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I am a management consultant and an important part of my work is writing reports. There are different types of reports but mostly I follow a common process. My target audience for this post is university undergraduates but I hope that others find it useful as well.

This the ElephantPM report writing process.

Get Organised

This is a vitally important step. You don’t want to loose your work accidentally. Common issues include misfiling, losing your laptop and hard drive failure.

If my project was called “The Economics of Plant Disease” I would create the following folders in OneDrive.

  • The Economics of Plant Disease
    • 1 Brief
    • 2 Data
    • 3 Working Documents
    • 4 Deliverables

Each subfolder starts with a digit so that they appear in the correct order in file explorer. I use OneDrive because this is constantly backed up to the cloud.

A excellent alternative to using folders on your hard disk for Microsoft Office users is to create a OneNote notebook for the project with these sections. This has many advantages because it is easy to share and collaborate. I am presently testing OneNote for this purpose and expect to adopt it in future.

I will now talk about the folders in turn,

Brief

“1 Brief” contains documents that describe the “Deliverables” that you have to produce. Understanding the brief is the single most important step in writing a report. If you don’t have it correctly documented and don’t understand it properly your project will fail.

Good briefing documents will define the content, format and presentation (submission) of your deliverables. I talk more about this in the next section.

Data

There are lots of different data sources for a report and these might include

  • handwritten notes
  • company financials
  • internal white papers
  • books
  • spreadsheets

All these sources are put into the folder “2 Data” or inserted (and/or printed) into your OneNote notebook.

Working Documents

In”3 Working Documents” are the things that you have to make that contribute towards your deliverables. For example,

  • An Excel spreadsheet you use to analyse your data
  • A Word document that you will eventually submit
  • Annotated images (copied from your Data folder)

You can see that there is clear separation between you Data and your Working Documents. This stops you accidentally corrupting your data. For example if you delete a image thinking that you won’t need it in your report but then find it is needed you can just get another copy from the “2. Data” folder.

Deliverables

The “4 Deliverables” folder is where you put the final materials that will be submitted and archived. For example, if you have to submit a PDF you will put the final Word document in this folder together with its PDF version.

Very often a client will came back to you after few days and ask for another copy or minor revisions. Having this Deliverables folder makes it easy to find and revise your documents.

Understand the brief

It only takes a minute to create the folders described above. The next step is to copy your briefing documents into the folder “1 Brief” and understand what is required. The brief must cover three topics; the content, format and presentation of your work.

“Content” is what the report is about. Don’t write about the “History of England in 1600” if you were asked to write about the “History of New England in 1600”.

“Format” is the medium in which you present your work. For example, it might be a PDF, or a PowerPoint file. The formatting might be highly defined, for example, for my thesis I had to submit “three copies, 2 bound, 1 unbound, in Times Roman typeface …” In many cases if your format is wrong you get zero marks.

“Presentation” is how you submit your work. For example, it might be “upload to the university portal using the Unique Identifier 284484549 by 24:00 on 31/12/16”.

It is the nature of our working lives that as we get older and our skills and responsibilities increase the briefs get worse. For example, at A Level you might get a brief like “Write 1500 words on the Elizabethan navy using the sources from your textbook. I will take in your exercise books in next Tuesday’s lesson”.

This is an easy brief because the content, format and presentation of the deliverable are all well defined.

A Ph.D brief might be “Investigate {topic of interest} with respect to {variable}” and submit a thesis. It is the nature of a Ph.D project that the content is not well defined at the start and you will be responsible for defining this fully after a year (say). However even at the beginning of the project the format and presentation are well known. These are defined by university regulations and can be copied into your brief folder and read carefully.

It is very important that you know what a good brief looks like. This is because one day you  will manage people and you will want to give them good briefs.

Collecting the data

Having documented and understood the brief you can now collect all the data you will need for your report and put it in your folder or OneNote notebook.

It is not desirable to file entire books so you might make a document that references the relevant sections and content. For example “Quotes from Taylor.docx” or a node in a MindMap called “Quotes from Taylor”. It is also possible to photograph content with Microsoft Office Lens on your mobile phone and then either store the image in the folder or insert it into your Microsoft OneNote file.

It is important to do this as thoroughly as possible because you don’t want to discover new information that ruins the flow of your report when you are half way through writing it.

Brainstorming

The first document to go into your “3. Working Documents” folder is your mind-map. My preferred mind mapping tool is Freemind.

Create a mind-map file called “The Economics of Plant Disease” and start adding nodes. During this brainstorm session you just put in everything that might possibly be relevant and ideas for what will go in your report. You may find it useful to add things under topics e.g. “Potatoes” , “fungus”, “Taylor” but don’t try to organise stuff much at this point.

If this is group work then everyone should pitch in and nothing is wrong. Just get it into the mind-map.

Freemind lets you add hyper links to files in your OneDrive directories and on the web if you wish.

Analysis

Our previous steps of understanding the brief, collecting data and brainstorming are all about breadth. We have ensured that we understand the whole problem and have everything at hand to solve it.

We now begin analysis within our mind map. First we identify themes and concepts and create nodes for them and move or copy content into them. For example, we might move nodes about “Potatoes” and “Casava” under a node called “Fungal infections of tubers”.

We do this until everything in our brainstorm has been put into a sensible node. This is an iterative activity and the “shape” of your analysis might change several times while you do it. For example, you may find that it is more useful to group content by “Geographic Region” than by “Type of Infection”. We call this changing the dimension of our analysis.

During this activity we will usually identify some duplication, missing content and irrelevant content but is should not take long to sort this out.

At the end of the Analysis phase you should pretty clear about the “shape” of your answer.

Document Structure

We now know the shape of our answer and the challenge is to create a report that communicates it to the reader.

At this point it is important to review the brief to ensure that your Analysis meets the content requirements and to see what formatting is required. For our example, let us assume the requirement is something like,

  • Abstract
  • Overview
  • Section 1
  • Section 2
  • Section 3
  • Conclusion

We review our analysis and create a new node in our mind-map for the report with the sub-nodes for each section. For our example it might be,

  • The Economics of Plant Disease Report
    • Abstract
    • Overview
    • Types of Crop
    • Geographic Distribution of Crop disease
    • Disease Pathologies
    • Economics
    • Conclusion

We now copy the data nodes from the themes in the analysis to the document sections.

Writing the Report

Our careful analysis will have produced a good structure with a strong narrative and we really understand the content. We have actually done 70% of the work of producing the report without opening a word processor.

What remains is to turn the data and thoughts in the mind map into nicely flowing paragraphs without spelling errors and grammatical mistakes that detract from our message.

Microsoft Word is a good tool for this. First create the sections that you have identified and start writing the paragraphs from the first section (you will do the Abstract, Overview and Conclusion at the end). Work your way through until you have a first draft. This should not take too long because you have strong structure and your careful analysis means that there are no nasty surprises, like “OMG! I forgot carrots!”

You should be able to look at your first draft with the quiet satisfaction of knowing that you have done everything possible to satisfy the content and format parts of your brief.

Some people write well, others don’t and it takes a lot of practice to find your voice. I find it very useful to read out my text aloud. If it does not sound right to my ears it probably needs to be redrafted.

Submitting your work

When you have the final copy of your report you should save it in your “4 Deliverables” folder. I would call it “The Economics of Plant Disease 1.0.docx” and also create a PDF.

Carefully read the submission rules and follow them precisely.

How to avoid running out of time

People run of time because they make one of these common mistakes.

They don’t pay attention in class

  • “I found I had a essay the lecturer never told me about”
  • “I was sick and so I did not get the homework”

As my old boss used to say “You can write your excuse on the back of a P45“.

They don’t read the brief properly

If you don’t understand the brief then when you review the first draft with your friends (or the client) you find that you have to massively rework it.

It is vitally important to read and understand the brief before you start brainstorming. If you don’t understand the brief discuss it with others and write your own notes to define it better.

They get writer’s block

A blank sheet of paper is a terrifying thing to a writer. It is very tempting to say “sod it” and go down the pub until the fear of the deadline exceeds the fear of the work.

The ElephantPM process removes writer’s block totally. No-one can be scared of creating some folders, copying in some source documents, and doing a brainstorm. It just work and you get on with it. Like digging a hole it requires some effort but not courage.

Starting too late

The number one cause of all project failures is starting too late. To understand why, it is essential to know the difference between “work” and “duration”.

“Work” is the hours you do actually writing the report. “Duration” is the number of days that pass between starting and finishing. This includes lots of things such as,

  • being sick in bed
  • waiting for an essential book to be delivered from the library
  • waiting for your fellow student to do their bit so you can do yours
  • fixing your laptop

You can see that a report that takes 3 day’s work might easily have a duration of 14 days. More often than not deadline panics could have been avoided by starting earlier.

Start a project as soon as you get the brief.

And Finally

I hope that you have found this useful. If so then please share it with others. If you have any questions please make a comment and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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