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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:
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:
Preparing to Write the Final Report|
who teaches 23.100: Communication Skills for Engineering Students,
has these excellent suggestions for preparing to write a final
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|
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 ...".
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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 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 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:
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.
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
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.
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
Example terms to include:
Example terms to leave out:
List of Tables and List of Figures
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.
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
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.
The conclusion should:
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:
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:
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.
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.
Particularly appropriate for appendixes are:
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
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: