Dublin City University
Office of the Dean of Teaching and Learning (ODTL)
Hints on Technical Report Writing
School of Electronic
Dublin City University
Working Paper odtl-1999-03
Last revised: November 1999
This note gives a number of pointers to writing professional,
structured technical reports. It is loosely aimed at engineers
producing technical papers, reports, dissertations and theses. The
ideas contained herein are necessarily subjective, but are based
on writing and correcting reports over a period of about 16 years.
Though writing style is inevitably individual, and refreshingly
so, some basic principles are useful in guiding the prospective
author in order to obtain a sound starting point and ease the
daunting perspective of writing a lengthy document.
One major difficulty with a large document is the rather onerous
task of addressing a full pad of blank paper. Additionally, the
task of achieving good structure from the start is compounded by
the myriad of thoughts which one juggles, in an attempt to sort out
the logical progression of the document. Failure in this endeavour
will surely result in structural changes at a later stage, which
are the most costly of revisions. The key to achieving both good
structure (from the start) and decomposing the initially
large problem into bite-sized chunks lies in the contents
1. Document Structure
For most people, the contents list is a summary of the chapter and
section headings, together with a page index, and is normally
written when the document is already complete. However, the
contents list is the one place in the document where overall
structure can be examined, so why not get the structure right at
the start? Early organisation of the contents list is certainly
not a trivial problem and may take up to a few days to draft. The
level of detail should go down to (probably) subsubsections, where
the final level contains one key idea and takes up, at most, two
to three paragraphs of text. It may even be useful to title each
paragraph, though this may not appear in the final contents list
as a formal heading.
1.1 The contents list
Again, it is important to stress that laying out the contents list
is not easy. However, some hard work at this stage will save a lot
of grief later on and is pro-active in ensuring good structure. A
badly structured document inherits its own inertia and will be
very difficult (and laborious) to correct at a later stage.
By logical structure is meant the natural unfolding of a story as
the reader progresses through the document. This is achieved by
going from the general to the specific, with the background
material preceding the technical expose, which should lead logically to the conclusions. Consider a good joke. It has
the structure as shown in Fig.1:
In our case, the punchline is the set of conclusions. Everything
should support the conclusions and naturally lead up to them.
Remember this when constructing your contents list! A typical
technical report has the following progression:
If some of the detail is standard, but possibly difficult to
obtain, it can be included as an appendix. More information on
appendices is given in Section 1.5.
From the hierarchical structure in the contents list, it should
now be possible to write each of the subsubsections (or
paragraphs) as a more-or-less independent entity, observing
however, the relationship between different sections. The a
priori establishment of the contents list also allows section
numbers to be assigned to the different document sections, making
cross-referencing relatively simple.
With a technical document, it is often beneficial to write the
technical chapters first i.e., the core material, leaving the
introduction, discussion and conclusions until the end. This is
especially important when some results are still not available and
the time has come to begin writing your document. Even in cases
where all results are available, leaving the introduction until
the end allows a better perspective to be had on the document as a
Many authors are uncertain as to what to include in the appendix
section. Generally, appendices should contain relatively standard
derivations and perhaps lists of parameter values, which would
interfere with the continuity of the main body of the document. In
particular, the appendix section should not contain:
1.5 Appendix material
As with the main document sections, the appendices should
reference all material which is not the authors original work (see
Section 2.5). All appendices should be numbered
consecutively, for example Appendix A1, Appendix A2, etc., in
order to allow cross-referencing from the text.
- All the figures corresponding to the document. Ideally
these should appear alongside the appropriate text, or else
after the references in a separate section.
- Photocopies of data sheets, or other easily-accessible
- Any material which is crucial to the continuity or flow of
the `story' in the main technical sections.
Depending on the nature of your document, it may (optionally) have
the following sections:
- Title page
- with name, affiliation, date, etc.
- to a friend, family member, or loved one
- that the material in the report is the
author's own work
- to those who have helped or influenced
- Contents list
- which lists items from here on with
appropriate page references, see Section 1.1
- which summarises the report contents
- which introduces the work, provides the
motivation and context and outlines other related work
- Main technical chapters
- which document the core
- which may also identify appropriate future
work, see Section 2.6
- see Section 2.5
- see Section 1.5
Writing style is probably the most individual aspect of a report,
but again there are useful guidelines which aid the readability,
professionalism, objectiveness and impact of a report.
All reports should be written in the third person i.e., as an objective observer! Avoid using terms such as ``I did this
experiment and ..". Instead substitute terms, such as ``The
experiment was performed ...''. Note that the best written
description is not necessarily the same as the best verbal
Decide, in advance of writing, who the likely reader of the
document is. The document must be pitched at an appropriate level
with sufficient background to allow understanding by the target
audience. Examples of target audiences are shown in Table
2. Writing Style
Example target audiences
|Final year proj. report
||Engineers not specifically au fait with your project area
||Researchers familiar with the subject area, but not necessarily with your approach
||Researchers familiar with the approach, but not your specific results
Failure to pitch the level correctly will also inevitably result
in failure to communicate your ideas effectively, since the reader
will either be swamped with complexity, or bored with blandness!
This section deals with items related to general appearance and
professionalism of the report.
This may seem a small an unimportant point for an engineering
text, but poor spelling makes a document seem sloppy and may
convey an impression that the engineering content is as loose as
the general appearance! There are spelling checkers in virtually
every word processor now , so use them! However, don't assume that
a spelling checker will get all your typos, so long as the word is
in its dictionary, it won't flag an error. These checkers are
good, but they can't read your mind (yet!). If the report
language is not your first language, get a natural speaker to
check your document (see Section 5.2).
Same here as for spelling. Many word processors now have grammar
checkers as well as spell checkers, but the usefulness of these is
debatable, so don't rely on them. If in doubt, keep your sentences
short and don't be afraid to ask somebody how to use punctuation
Avoid excessive use of capital letters. One recommendation is to
only use capitals for proper nouns (such as place names, company
names, etc) and in places where acronyms are being defined, e.g.,
Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM). Acronyms should be defined at
the first point of usage and the acronym can then be used freely.
Try to avoid the use of capitals for emphasis, use boldfacing or
italics instead. Capitals can be used effectively to differentiate
between different section heading levels, such as in this document
i.e., the next level up uses capitals to start each word in the
subsection title. However, if you wish to do this, or
differentiate between different heading levels in a different way,
make sure you are consistent in the way you do this.
Engineers and scientists are constant sceptics and need to be
constantly re-assured that your work is pragmatic. For each idea
presented, you should establish some rationale or motivation
for its undertaking and any assumptions made must be justified. Similarly, critical assessment should be made of your
Plagiarism is an unacceptable breach of copyright, where an author
presents methods, text or results as his/her own, without
reference to the original source. Ignorance of the original source
or a forgetful omission is no excuse and the consequences for
plagiarism are serious where it appears in examinable documents.
However, in addition to referencing work which is included in your
report, it is also necessary to be aware (as fully as possible) of
other work which has been carried out which relates to your
research. This becomes very important in MEng/PhD theses and
research papers, which sit on the world stage and require that the
author be aware of all related works. Searching for related
literature can be performed by computerised searches through
databases, such as INSPEC and Compendex, or by directly searching
through journals. The Internet can also sometimes be a useful
source of information.
2.5 Observing the outside world
Make sure that your referencing method is one of the popular ones
(such as the Harvard or MLA styles ). There's
absolutely no point in inventing another system of your own.
Ensure you know how to correctly reference:
As a basic requirement, you should provide enough information to
allow the reader to access the source of your material. The
examples shown follow the general form used by the IEEE: numerical
order, in order of appearance. This form is frequently used in
other engineering journals and books, though the Harvard style
 is also popular.
- A journal paper 
- A conference paper 
- A PhD/MEng thesis, final-year project or research report
- A book 
- An Internet source (via the URL) .
Conclusions must conclude! They must give some overall
insight into the value of your work in general and inform the
reader of what the major impact is, together with any caveats
which the reader should be aware of. A popular `cop-out' is to
fill the conclusions section with a summary of what's in the
technical chapters. This concludes nothing! The summary (if
present) should be at the start of the document as an abstract. It
may be helpful to flag items on a list, which are appropriate for
the conclusions section, while writing the technical chapters. The
key to your conclusions is then provided by the list.
2.6 Writing conclusions
A technical report can contain information in a variety of forms.
These include text, figures, tables and equations. The following
subsections contain some information regarding the appropriate use
of each. However, choosing different means of representation can
also be used to give visual balance to the document, for example
by breaking up long sections of text with equations, tables or
figures. In cases where several options are available for
representing a particular piece of information, the author can
choose appropriately to make the document a less daunting prospect
to the reader through visual balance. In most cases, however, the
appropriate choice of medium is dictated by the type of
information to be communicated.
``A picture tells a thousand words''? There is great substance in
this statement, and nowhere more obvious than in technical
reports. Use figures liberally to communicate specific results
(graphs) and show an overview of the system being described
through block diagrams, etc. Where possible, put multiple plots on
the same axes, so that comparative conclusions can be drawn.
Ensure that each figure has a number and a title, so that it can
be referenced from the text.
Tables are an excellent means of giving an overview of numerical
results or providing information in a form which lends itself to
comparison. Again, ensure that each table has a number and a
title, so that it can be referenced from the text.
Some authors shun the formality of equations, preferring to
describe the required relationships in textual form. However, it
is generally possible to encapsulate a whole paragraph of such
text in a single equations. Use equations in a technical report
where possible! Number all equations consecutively to allow
reference from the text. Be careful that all the notation
you use is defined and beware of using the same mnemonic for two
Text is the `filler' and provides the bridge between the
equations, figures, tables and references. See Section
2 for more information on the form of the text.
There is currently a great variety of word processor software
available. Two of the popular packages for producing technical
documents are briefly reviewed here, along with comparative
advantages and disadvantages. See Table 2 for some
This popular piece of bloatware (you can tell that this author is
not a great fan!) from Bill Gates is by far the most popular
worldwide. It sits happily in the WindowsTM environment and
provides inter-operability between other WindowsTM
applications, giving you the opportunity to pull in graphs (e.g.,
from MATLABTM) or tables (e.g., from Excel) from other
WindowsTM applications. The main benefit is that Word is
WYSIWYG i.e., your document appears on the screen as it will be
(barring a few Microsoft funnies) in printed form. Word also has
an equation editor and an in-built drawing package (neither of
which this author is very fond of) and a table `wizard', for easy
generation of tables. Overall, easy to use and quick to learn, but
the `intelligent' automatic corrections it does are particularly
infuriating with a technical document, which may have a lot of
non-standard text. The major drawbacks are the relatively large
file sizes, which can lead to other problems, such as unexpected
software crashes, with possible loss of input. This author's
personal experiences with Word wouldn't be a major sell for Bill
LaTeX  is a suite of (largely shareware) typesetting
software, which gives excellent output. The main drawback is that
it isn't WYSIWYG, a mark-up language (similar to HTML) being used
to specify formatting commands, math symbols, etc. As a result,
the learning curve for LaTeX is considerably longer than for Word,
explaining its relative lack of popularity. However, some
context-sensitive editors are available for LaTeX (such as
WinEdt), which are a considerable help for people used to a
WindowsTM menu-based system. It is probably true to say that
the LaTeX system has been adopted by the majority of researchers
in the area of mathematical sciences for the preparation of
technical documents. The main advantages are that file sizes are
small and it has excellent (and easy-to-use) cross referencing
as well as good facilities for producing mathematical mark-up
(symbols, equations, etc). This document was produced in LaTeX.
- Tables, and
Comparison of word processing software
|Speed of input
Having completed the major chore of writing the document, you may
consider that your work is complete. If there is a higher
authority to whom the project/document is done under the guidance
of, you may consider that it is their duty to do the quality
control on it. Wrong! While your supervisor may suggest
modifications to structure or provide suggestions on some
technical points, it is not their job to correct spelling,
grammar, etc. The primary responsibility for the quality of your
document lies with yourself. It is worth taking that extra small
amount of time to ensure that your document is professional and is
free from grammatical and spelling mistakes.
In proof-reading the document yourself, you should attempt to look
at the document in a fresh light as a reader completely new to the
material. The capacity to adopt this `schizophrenic' stance will
greatly aid your ability to improve the document. Don't be tempted
to gloss over sections or speed-read the text, happy in the
knowledge that you know what's in there!
If you are fortunate to have a colleague or friend from the target
reader group who is willing to give you a little time, the view of
an objective and completely fresh reader can be of great benefit.
This person may also be able to pick up spelling or grammatical
errors which you yourself are unaware of. The use of a friend
or colleague at this stage is vital in cases where the document is
not written in the author's first language.
Given that the document is a clear read (ensured by the two
previous stages of quality control), your supervisor can provide
some help regarding the technical accuracy of your report. The
converse is also true, in that the lack of clarity in the first
place will inhibit the refinement of the technical content! If
you want to get the best, in terms of advice on possible technical
improvement, the document must be relatively error free. If a
supervisor is prepared to correct typos, grammar, etc., it is
unlikely that he/she is going to have time to focus on the more
important technical points. In short, you should get the best out
of your document by ensuring that you observe the 3 stages of
quality control. When you become well practiced at technical
documents, just reviewing the document yourself (critically) may
5.2 Some friendly help
This note has attempted to highlight the salient features of
technical report writing. It is not a comprehensive guide. It is
motivated by a large number of reports which this author has seen
which have not nearly done justice to the work which they were
intended to report on. It is as important to report well on the
work as to perform good technical work. Consider the case of a
BEng project report in the School of Electronic Engineering at
DCU, as an example, where 60% of the marks are allocated on the
basis of the report alone. This mark is indicative of the relative
importance attached to reporting in the wider industrial
community. For further reading see, for example, the volume by
Learn by example! Make sure you have a critical look at a similar
type of document before you take your first steps. Is this report,
in your opinion, clear and well written? Try not to make the same
mistakes as that author made!
Finally, this report was specifically structured to demonstrate
sections, subsections and the use of tables, figure and
references. It was written according to the methodology in Section
1, where each subsection has a core idea, making it
very easy to write. No doubt, it has imperfections - here's your
chance to improve on it! Aim to excel at your report writing. The
professional nature of your reports will stand to you. Remember
that ideas committed to print will potentially be perused by a
considerable number of people (including potential employers!)
over a considerable period into the future.
Byrne, N. Citing and Referencing - A Guide for Students,
Dublin City University Library, 1998.
Hirschorn, R.M. and Miller, G. Control of nonlinear systems
with friction, IEEE Trans. on Control System Technology,
Vol.7, No.5, Sept. 1999.
Whitfield, A. and Wallace, F.J. Study of incidence loss models
in radial and mixed-flow turbomachinery, Proc. Cong. Heat
Fluid Flow in Steam and Gas Turbine Plant, Univ. Warwick,
Coventry, UK, April 1973, pp 122-32.
Murray, F. Time Series Forecasting Methodologies for
Electricity Supply Systems, PhD Thesis, Dublin City
O'Connor, M. Computer-Based Control of Time Delay Systems
Using a Smith Predictor, BEng Project Report, School of
Electronic Engineering, Dublin City University, 1989.
Kreyszig, E. Advanced Engineering Mathematics (7th
Ed.),, Wiley, 1993.
Ringwood, J. and Galvin, G. Artificial Neural Networks -
An Introduction, Available from:
[Accessed 15th Nov. 1999].
Lamport, L. LaTeX : A Document Preparation System : User's
Guide and Reference Manual (2nd Ed.), Addison-Wesley,
Gratzer, G. Math into TeX : : A Simple Introduction to
AMS-LaTeX, Birkhauser, 1993.
Beer, D.F. (Ed.) Writing and Speaking in the Technology
Professions - A Practical Guide, IEEE Press, 1992.
- The author would like to express his
gratitude to the many students
who have been inadvertent motivators for this note!
Office of the Dean of Teaching and Learning (ODTL)
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