Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

Progress Reports


Progress reports are common and critical documents in science and engineering, typically when you are part of a research team reporting to a funding agency about your progress on work you are doing for that agency. The basic point of a progress report is to summarize the status, progress, and likely future for a particular project. In a progress report you are often expected to commit to an exact schedule for the project completion, discuss the status of the materials being used and account for the money spent, and summarize concretely both the current findings and the predicted results. The professionalism of the progress report is often vital to the future of the project.

In classes and projects involving writing, progress reports are used as a way for you to summarize your progress to your teacher or advisor, who will typically give feedback on whether he or she is satisfied with your progress. These reports could feel like a mere formality or a waste of time to you, but they are an excellent opportunity to articulate some of the key sentences of your final report and even pose questions in writing to your audience. The rules for writing progress reports are a lot more flexible in a classroom or lab than they are on the job, with a lot less at stake, so you should take full advantage of the opportunity for practice.

Style for Progress Reports

The following stylistic advice can be applied to most progress reports you write:

  • Include a working title and the words "Progress Report" at the top of the page.
  • Use section headings in the report to simplify both the writing and reading process.
  • Open the report with a "Scope and Purpose" section, where you give a condensed version of your future report’s introduction and objective.
  • Always include a section entitled, for example, "Progress," which summarizes the work’s pace and progress and explains any snafus, dilemmas, or setbacks.
  • Always include a section entitled, for example, "Remaining Work," which honestly assesses the work that must still be completed. Think right on the page in this section, posing questions, speculating meaningfully, exploring your options.
  • Always include a section that projects the expected results. Commit to a schedule for obtaining those results if possible.
  • If necessary, include a section in which you directly solicit advice from your teacher or advisor. Be forthright and professional about the nature of the advice you need.
  • Keep your paragraphs short and focused—just a few paragraphs per section, typically.
  • Your tone can often be straightforward and familiar—therefore, as a rule, you can use "I" and "you" freely—but do not lapse into informality.
  • Avoid being overly optimistic, pessimistic, apologetic, cocky, or self-deprecating.