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  You are here: RoboFlag Main Page > Course Resources > Report and Presentation Information > Final Report

Preparing a Fourth-Year Design Project Final Report

A presentation overview designed for students

Written February 2000,
William Sitch, B.Eng. (1999)

The final report is the most important component of the fourth-year design project. The quality of your work will be judged by your report, so you should put a great deal of effort into writing, revising, and re-writing. This report is worth 50% in a heavily weighted full-credit course - and you should treat it as such.

The final report may contain sections taken from your proposal and progress report but must be a complete, self-contained document. A poor report can destroy the effectiveness of an otherwise excellent project. To allow for any revisions it is therefore essential that you submit a final draft to your report for review by your supervisor, by the date specified. This will enable you to revise the draft in line with your supervisor's criticisms and comments, and thus to produce a much improved final report.

Be sure to review the Final Report Suggestions for a topic checklist and a number of suggestions generated from marking last year's final reports.

This introduction to final reports, with emphasis on the fourth-year design project, is as follows:

Foreword and Credits

While all the text was edited and reviewed by myself, several sources contributed, some verbatim, to the development of this document. They are:

Logistics of the Fourth-Year Final Report

The fourth-year project Final Report will be due on the last day of classes in April. This date is not negotiable, no extensions will be granted. Two bound copies of your report must be submitted to the project coordinator. One copy of the report will be retained by the Department of Electronics; you may pick up the second copy from your supervisor at a later date.

It is absolutely essential that your report be complete long before the deadline. The majority of your mark will be decided by this report, and you should dedicate a good portion of your life to making sure it is professionally written.

An Overview of the Final Report

The final report is the most important part of the documentation of the project. It serves as documentation to the work you've done by providing facts, figures, data, and discussion. The readers of the project should be able to understand how the project was carried out, what the relevant theory is, what results were found, and what those finding mean. The report also presents your recommendations - your suggestions about how to proceed in light of your findings and conclusions.

One of the most complicated aspects of the final report is the varied audience you must write for. In an engineering workplace and in the academic environment your report will most often be reviewed by two very different groups of people:

  • Non-technical managers
    • require only an overview of the project
    • most interested in the conclusions and recommendations
  • Engineering co-workers
    • competent in your field, will require detailed information
    • most interested in the procedures, results, and technical info
So not only must your report present your project, it must do so in a manner that is both general AND in-depth. This suggests that information must be "layered", with abstract chapter-headings leading to detailed technical summaries.

Since engineering reports are most often used as references after the project has been completed, you must develop your final report so it provides enough information to detail the design procedure you used. This encourages a common format that is easy to browse and search through. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has defined and published specifications for engineering reports entitled Scientific and Technical Reports: Organization, Preparation, and Production. These specifications will be detailed in Formatting the Final Report.

As listed on the Department of Electronics' webpage, the following factors will affect the grading of your report:

  • Scope of the project
    • projects that exceed the course requirements, where the student has obviously contributed more than would normally be expected, will do better than a project that just meets the bare minimum requirements
  • General organization
    • title page, index, sequence of chapters, references, appendices, etc.
  • Engineering techniques used
    • use of modern engineering concepts and methods
  • Experimental data used
    • completeness and accuracy of data presented
  • Engineering analysis
    • analysis of the problem and data presented
  • Technical writing and illustrations
    • correct English sentence construction, spelling, conciseness, clarity, accurate and complete drawings
  • Literature survey
    • adequate preparatory background information
  • Conclusions and recommendations
    • the outcome of the project

Preparing to Write the Final Report

Natasha Artemeva, who teaches 23.100: Communication Skills for Engineering Students, has these excellent suggestions for preparing to write a final report:

  • Learn more about your audience
  • Clearly define group member's responsibilities
  • Do the research
  • Keep a log or an engineering journal
  • Take notes from the sources
  • Write down all the references
  • Remember that the report should be self-contained
  • Start writing sections that you feel comfortable with
    • most probably, the body of the report
  • Write the Conclusions, Recommendations, Executive Summary and the Letter of transmittal when the whole report is finished
  • Make sure that:
    • in the text of your report, you have referenced all the information that comes from the literature sources
    • you have a clear list of references
    • your references are consistently organized
    • you have listed all the sources cited in the text of your report in the References
    • you refer to all visuals in the text of the report all visuals are clearly labelled and have comprehensive captions
    • you follow the format
    • you meet the deadlines

I've found that a useful strategy is to build the body of the report by gradually expanding sections. Think about how your information should be organized and build several different sections that will constitute the meat of your report. An example might be: Robotics Theory, Hardware Design, Software Design, and Systems Design. This is called 'outlining the report' by technical writers.

Once your report has several major sections, gradually expand them into subsections. Spend time thinking about how the information should be organized inside the different headings. Within the "Robotics Theory" section, for example, you might have the subsections Movement, Autonomous Design, etc.

The final outline should show the exact form and wording of the headings to be used in the report. The headings must serve as a guide to the material of the report. They should be consistent in grammatical structure and should not contain verbs. Headings are not an integral part of the text but are provided to assist the reader in finding information.

The whole text of the report should be accounted for under the headings shown in your outline, except for short introductory or transition paragraphs included to make the presentation flow smoothly. Because a subject cannot be subdivided into less than two parts, an outline should have at least two subheadings under a main heading--or none. Exceptions to this rule include an occasional short remark or a single example put in to illustrate a method.

When the skeleton of the report is complete, you should write the sections in whatever order you are comfortable with. Don't spend a large amount of time polishing your work, but get the nitty gritty down onto paper. Once you've got the fundamentals of your project organized and written, you can start the refining process. This is further detailed in Drafting the Final Report.

Drafting the Final Report

With a logically organized outline already prepared, writing the rough draft should be much easier than you thought. But do not expect to write the final version in the first attempt. The final draft should be the last of several versions, each an improvement of the preceding one. This should be ready for printing and distribution to your critical audience.

Try to start writing the first version of the draft immediately after completing the outline while the ideas developed there are still fresh in your mind. Write this first version as rapidly as possible. Concentrate on what you want to say rather than how to say it. Keep writing down the thoughts as they flow into your mind, following your outline.

Avoid going back over what you have written until you are finished writing. Then review this version, but only for its technical content. Are all of the ideas you wanted to express included? Have you included irrelevant ideas? Does the report organization still seem logical? Sometimes writing the first version will reveal some unexpected problems that require a change in the outline.

In the second version of the rough draft, writing style becomes important. With the technical content in a well-organized form from the first version, this is the time to concentrate on how you say it. Keep your audience in mind. Remember your goals.

Formatting the Final Report

Physical Formatting

The physical format of the final report is important in that the report must look professional. While the guidelines given below do not exactly follow the ANSI Standard Z39.18-1987, 'Scientific and Technical Reports: Organization, Preparation, and Production.', they are mostly based on this widely accepted standard.

The report should be typed double-spaced with a 2.5cm margin at the top and bottom and a 3cm margin on either side. The report should be laser printed (single sided) on white A4-size bond paper, and should be spiral bound with the thick yellow covers supplied by the Department of Electronics. You should print your title page such that the required information shows through the window of the yellow cover.

Don't bind the Letter of Transmittal.

Section Headings & Subheadings

Section headings should be capitalized and should start at the top of a new page. They should be numbered "w.0", (eg: "4.0") and are typed entirely in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS. Subheadings are identified by levels:

  • First Level

    First level headings start at the left margin. The first letter of each word is capitalized except for prepositions and connectives (to, for, and, etc.). Use bold face, but DO NOT underscore and DO NOT use a period. The first word in the paragraph following the first level heading is indented five spaces. Numbered "w.x".

  • Second Level

    Second level headings are indented five spaces. The first letter of each word is capitalized except for prepositions and connectives. Use bold face, if available, but DO NOT underscore and DO NOT use a period. The first word in the paragraph following the second level heading is indented 10 spaces. Numbered "w.x.y".

  • Third Level

    Third level headings are indented 10 spaces. The first letter of each word is capitalized except for prepositions and connectives. Use bold face (preferred) or underscore the heading and use a period at the end. The first word in the first third-level paragraph begins on the same line as the heading. Succeeding paragraphs under the same heading are indented 15 spaces. Numbered "w.x.y.z".

In all cases, except for the first word in the first paragraph after the heading, notice that the body text is not indented and spans the whole page. Each subheading should have one blank line above and no blank lines below.

Quoted material and numbered lists are indented five spaces further than the first work of the paragraph in which they appear. Quoted material is typed in block format as follows:

     "This is a sample of the correct format for typing quoted material.
     "If the quoted material includes more than one paragraph, use 
     quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph; but use closing 
     quotation marks at the end of the last paragraph only."

Carry-over lines in numbered lists are lined up with the first letter of the first word as follows:

1.  This is a sample of an entry in a numbered list, properly 
    indented, with the carry-over line starting under the first 
    letter of the first word
2.  In a numbered list do not us a period at the end of the entry 
    unless it contains more than one sentence

Page & Section Numbering

Number the front matter (executive summary, acknowledgements, table of contents, glossary, list of tables, and list of figures) with consecutive lower case Roman numerals (eg. i,ii,iii,iv,...) beginning with the first page following the title page.

Number pages in the text with consecutive Arabic numerals (eg. 1,2,3,...) beginning with the first page of text following the front matter (usually the first page of the introduction) as page 1. Continue with consecutive numbers throughout the report, including the appendixes.

Layout and Miscellaneous Formatting

The following miscellaneous formatting rules apply:

  • Use a 12-point font for body text and headings
    • Times New Roman or Arial, nothing fancy
    • Do not use more than one font for normal text
    • Never use font or colour for emphasis
  • Use bulleted lists where appropriate
  • Do use diagrams and charts if that clarifies the matter
      All tables, charts and diagrams should be professional
    • Titled, with axes labelled, and referenced in the front matter
  • Use colour if you wish, but don't overdo it

The Style of the Final Report

Although difficult to define, style establishes the readability of reports. In effect, the style of the report sells the report. If your style of writing and presentation is not acceptable to your intended readers, they may not read your report.

A writing style is acquired only with diligent study and practice in writing. This chapter comments on general report requirements that must be met by any writing style. It then makes specific suggestions for developing your own writing style and for preparing figures and tables.

Clarity, Conciseness, Continuity, and Objectivity

Regardless of the specific style used to prepare technical reports, four general requirements must be met to produce good reports: clarity, conciseness, continuity, and objectivity.

The purpose of a technical report is to transmit conclusions and their supporting evidence. To do this, your report must convey your exact meaning to the reader. The text must be clear and unambiguous, mathematical symbols must be fully defined, and the figures and tables must be easily understood.

Clarity must be met from the readers' point of view. What may be clear to you as the author may not be clear to your readers. Remember, you are intimately familiar with the work, but they are not. You must continually re-examine your rough drafts with a reader's critical eye. Readers will not tolerate confusion. They must never become uncertain about what you are discussing, why you are discussing it, or what your plan of presentation is. And this requires a presentation that is logical, simple, and systematic.

Most of your intended readers are busy. Therefore your reports should be concisely written. That is, your story should be told with the fewest possible words and illustrations. Help your readers by omitting everything irrelevant to the results and conclusions. Do not be disappointed if a report that describes a lengthy program is only a few pages long: Report quality is often inversely related to report length. Your readers will be interested in your conclusions and the supporting evidence and will want to get these as quickly as possible. They will not be particularly interested in any problems you had in getting the results. Explaining such problems usually just hides the important aspects of the report.

On the other hand, do not condense reports at the expense of your readers' understanding. Give enough information to enable them to understand clearly what you are describing and why you are describing it. Include enough background information to make the context clear. Do not assume that they will remember details of a previous report - or have even read it. Include all details needed to understand the current report. In short, make your reports brief but comprehensible.

Reports should tell a complete story as logically and interestingly as possible. This requires continuity between succeeding sentences, paragraphs, and sections and between the written text and the figures and tables. Transitional words, phrases, sentences, or even paragraphs may be needed to lead your readers through the story. But overusing transitions can slow the pace of your narrative.

Carefully choose the places at which you refer to figures and tables to limit distraction. Making these references at the beginning or end of a discussion is usually preferable.

Technical reports should be objective and show restraint. Be honest with your readers. They will become suspicious if they detect hidden meanings or any type of subterfuge, and you will then have little chance of convincing them of your conclusions. They expect you to evaluate the data honestly. Do not try to hide deficiencies in your research. No technical report is better than the research on which it is based. Tell your readers frankly what your assumptions were, what your probable errors are, and what you may not understand about the results.

In addition to being honest, be tactful. If you are faced with the problem of presenting technical results that may conflict with previous results or with the personal prejudices of some readers, refrain from making dogmatic statements and avoid sounding egotistical. Your readers will be persuaded by facts, but they may become irritated if you attempt to impress them with your cleverness or to claim credit for accomplishments. Write to express, not to impress.

Writing Style

Technical writers usually use a more formal writing style than do nontechnical writers. A degree of formality is required because the personal style of a technical writer must be secondary to the clear and objective transmission of information. Any injection of personality that obscures the exact meaning is undesirable. But this does not mean that technical writing has to be dull and rigidly stereotyped.

All writers should strive to make their writing enjoyable to read. Therefore attempt to develop a writing style that is both clear and interesting. This section includes some specific suggestions for developing and improving your writing style. For additional suggestions read some good books on technical report writing and grammar.

Writing Naturally
Imperative in developing a good writing style is writing naturally. Many technical reports are stilted and overly formal. Authors usually do not speak that way, but they feel that technical reports must be written in that style. A stilted style is difficult to read and detracts from the contents.

To avoid a stilted style, write in a way that comes easily, using words and phrases that come naturally to you. Do not try to impress readers with your vocabulary, but be certain that the words you use convey your exact meaning. Your readers will be interested in what you have to say and not in how eloquently you say it. Avoid long, complicated terms if shorter and more familiar ones are available. But be careful not to use jargon because it may be misinterpreted.

Guiding the Reader
To achieve clarity and continuity in a report, you must carefully direct your readers' attention throughout the report. Many successful writers do this by using the three classic principles of presentation:

  • Tell readers what you plan to tell them (Introduction)
  • Then tell them (main text)
  • Finally tell them what you told them (Conclusions)

State your purpose or objective clearly and follow it with a concise description of the method you will use in presenting the subsequent discussion. Then proceed with your presentation, making certain that it is consistent in every respect with your plan. Finally summarize your conclusions and recommendations.

Getting to the Point
Technical reports are not mystery novels; get to the point as directly as possible. Do not lead your readers in and out of blind alleys before taking them to the final destination. Omit information that does not directly relate to the conclusions. Remember, readers are interested primarily in conclusions and supporting evidence.

If you must include some information or discussion that may be of interest but is not directly pertinent to your conclusions, put it in an appendix. Using an appendix allows you to bring up points that may be of interest to some of your readers without distracting the reader who is interested solely in your conclusions.

Emphasizing Major Ideas
Because the purpose of technical reports is to transmit ideas, emphasize your major ideas so that they cannot be missed. To do this, clearly subordinate any supporting information to the major ideas. The report outline is particularly useful here because it establishes the major and supporting points for each section of the report.

Your major ideas can also be emphasized by briefly stating them at the beginning of each section and then summarizing them at the end of the section. Emphasis can also be aided by careful use of headings.

Separating Fact From Opinion
Reports should clearly differentiate between facts and opinions. Many authors are remiss in doing this, overlapping discussions of their experimental results and the conclusions they have drawn. Carefully alert your readers when fact ends and opinion begins.

The statement of your opinions is an instance where the use of the first person is desirable. For example, if you follow the presentation of some specific results with "It is believed that ...," your readers cannot be sure if this is your opinion or a generally accepted belief. To avoid this confusion, use the first-person pronoun to say, for example, "From these results I conclude that ...".

Data Presentation

Because most technical reports rely on figures and tables for the presentation of data, the form and quality of the figures and tables are important in establishing the style and readability of the report. Good judgment should be used in selecting both the data to be presented and the method of presentation. Use only figures and tables that add to the value of your report. Present the data as simply and straightforwardly as possible so that your readers can easily grasp the significant points. Present data in the text, or in a figure, or in a table - but never in more than one way.

Before beginning to write the report, carefully select the data to include. Most carefully prepared programs yield more data than are needed to support the conclusions. Including all your data in the report is unnecessary. Use only data that are directly pertinent to your conclusions, and do not try to impress readers with how much data you have collected. Quantity is no substitute for quality in presenting technical results.

Once you have selected the data to be included in your report, decide how they can best be presented. Should they be tabulated or plotted? To answer this question, consider your readers' needs. Do they need to know exact values? If so, tabulate your results. If relative trends are more important, use graphs. Both the figures and tables should be as self-explanatory as possible and arranged logically to tell the main points of your story without reference to the text.

The figures used in technical reports generally are of three types - graphs, drawings, and photographs. Figures are numbered with Arabic numerals in the order of their mention, unless the mention is clearly incidental. In the final report they are either inserted in the text near (preferably following) their first mention or grouped together at the back. Sketches are lettered consecutively ((a), (b), (c), etc.) if they are referred to more than once. Under no circumstances should the arrangement of black and white figures or the parts of one figure be out of sequence. Figures arranged in a group are in sequence from top to bottom or from left to right. Exceptions are sometimes made for colour figures to reduce the number of pages printed in colour.

Prepare figures with consideration for their appearance in the final printed document. The size of the printed figure including the legend (title) cannot exceed the dimensions of the report image area. Within these limits various sizes, proportions, and arrangements of figures are possible.

All figures must have legends; if a figure has parts ((a), (b), (c), etc.), it must have corresponding sublegends. Use similar wording in the legends of related figures. After you have assembled the rough draft of the report, thumb through the figures and tables, reading merely the title of each to make certain that the format and the nomenclature are consistent. Conditions applying to the entire figure or to a part are normally stated as part of the legend or sublegend. But when the same conditions apply, for example, to every graph in a report, they are best stated once in the text.

Graphs should be clear and simple with as few data curves as possible. It is usually best to have no more than six types of lines or data points on a graph - four is better. Try to avoid interlaced or unrelated curves. As few words (labels) as possible should be inserted directly on the figure. Equations should be placed in the text, lengthy tabular material should be presented in a separate numbered table, and explanations and conditions should be added to the legends or placed in the text.

Choose coordinates that will give your readers a physical feel for the variables being presented. Clearly label what is plotted and the units used. Whenever possible plot all parts of any one figure or related figures on scales with the same increments. Label main and auxiliary scales with a word description of the concept or quantity, its symbol, and its unit. For example, "Motor current, I, mA" is more immediately descriptive than "I, mA." Add auxiliary scales at the left and bottom of the figure if there are four or fewer scales. Place additional scales at the right or top. For ease in interpolation divide scales into logical, consistent increments.

When you use drawings or sketches to illustrate an idea, try to keep them simple. Include only those features that are essential to your readers' understanding, and avoid unnecessary detail.

Glossy prints taken with black-and-white film reproduce best. Prints that have already been screened are not usable. The use of colour in printing is discouraged because it greatly increases publishing costs.

Do not include a photograph of something that is so elementary that a sentence would describe it. Label the most important features being shown. Remember, something that seems simple to you may be complex to readers who are not familiar with it. Limit the labeling and the field of view to the main items discussed to avoid confusing readers with extraneous items. Mark up a copy of the photograph rather than the glossy print.

If your photographs are Polaroid prints, have negatives and additional prints made before submitting them for use in a report, for slides, etc. You are then protected in case of damage or loss, and prints are readily available for additional uses.

Include some object or scale in the photograph to help your readers judge the size of the objects shown. The size of photographs is often changed in reproduction, rendering the magnification meaningless.

Tables are often included in technical reports to present data in an exact, highly concentrated form. But because tabulated data are so concentrated, many readers have difficulty grasping their significance. Tables are therefore the least preferred method of transmitting results to readers and should be used only when absolutely necessary. When you use tables, make them as brief and simple as possible. Otherwise your readers may not bother studying the detailed columns of figures, and you will have wasted your time in presenting the data. Whenever a table, or columns within a table, can readily be put into words, do it.

Tables are numbered in the order of their mention, in Roman numerals except when a report contains 20 or more tables. Then Arabic numerals are used. Similar data at different conditions are organized into parts ((a), (b), (c), etc.) of the same table with subtitles. Numbered tables must have titles.

Components of the Final Report

The basic elements of the report are as follows:

  • Letter of Transmittal;
  • Cover, Label, and Title Page;
  • Executive Summary;
  • Acknowledgements;
  • Table of Contents;
  • Glossary;
  • List of Tables;
  • List of Figures;
  • Introduction;
  • Main Body of Report: (suggested)
    • Objective;
    • Motivation;
    • Theory; and
    • Details.
  • Conclusions;
  • Recommendations;
  • References; and
  • Appendices.

The following sections guide you through each of these standard sections, pointing out the key features. As you read and use these guidelines, remember that these are guidelines, not iron-clad laws. The standard for engineering reports is not intended as a straitjacket, but as a focal point to enable writers in the profession to maintain a familiar "look and feel" to their documents.

Letter of Transmittal
The transmittal letter is a cover letter, which is attached to the outside of the report with a paper clip. It is a communication from you - the report writer - to the recipient, the person who requested the report. Basically, it says "Okay, here's the report that we agreed I'd complete by such-and-such a date. Briefly, it contains this and that, but does not cover this or that. Let me know if it is acceptable."

The transmittal letter explains the context - the events that brought the report about. It contains information about the report that does not belong in the report.

The first paragraph cites the name of the report, putting it in italics, underscores, or all caps. It also mentions the date of the agreement to write the report. The middle paragraph focuses on the purpose of the report and gives a brief overview of its content. The final paragraph encourages the reader to get in touch if there are questions, comments, or concerns. It closes with a gesture of good will, expressing hope that the reader finds the report satisfactory.

Of course, the contents of this letter, as with any other element in an engineering report, may need to be modified for specific situations. For example, you might want to add another paragraph, listing questions you'd like readers to consider as they review the report.

Cover, Label, and Title Page
You must use the standard Department of Electronics yellow fourth-year project covers. These are best used with a binding that allows reports to lie open by themselves. The tunnel store and the unicenter copy shop will both do this type of binding for a nominal fee.

You should print the title page such that the relevant information is viewable through the window on the front page of the standard cover. The title page should include:

  • The full title of your report
  • The name, title, and organization of the person you're submitting the report to
  • Your name, title, and organization
  • The date the report is submitted
  • A one-line descriptive abstract

Executive Summary
The executive summary summarizes the key contents of the report. It's as if you used a yellow highlighter to mark the key sentences in the report and then copied them all onto a separate page and edited them for readability. Typically, executive summaries are one-tenth to one-twentieth the length of reports ten to fifty pages long. For longer reports, ones over fifty pages, the executive summary should not go over three double spaced typewritten pages. The point of the executive summary is to provide a summary of the report - something that can be read rather quickly.

If the executive summary, the introduction, and the transmittal letter strike you as repetitive remember that readers don't necessarily start at the beginning of a report and read page by page to the end. They skip around; they may scan the table of contents to get a sense of the contents; they usually skim the executive summary for key facts and conclusions. They may read carefully on a section or two from the body of the report, and then skip the rest. For these reasons, reports are designed with some apparent duplication so that readers will be sure to see the important information no matter where they dip into the report.

Acknowledgements are important in situations where you received a significant amount of assistance in completing your work - and this definitely applies for fourth-year projects. The acknowledgement section should note who provided the tools, the work environment, the motivation, and who was instrumental in helping in a capacity where they weren't required.

Students should mention their other group members, faculty members, staff who were there on the weekend to let them into labs, and etc.

Table of Contents
You're probably familiar with tables of contents (TOC) but may never have stopped to look at their design. A TOC shows readers the page number on which each of the major sections and subsections in the report starts. A TOC also shows reader what topics are covered in the report and how those topics are discussed (in other words, the subtopics).

Critical to a TOC is indentation, spacing, and capitalization. You should use the same systems as outlined for the section headings - the TOC is just a list of the headings, after all. The first-level sections should all be aligned with each other; the second-level sections should all be aligned with each other; and so on. The page numbers are right aligned with each other so that the last digit in a number is always in the same column.

Make sure the words in the TOC are the same as they are in the text. As you write and revise, you might change some of the headings - don't forget to go back and change the TOC accordingly.

The glossary is where you should define terms that might not be familiar to quasi-technical readers. There's a fine line between including useful terms, and padding the glossary with information that every second-year engineering student is familiar with. You should also list terms that you place special meaning on - for example, a term that means something other than what the dictionary suggests.

You should define terms in one or two sentences, preferably without mentioning any other words that are listed in the glossary. If you refer to an idea or term by more than one name, list both and in the second include the phrase "see ".

Example terms to include:

  • Localization
  • Semaphore Variable

Example terms to leave out:

  • Electron
  • Motor

List of Tables and List of Figures
The lists of tables and figures has many of the same considerations that the table of contents does. With the lists of tables and figures, the idea is to enable readers to find the illustrations, diagrams, tables, and charts in your report. The title shown in the lists of tables and figures is often shorter than it is in the actual text where the figure occurs. In the list, it's a good practice to shorten long figure titles to something complete and meaningful that readers can scan quickly.

Some complications arise when you have both tables and figures. Strictly speaking, figures are any illustration, drawing, photograph, graph, or chart. Tables are rows and columns of words and numbers and are not normally considered figures.

For longer reports that contain half a dozen or more of both figures and tables, you can create separate lists of figures and tables. Put them together on the same page if they fit. You can combine the two lists under the heading, "List of Figures and Tables," if it is short enough.

An essential element of any report is its introduction - make sure you are clear on its real purpose and contents. In an engineering report, the introduction prepares the reader to read the main body of the report. The Introduction permits you to launch immediately into the task of relating your readers to the subject matter of the report. It does not dive into the technical subject, although it may provide a bit of theoretical or historical background. Instead, introductions indicate or discuss the following (but not necessarily in this order):

  • Specific topic of the report (indicated somewhere in the first paragraph)
  • Intended audience of the report; the knowledge or background that readers need to understand the report
  • Situation that brought about the need for the report
  • Purpose of the report - what it is intended to accomplish (as well as what it specifically does not intend to accomplish)
  • Contents of the report - usually a numbered list of the key topics covered
  • Scope of the report - what the report does not cover
  • Background (such as concepts, definitions, history, statistics) - just enough to get readers interested, just enough to enable them to understand the context.

The Introduction should focus your readers' attention on the subject to be treated. It should enable them to approach the body of the report naturally and intelligently.

A common problem in writing introductions occurs when the discussion of background gets out of hand and runs on for several pages. For a typical fifty-page report, for example, the introduction shouldn't be too long - no more than three pages. You may view introductions as the place for discussing background. Ordinarily, that's not the case - the introduction prepares readers to read the report; it "introduces" them to the report. If there is just too much background to cover, move it to a section of its own, either just after the introduction or into an appendix.

In major papers on new ideas the Introduction may be several pages long. If considerable amounts of background information must be included for your readers, try moving it from the Introduction to a separate section of the report (e.g., entitled "Theory").

One outstanding rule for the style of the Introduction is to construct the first, or theme, sentence so that attention is deftly, decisively, and immediately focused on the precise subject to be treated and, if possible, on the method of approach. Again, keep your readers' viewpoint uppermost in mind. The ease of writing this sentence is in direct proportion to the clarity of the subject being presented. Where you have a clean-cut, definite accomplishment to report, the theme can be stated easily.

Many find the Introduction difficult to write. All these requirements may seem to make it even more difficult. The best way to write it is to become familiar with the report matter, plan what to put in the Introduction, and then start writing. Try to explain the story to be told in the report: what it is about, why it is being told, and how it will be told. Seclude yourself from interruptions and write continuously--go with the creative flow. Then criticize and revise your work. You may need to rewrite the Introduction and the theme sentence several times. You should write the Introduction LAST.

Main Body of Report
The main body of the report should immediately follow the Introduction, and precede the Conclusions. While this is the key area of the report, it is almost impossible to document the creation of this correctly. The following four example sections are listed to give you an idea of what the "main body" should contain.

Objective, Motivation, Theory, and Details
These are suggested sections that might be a starting point for the main body of your report. Each of these sections would be a stand-alone section, which would be numbered 4.0, 5.0, 6.0, etc.

This is where your report will be different from everyone else's, as the work you will have done will be unique. Read over the suggestions contained in this document, and build a skeleton outline of the main points you wish to communicate. Don't skimp on the details, as this is what will earn you effort-marks.

In spite of skillful writing the reader may become confused or overwhelmed by the large number of details in a complicated report. Clearly the writer needs to bring out the most important facts and discuss their significance. Many busy people read the concluding section of a report first. On the strength of this reading they may become interested in the details, or they may discard the entire report. Therefore, the concluding section must be self-contained and independent of the main body of the report. Preferably it should be so worded that a person not completely familiar with that particular branch of science can understand what was learned from the investigation.

The conclusion should:

  • Conclude - that is, it should draw logical conclusions from the discussion that has preceded; it should make inferences upon what has preceeded.
  • Summarize - that is, it reviews the key points, key facts, and so on from what has been discussed. Summaries present nothing new - they leave the reader with a perspective on what has been discussed, the perspective that the writer wants them to have.
  • Generalize - by moving away from the specific topic to a discussion of such things as implication, applications, and future developments - but only in general terms.
Your final section can do any combination of these, depending on your sense of what your report needs.

The length of the conclusion can be anything from 100-word paragraph to a five- or six-page section. For the typical thirty- to fifty-page double spaced report the final section would be two to three pages, but such ratios should never be applied without considering what's going on in the report. Watch out for conclusions that get out of hand and become too long. Readers expect a sense of closure, a feeling that the report is ending. When the final section becomes too long, consider doing one of the following: move some of the discussion back into the body of the report; shorten and generalize the discussion and keep it in the conclusion; or find some other way to end the report.

You must observe the following rules for writing a conclusion:

  • Do not use undefined symbols.
  • Do not cite equations, tables, figures, references, and appendixes.
  • Do not introduce new material.
After the conclusions are written, examine every word and sentence critically to ensure that it means what you intended it to mean. Do not "conclude" already known facts. Do not confuse conclusions with results.

The Recommendations section allows the inclusion of "advice" that's drawn from the Conclusions section. The usual form of reasoning in reports is to draw a conclusion from a series of facts, and then to base recommendations for:

  • Future research or testing
  • A different design approach
  • Additional features or items of importance
  • Your opinions on the results

At the back of the report is the list of information sources, arranged and numbered according to their occurrence in the report. For example, if the first borrowed information that occurs in your report comes from a book by Robertson, Robertson would be [1]. If the next borrowed information came from an article by Adams, Adams would be [2]. But once you've established an information source in the references page, no further entries for it are needed. For example, imagine that several pages later in your report, you borrow from Robertson again. Would that be source [3]? No - it would be [1].

How entries in the references section are constructed may look complex. The best approach is to use the examples in figure 6-9. They've been carefully selected to include the most common variations. Model your entries after these. In the examples, notice particularly:

  • Names of books, journals, and magazines are in italics
  • Titles of articles in journals or magazines are put in double quotation marks
  • For books, list the city of publication, followed by a colon, the name of the publisher, followed by a comma, the year of publication, and a period
  • For each article, provide the date, volume number, and issue number that the article appeared in and the beginning and ending page numbers of the article
For unusual sources not illustrated here, consult IEEE Information for Authors.

Indicating the source of borrowed information in the running text of an engineering report is simple - you construct "textual references," those bracketed things in the running text of a report.

  • To indicate just the source, put the source number in brackets, for example, [3]. This tells the reader to check the references page for source 3.
  • To indicate the source and the page, add a colon and the page number, for example, [3:116]. This tells the reader the borrowed information came from source 3, page 116.
  • To indicate that the borrowed information came from a range of pages, add a hyphen and the end page number, for example, [3:116-122].
  • To indicate that the borrowed information came from separate pages, not a range, use commas, for example, [3:116, 120, 122].
  • To indicate that you've borrowed and merged borrowed information from two or more sources, use semicolons, for example, [3;7]

You may be wondering where to put the textual reference in relation to the borrowed information. There are no clear rules on this matter. Your goal is to indicate to readers where the borrowing begins and where it ends. But you don't want to create a distraction by ending every sentence with a textual reference. Some writers put the textual reference at the beginning of the passage in which borrowed information is used: some at the end. The best solution is to insert an "attribution" at the beginning of the passage and then put the textual reference in brackets at the end.

There is one last issue involving documentation: Just what do you document? The rule of thumb is that you need not document common knowledge. But what is "common knowledge"? What may be common knowledge to some may not be common knowledge to others. And is anything in the engineering world "common knowledge"? Consider several examples. Think of a theory you learned in engineering school: You can find it in practically every standard textbook on the subject, and it is not documented when it is discussed in those textbooks. That's common knowledge. But think of a controversial theory put forth by an engineer who is well known in his field. That's not common knowledge, and if you borrowed it, you would have to document your source for it. The same would be the case for another engineer who had made breakthrough discoveries. The difference then comes down to your familiarity with your field, whether you can distinguish common knowledge from the knowledge that is identified with specific individuals.

Appendixes are those extra sections following the conclusion. What sorts of things do you put in appendixes? - anything that does not comfortably fit in the main part of the report but cannot be left out of the report altogether.

Particularly appropriate for appendixes are:

  • Involved mathematical derivations
  • An example of an analysis described in the report
  • Detailed descriptions of novel techniques, procedures, or equipment not essential to the main purpose of the report
  • Symbol lists
  • Large tables of data
  • Large amount of source code

Appendixes must have titles. If there is more than one appendix, identify them by capital letters (A, B, C, etc.) in the order of their mention in the report. (Each appendix should be referred to at some point in the main body of the report.) If the symbol list is an appendix, make it either the first or last appendix. Numbering of figures and tables mentioned for the first time in the appendixes is a continuation of the numbering in the main text. Equations are usually numbered according to the appendix in which they appear (e.g., (Cl), (C2), etc.) but may be a continuation of the equation numbers in the main text.

Appendixes may be written by authors other than those of the report. Appendixes having independent authors are mentioned in the Introduction in the following manner:

Appendix B by John Z. Doe describes the computer program used in the analysis.
An author and affiliation line, as applicable, also appears under the appendix title.

Revising the Final Report

The last stage of report preparation, rough-draft revision, is just as important as the previous stages, but it is the one most scorned by inexperienced writers. Revising a draft is comparable to painting a house: the appearance is improved without influencing the structure. But a report's "appearance" (readability) may determine whether or not it is read.

Before you can revise your rough draft, you must recognize that it is not perfect. Approach it with a critical attitude. This can best be done by setting the draft aside for a few days, or at least overnight. This time lag should give you a fresh viewpoint and allow you to change to the role of a reader. This change in roles is most important because you must try to see what is actually written rather than what you think you wrote.

Successful technical writers use a wide variety of methods to review and revise. One of the best involves three separate reviews of the report:

  • The first review is of the material in the report. In this check ask yourself these questions: Are the conclusions valid? Is sufficient information given to support the conclusions? Is enough background information given to explain the results? Have all irrelevant ideas been deleted? Are the illustrations pertinent and necessary?

  • The second review is of the mechanics and organization. Are the subject and purpose clearly stated? Does the report flow smoothly from topic to topic? Are the relations between topics clear? Is each illustration clear and properly labelled? Are all required parts of the report included?

  • The third review is of spelling and grammar, particularly punctuation and sentence structure. Is each sentence written effectively? Are the sentences varied in length and complexity to avoid monotony? Are the words specific rather than vague? Have all unnecessary words been deleted?

Make sure you can truly answer yes to all of these questions before you consider your draft finished. Do not try to make one review do the work of three. Trying to cover too many categories in one review usually results in oversights and errors. Some common faults observed in rough drafts are (1) faulty grammar; (2) clusters of nouns and adjectives modifying a noun and conversely strings of prepositional phrases after a noun; (3) use of abstract nouns instead of action verbs; (4) nonparallel construction of words, phrases, and sentences in enumerations; and (5) more complicated phrasings than required. Carefully review your draft to make sure you have avoided these common faults.

Be sure to review the Final Report Suggestions for a topic checklist and a number of suggestions generated from marking last year's final reports.

Further Information About Engineering Reports

The following are excellent sources of further information:

  • Strunk, William, Jr.; and White, E.B.: The Elements of Style. Third Edition, The Macmillan Co., 1979. (Available online from Columbia University.)
  • Day, Robert A.: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. ISI Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1979.
  • Chandler, Harry E.: Technical Writers Handbook. American Society for Metals, 1983.
  • Lanham, Richard A.: Revising Business Prose. Charles Scribner's Sons,1981.
  • Ebbitt, Wilma R.; and Ebbitt, David R.: Writer's Guide and Index to English. Seventh ed., Scott, Foresman and Co., 1982.
  • Elsbree, Langdon; Altizer, Nell G.; Kelly, Paul V.: The Heath Handbook of Composition. D.C. Heath & Co., 1981.
  • United States Government Printing Office Style Manual. Washington, 1984.
  • Research Publications Processing Guide. NASA Lewis Resarch Center, 1992.
  • Guidelines for Documentation, Approval, and Dissemination of NASA Scientific and Technical Information. NPG 2200.2A, 1997. Available online: "For the STI Professional."
  • NASA Publications Guide. NASA SP-7047. 1982.
  • Technical Publication Policy. NASA LHB 2220.1, 1992.
  • Booth, Pat. F. 1991. Report Writing: Guidelines for information workers. 2nd Ed. Huntingdon: ELM Publications.
  • Turabian, Kate L. 1987. A manual for writers of term papers, Theses, and dissertations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 5th Ed.
  • Sweet, Patricia. 1989. Report Writing: a New Zealand handbook. Wellington: GP Books.
  • Wallace, Derek and Janet Hughes. 1995. Style Book: a guide for New Zealand writers and editors. Wellington: GP Publications

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