Structure matters: Reports need good ‘bones’

Corinna Lines | October 17, 2023

When you have lots to do at work, planning a report can feel like too much trouble, right?

But what if planning would actually save you time? We know that it can feel easier to just dive in and start writing. However, after you’ve typed out everything you know about a topic, you can spend an awful lot of time revising and editing all that knowledge to get your content into shape. You have to make lots of decisions about which parts should stay and what should come out.

You may not think of your report as having ‘bones’, but we often refer to a report’s structure as its ‘skeleton’. So the words you add are like the flesh.

Wooden figure with arm around a skeleton wearing a red woolly hat.

Skeletons don’t have to be scary. Image by Ekaterina Kuznetsova / Unsplash licence

Make sure your skeleton is strong

Even for this blog post, I started by planning its structure — how I’d start, where I’d go next, and how I’d finish. Have I thought critically about my viewpoint? Does a strong foundation of experience and expert knowledge support my views? What about images, links, and all those SEO things?

And then I’d add the words.

In a report, you might start by listing the topics you’ll cover. We often suggest using sticky notes to write a topic on — they are small enough to stop you writing too much. Then you can reorder them until you’re happy with the flow of the information.

Brown, black, and white short-haired dog with a blue chewy ‘kong’ bone.

Not that sort of bone. Image by Chewy / Unsplash licence

Use headings as ‘bones’

Informative headings identify each topic and help readers see what each section is about. They can scan the headings to find parts that are relevant to their interest. Write informative headings, rather than generic labels like ‘Background’ or ‘Next steps’. (I’ve aimed to use informative headings in this blog post.)

Using Word’s styles for headings allows you to extract a table of contents automatically — this is a great way to check your skeleton’s strength. Look carefully at the headings on your Contents page… Do you have a logical flow of information? Have you started with your purpose and any action points or recommendations? Have you considered what questions the reader may have? And have you answered them?

Write executive summaries last

If your report has an executive summary, write it at the end, when you’re happy with your content. An executive summary shouldn’t have anything new in it. Summarise the key messages briefly rather than copying and pasting from the report.

Wild flowers in multiple colours.

Don’t let weeds choke your flowers. Image by Ries Bosch / Unsplash licence

Think of planning as an investment

Maybe you’re still not convinced about taking time to plan the structure of your report. Yes, you could write screeds of useful information and then go through it all to ‘weed out’ what you don’t need. But we believe that it’s more efficient to decide on a plan and write according to it. Could you try it once and see if it does save time?

So for your next report, grab a pad of sticky notes and do some planning before you touch that keyboard. And let us know how it works for you!

Learn more about writing effectively

Write offers workshops on writing effectively, and making sure your skeleton is sound:

Business Writing Essentials

Critical Thinking

Proposal Writing

Report Writing

Writing for the Kiwi Workplace

Check out our free Q&A: Get to the point — how to write clearly and concisely.

And our e-learning library is packed with short videos to give you quick tips on topics that matter to you (free 7-day trial): Write Online

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