How To Write A Good Technical Report
You might be asking yourself ‘what is a technical report?’ And, there is no shame in being unclear about the topic of technical reports. Unless you’ve spent any amount of time in a specialized field of study, like engineering or something else that requires a high degree of scientific research, it is not very likely that you’ve had much exposure to these types of detailed scientific papers.
As we eluded to earlier, a technical paper (also known as a scientific report) is a comprehensive and detailed document that serve the purpose of describing the process, progress or results of highly technical or scientific research. They might also describe the state of a calculate research problem.
Technical reports are also sometimes used to present recommendations or findings for research. Different from other forms of scientific writing, like journals and overviews of academic conferences, scientific reports are seldom submitted for independent peer review prior to their publication.
They belong to a classification of literature known as ‘grey literature’, whenever there is a review process, it will typically be limited only to the originating organization. Additionally, there are no formal publications processes for these types of technical reports.
Technical reports are written for a number of different reasons. They might be used to introduce new government policies, or to provide a comprehensive overview and technical specification on a new product. However, most frequently, they are used to introduce new research or to contrast or challenge existing research.
Writing this type of lengthy and data-rich document is not an easy task. In fact, technical reports written at the grad school and above level can take years to complete, especially when the research is either ongoing or requires a certain period of observation time. It isn’t uncommon for individuals to base their entire professional careers around scientific papers – this is especially true for anyone in the field of academic or research.
Technical Report – Where Is It Used?
Technical reports and white papers are one in the same. Historically, the term ‘white paper’ was coined to refer to ‘official government reports’ as a way of legitimizing this type of technical writing and to reinforce the notion that the previously mentioned documents were not only reliable but also informative and official.
Oftentimes, authors will call upon this specific genre of writing whenever they attempt to argue a specific position or way of thinking, or when they are attempting to propose a solution to a specific problem to an audience that may not necessarily be in their specific peer or organizational circle.
Modern white papers, or technical reports, have extended beyond their traditional roles to include use as marketing tools for businesses trying to promote their products to consumers who might be looking for technical specifications on specific products or for ways to solve complex problems.
More often than not, the objective of a technical paper is to reinforce a specific viewpoint and to demonstrate why that position is the most appropriate view to subscribe to or to show why a particular solution is the best for a specific issue or problem. When used in a commercial or fashion, technical reports can strongly influence the decision making process.
The same can be said about technical reports that are written in an academic setting, they are often used to persuade committees or regulatory bodies to adopt a specific view point in hopes of soliciting funds for further research or as a way to convince organizations to change specific processes or procedures based on the results of specialized studies.
What you need to know before you start writing a technical report
As mentioned previously, a technical report is simply a formal document that serves the very specific process of sharing specialized information in an organized and concise format. The template for a technical report is typically divided into various sections that will allow the reader to quickly access different sections of information.
A properly formatted technical report will have the following sections or subsections:
- A cover page
- A summary
- Table of contents section
- An introduction
- The body paragraphs, divided into numbered and headed sections
- The conclusions
- The reference page
- The bibliography
- Appendices – if required.
To further elaborate,
The cover page: The title page of your report should include, in addition to the tile of the report itself, the summary of the word count and the main text word count, provided that word length has been specified.
Summary: a summary of the entire report, including all relevant and important features, findings and conclusions.
Table of contents: An outline of the numbers page listings, including subsections.
Introduction: Clearly state the goal or purpose of the report and any comments on the how the report should be treated. Remember to lead into the report, and to avoid simply copying the introduction of the handout provided to you by your teacher.
The body paragraphs: Divide each section into numbered and headed sections. The objective is to separate different ideas in a logical order.
Conclusions: A concise and logical summation of the themes that developed throughout the report.
References: The complete details of all published source material that was used in or the writing phase of the report.
Bibliography: All of the published material that was used not only in the written report, but also during the research phase – whether it can be found in the finished report or not.
Acknowledgements: Credit all of the people who might have helped you to research or prepare your technical paper, including anyone who helped to proofread the document.
Appendices: Any additional material that might be useful in order to develop a stronger understanding of your paper. For example, diagrams, raw data, or computer code. Note that appendices are not typically material required by the ‘average’ reader but are there for those with a vested interest in learning more about your research and how you came to your conclusions.
There are several schools of thought on the proper mechanics for writing a technical report, and the way your plan, prepare and present your report will depend largely on the institution you attend or the trade organization that you are presenting your research findings to.
That being said, at the root of all technical reports is a well-planned and detailed outline. Here is a very basic and generalized outline for a standard, two page technical report. This report puts the main focus on the methods used for during the research, the assumptions made during the course of study and the presentation of data backed up by supporting documentation.
SUMMARY OF THE FINDINGS
Provide a brief overview of the main results that will be mentioned
NATURE OF THE RESEARCH
Describe the general goals or objectives of the research, demonstrate the problem, write your working hypothesis, the type of analysis and data needed, etc.
DESCRIBE THE RESEARCH METHODS USED
Discuss the various methods of research that were used and what limitations they have, if any.
REFERENCE THE DATA
There should be some discussion about the data that was collected, and where that data came from, as well as its limitations and characteristics.
DATA ANALYSIS AND PRESENTATION
The data you’ve compiled should be analysed and presented, along with supporting facts and figures with the aid of charts and tables. The data will eventually serve as the main parts of your report.
YOUR FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS
Next, provide a detailed summary of your results and any implications that warrant further exploration or explanation.
List all of the sources used during the research or writing of your report and attach it to the end of your report.
Attach any graphs, charts or other documents that might be needed to provide additional insight into your research in the appendices. This is where all of the documentation that might not necessarily be useful to the average reader, but could be needed for anyone with a stronger interest in the research or topic should do.
Here are a few examples of well written technical reports that you can read to gain a more thorough understanding of what is expected in a high quality report:
What you will notice in each of the above noted examples is that each paper is carefully organized and the information is laid out in a logical format, often following a chain or sequence of events and mimicking the progression that was discussed in the introduction.
If you are writing a technical paper for a broader audience, or if you have included a large amount of technical jargon or abbreviations in your writing, it might be in good practice to also include a glossary of terms so that anyone reading your paper who might not necessarily be an expert in your field of study can reference it if they become confused or unclear about a particular word or phrase.
How to cite a technical report in different styles?
How you choose to cite your technical report will depend greatly on the style guide for your profession or educational institution. For example, APA might require one format of citation where as CSIRO might dictate a completely different type of citation.
Here are a few examples of ways that you might choose to cite a technical report, according to style guide.
Whether you are writing a technical report for school, to obtain research or grant funding, to demonstrate the effectiveness of a specific product, to solve some sort of existing problem or to challenge someone else’s research, the most important thing to remember is to always cite your sources, both in-text and in the bibliography.
Failing or forgetting to do so ultimately will result in accusations of plagiarism. Given the complex nature of technical reports, being found guilty of plagiarism could result in real legal action, or it might even destroy your credibility and make it impossible for you to succeed in your field.