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How to write better technical reports: Some hints and tips

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Mining consultant and engineer Jack Caldwell outlines how to write a better technical report for mining consultants.

This week I had to read a large number of reports written over many years by an assortment of consultants to mining companies. 

Some were well written. Many were terrible. 

Here are a few of the most common errors and lapse from grace that I noted in the reports I read. Hope these ideas help you in writing your own reports. Let me know if you have other guidelines.

All. Do not use—ever. Also avoid words like every, totally, wholly, completely. There is no need to say: “All piezometers were installed.” Sufficient to say: “The piezometers were installed.” Better still to use the active voice: “XYZ installed the piezometers.”

I, We, Us. Do not use. The report is from XYZ. Therefore do not say: “We examined the reports and recommend as follows:” Say: “XYZ reviewed the reports and recommends:”

As follows. Marginally acceptable, but usually avoidable. It is tempting to write: “XYZ recommends as follows:” It is more elegant and faster to read: “XYZ recommends:” Follows adds no information; the reader can see that a bullet list follows.

25 m vs 25-m. Treat as we used to treat ground water vs ground-water. Thus: “The cliff is 25 m high.” But: “The 25-m high cliff is unstable.” Use the hyphen only when the dimension is used as an adjective.

Lists. Use a bullet list whenever possible. If the items in the list are trivial or not significant, put them in the sentence thus: “The trench dimensions are: depth 12 m; width 1 m; and length 100 m.” A bullet list of nouns needs no period at the end of each item. If the bullets include a verb, put a period (.) at the end of each bullet.

However. Avoid as you will probably use it incorrectly. However may mean but, regardless, notwithstanding, no matter how, depending on how it is used. We do not use it in common talk—there is no need to use it to dress up written prose. If you insist on using however, do not start the sentence with however when is means but. Thus write: “XYZ tried, however, they did not succeed.” Compare this to the meaning of: “However hard XYZ tried, they failed.”

Sentence length. Make sentences as short as possible. Long sentence are reserved for German philosophers, those who do not know what they are writing about, those who seek to make an undeserved impression , and writers too lazy to think and edit.

Active voice. Use the active voice in preference to the passive. Thus write: “XYZ installed the piezometers.” Avoid: “The piezometers were installed by XYZ.”

Numbers and dimensions. If a number or dimension is in a figure or table, do not repeat it in the text. If you change the dimension on the figure, you are sure to forget to change it in the text. Write: “The dimensions of the trench (Figure 5) provide for performance as modelled.”

Reference to tables and figures. Do not waste words writing: “Table 4 list the following dimensions, which were selected for the following reasons:” Rather write: “The dimensions of the trench (Table 4) were selected for these reasons:”

Repetition. There is an erroneous impression that repetition adds gravity to a fact or opinion. This is not true; repetition dulls the reader and leaves the impression that you are too lazy or proud to edit and cut. Say it once: not two or three times. Organize the report so that it is not necessary to repeat facts, figures, opinions, or conclusions.

Punctuation. The only rule of punctuation is this: make it easy for the reader to read and understand what you write. Compare: “Eats shoots & leaves,” to “Eats, shoots, and leaves.” The first is clearly gastronomic; the second fatal. Use commas frequently; use semicolons to separate ideas; and use colons to introduce connected, yet new ideas.

Located. Too often we read: “The site is located in the park that is located in BC.” It is not necessary to use located at all. The following is far more elegant and easier to read: “The site is in the park in BC.”
This article appeared courtesy of Jack Caldwell's blog, I Think Mining. To read more mining opinions and tips, click here.

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