Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

Technical Reports


Particularly for those of you in engineering fields, you might find the reading of journal articles none too stimulating (other than the occasional exciting references to hot presses, cool gels, quickened pulses, or body melds). Nevertheless, at their best, the journal articles you must read are certainly important and carefully crafted. The rigid-seeming format and objective style of scientific reports lend them a universal utility so that readers from various disciplines can readily access and use the complex information. Your professors will confirm that busy scientists (who can actually sometimes be characterized as "reader-hostile") rarely read these reports linearly—many readers cut right to "Results and Discussion" or look over the tables and figures before reading anything, then jump around to those bits of the report that are most relevant to their particular needs. Often, their goals are to rapidly exclude information they do not want (or do not trust).

In light of the above realities, it is especially important for you to write reports in a fashion acceptable to a journal in your field. As you prepare technical reports for your classes, you have built-in slots in which to put your information, and you plug in to a tried and proven recipe that has evolved over many years. Understanding this recipe and conforming to it will help you to organize your complex information as well as meet your reader’s specific and sophisticated needs.


Of course, reports should always be typed, double-spaced on 8-1/2 x 11 paper on one side of the page only, and letter-quality print or better is expected. Unless you are instructed otherwise, it is usually standard to include a cover sheet giving the date, your name, the title of the report, the course, and the professor’s name. Tables and figures should be numbered consecutively throughout the text, and, in a thesis or long report, separate lists of tables and figures are normally included at the beginning. Tables and figures should always have descriptive captions, and if they come directly from sources then the sources must be properly credited in the captions. Never present tables and figures without some useful interpretation of them in the text.


It is always necessary to have a highly concrete title consisting only of words that contribute directly to the report subject. Be sure that the title contains no filler and includes few abbreviations or acronyms, yet also be certain that it is complete. "Sol Gel Method" is clearly incomplete compared to "The Synthesis of NZP by the Sol Gel Method." Of course, it is possible to overdo specificity as well: "The Role of Solid Oxide Fuel Cells in the Important Scientific Search For Energy Alternatives as Necessitated by the Recent Middle East Crisis and America’s Energy Consumption" is painfully excessive and should be reduced to its essential elements.


Most reports require an abstract—a condensed summary of the report’s contents. In a journal article, more people will read the abstract than any other part of the paper, so its succinctness and accuracy are vital. The abstract is always self-contained, and is sometimes presented as a separate page. The best abstracts do these things, usually in this order:

  • summarize the specific nature of the investigation;
  • identify the rationale behind the investigation;
  • present the important findings and most significant overall data;
  • briefly interpret the pertinent findings.

By necessity, abstracts are often written last, and a good rule of thumb is that the abstract is less than 5 percent of the paper’s total length. In a thesis, an abstract should fit on one page if possible. Passive voice and past tense verbs are usually appropriate for the purposes of summary, although many journals now print abstracts in the present tense with active voice.

What follows is a short excerpt from the opening of an abstract. Note how the first sentence summarizes the nature of the investigation, while the second identifies the rationale:

This study determines the locus of rifting at the southern end of the Eastern Branch of the East African Rift System within northern Tanzania. Here, the Eastern Branch diverges into a 300-km-wide area of block faulting, and consequently it is uncertain whether the rifting extends seawards across the Tanzania continental shelf or directly southwards into central Tanzania. In this study, the locus of rifting is investigated by . . .


The introduction should offer immediate context for the reader by establishing why the problem being studied is important and by describing the nature and scope of the problem. You should describe your specific approach to the problem and establish how your investigative work meshes with the needs of the field or with other work that has been done. The so called "funnel system" of organization—moving from a broad approach to a gradually narrowed scope—is highly recommended here. Present tense is also highly favored, especially as you present accepted scientific truths and the objectives of the report. Introductions range from one to several pages in length, and must always include a clearly worded account of the report’s objective, usually at the end of the introduction (Some writers even include a short separate subsection labeled "Objective"). Most journals allow "we" or "our" to be used in the introduction, especially as you outline your objectives or summarize the common goals of researchers.

Here is an ideal opening sentence from a report introduction. Note how it launches the reader directly into the science:

To produce highly reliable metal-ceramic joints, we must fully understand the joining mechanisms. Therefore, today’s ceramic scientists aim to . . .

Literature Review

When articles appear in journals, the most noteworthy literature will usually be reviewed only briefly in the introduction or as it becomes relevant. In technical reports and theses for your classes, however, an entire section of your paper may well be devoted to a literature review. Literature reviews range from exhaustive searches to summaries of only the most germane articles, but the fundamental objective is always the same: to establish the history of the problem being investigated by summarizing the WHAT, HOW, and WHY of the work that has already been done. Writing a literature review requires you to establish relationships among findings from other researchers and to condense many pages of published material into shorter segments. Therefore, your ability to assimilate material and, in effect, tell your own story, becomes critical.

Stylistically, literature reviews are often written in the past tense, but many authors favor the present tense when the research being summarized was completed recently. Passive voice may seem tempting to use, but active voice will serve you well here, because you can smoothly place the names of authors into the subject slot of the sentence:

Yoldas and Lloyd (1999) propose a chemical polymerization technique for the preparation of NASICON gels.

Experimental / Methods / Procedures

Any of the above titles will usually do for this section. The goal is to summarize the WHAT, HOW, and WHY behind your specific experiment, with particular emphasis on the WHAT and HOW so that other researchers can repeat your procedures if they so desire. As necessary, this section includes a description of the relevant apparatus and materials used, and photographs and diagrams could be used, sparingly, to help clarify the procedures.

Stylistically, passive voice and past tense verbs are essential in this section, but be sure that your sentences are written efficiently and contain simple subjects and verbs when possible. The basic form of directly saying "what was done; why it was done that way" should be used over and over in the "Experimental" section.

Here is an ideal sentence from the "Experimental" section of an engineering report:

After the dispersion thickened it was poured into molds coated with Vaseline to prevent sticking.

Finally, subsections, perhaps numbered, are often used to aid in the organization of the material. For example:

     2.1 Apparatus
          2.1.1 Heat treatment furnace
          2.1.2 Tensile testing device
     2.2 Materials


For most readers, this is the most important section of the report—your readers must easily find your results in order to interpret them. Here you straightforwardly present the results of your experiment, usually with minimal discussion. Naturally, the use of tables, graphs, and figures is especially enlightening here, as are explanations of how data were derived:

The conductivities of the top and bottom values for each measurement were averaged and the results are listed in Table 3.

Take care not to include your experimental methods here—that is the job of the previous section.


Often this section is combined with "Results" into one "Results and Discussion" section; this allows you to interpret your results as you summarize them. Logical deductions must be made, errors of or ambiguities in the data should be discussed, and even simple causal relationships must be confirmed. It is important here not to rely on a table or figure to do the work for you—you must outrightly and concisely interpret. Beware of making sweeping generalizations or unfounded statements. Again, passive voice may seem tempting here, but active voice can be highly valuable, especially as you make a logical assertion:

Obviously, the formation of the protective layer prevented rapid oxidation.

As a rule, use past tense to summarize your actual results; use present tense to present established facts or present your interpretations ("The helium sintering data show . . .").

Finally, consider referring back to the key literature of your introduction or literature review in this section. Enlighten your readers (and perhaps even elevate your work) by discussing your results in relation to the published results of others.


In "Discussion" you supplied your reasoning; now you present the exact conclusions you have arrived at as they relate to your experimental objectives. Conclusions may be listed and numbered, and it should be made clear how they contribute to the understanding of the overall problem. In a sense, you are going back to the big picture provided by your introduction now, incorporating your conclusions into that picture, even suggesting where more work is needed. This section may be short—often about the same length as the abstract.

The following is an excerpt from the "Conclusions" section of a report:

These results confirm the hypothesis posed in the Introduction: that the shock sensitivity of this explosive is probably not due to the weakening of the phenyl ring by the substituents. It is possible, however, that mechanical properties such as the coefficient of friction, uniaxial yield stress, and hardness greatly influence the explosive’s shock sensitivity. Further work is needed in this area to determine . . .


If appropriate, briefly recognize any individual or institution that contributed directly to the completion of the research through financial support, technical assistance, or critique. In a thesis, this section may appear just before the introduction.


List cited sources on a References page using the Author–Year or Number system (see Chapter 5 of this handbook).


If necessary, use an "Appendices" section to present supplementary material that was not included in the main body of the report because it would have detracted from the efficient or logical presentation of the text, usually either by sheer bulk or level of relevance. A typical appendix would be a list of organizations relevant to the material of the report, or a list of symbols used in the text, or the derivation of an equation that was used in the text but could not be referenced because it did not originally appear in a standard text. As with figures and tables, appendices should be numbered or lettered in sequence; i.e., "Appendix A, Appendix B," and so on.