in the text;
- To offer the reader an alternative method of ‘reading’ important information; and
- To illustrate concepts that are difficult to express in text form.
A capable student will not only skillfully select appropriate information to communicate visually, but will also develop the skills necessary to present information in a visual form.
Luckily, there are lots of online tools students can use to help. Many of these are intuitive to use and can be learned quickly, with Canva being one of the most popular of these.
Google docs also offers lots of easy-to-use tools and add-ons such as Google Drawing and Lucidcharts.
Skill 5: Excellence in Editing
For many students, editing is more of an afterthought than a distinct skill and an integral part of the writing process itself.
As with any complex skill, editing can be broken down into a set of sub-skills that students will need to develop to ensure they achieve excellence in editing.
The editing process can helpfully be broken down as follows:
Step 1: The Structural Edit
Once the student has completed their draft, it’s time to undertake a structural edit. As you might imagine, this run-through focuses on the key elements of the report’s structure.
This involves an examination of the overall organization of the text. This is a big picture edit that assesses whether the report accomplishes the report’s original goals.
To help students ascertain whether or not their report is sound in structure and addresses the topic, they may ask questions such as
- Is the information within the report presented in a logical and coherent manner?
- Does the report answer the central questions investigated?
- Is all the information included relevant?
- Do the paragraphs flow consistently?
- Is the text formatted effectively?
- Are transitions between the different sections of the report effective?
- Is the tone and the style consistent throughout?
- Are the visual resources used appropriate and effective?
- Has spacing been used to good effect?
While the above questions help the student to focus on tangible aspects of the information report’s structure, the student should also consider less pin-downable aspects of their work such as the ‘look’ and the ‘feel’ of the text.
Step 2: The Line Edit
In the next run-through, the student will narrow their focus down to each individual sentence to focus on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. This edit examines the nuts and bolts of the writing process and students should ask themselves the following questions as they edit:
- Is the vocabulary used suitable for the topic and audience?
- Have clichés and jargon been avoided?
- Is everything spelled correctly?
- Is punctuation used correctly?
- Are verb tenses correct?
- Are the sentences grammatically sound?
If the student has word-processed their report, then they will, most likely, have access to grammar and spell checkers and they should certainly take advantage of that fact.
However, they should also cast a critical eye over each and every word in their report themselves. While checkers are extremely useful tools to help ensure accuracy, they are far from infallible and cannot ‘check’ on the writer’s intent. At least not yet!
Step 3: Take a Break
You’ve heard the expression ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’? Will that’s as true, if not more true, in editing as in anything else.
When pressed up against deadlines and even the desire just to be done with it, students often lack the necessary perspective to be able to adequately edit their own work. And, because it isn’t always possible to get a qualified third party with the time or inclination to run a critical eye over their work, it’s important that students take the time to allow their work to rest.
Ideally, this ‘rest’ will be at least overnight. If that’s not possible, the student should allow for a few hours’ break before casting a final, refreshed eye over their work before submitting it.
Allowing for this time and distance creates an opportunity for the student to reset and helps ensure fewer errors escape the eagle-eyed editor!
Step 4: Read Aloud
On the very final run-through, the student should be encouraged to read the text aloud.
When the student reads their work aloud, they are forced to read at a slower pace than they would do if they were reading their work silently.
This slower pace encourages the student to pay more attention to the words on the page and provides them with a further opportunity to catch any mistakes as they listen to the words rather than merely read them.
In the Final Analysis
As your students work on developing the skills above, it’s vital to reinforce that information reports are short, concise documents that are written for a particular purpose and for a specific audience.
It is these two facts that should reinforce every decision students make during the writing process. With these facts consistently in mind, it will be difficult for students to stray too far from the report’s original goals.
By practising the skills required to write informatively for a specific audience and for a particular purpose, students will develop the skills necessary to communicate effectively throughout their schooling and beyond into their working lives.
Content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book the Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.