Editing reports and proposals

Businesses, non-profit organizations, government departments, and other groups produce a lot of proposals and reports. This article summarizes some features of reports and proposals that are not the same as books, news items, manuals, magazine articles, memos and many other documents.

When preparing to edit a report or proposal, be sure to clarify what you’re expected to do. For example:

  • Will you be responsible for collecting the information from a variety of sources, or will you be working with a document that someone else has put together?
  • Will you be expected to edit the material heavily (and perhaps rewrite much of it so the resulting document reads as if it were written by one person, when in fact it was put together from material written by several people, perhaps originally for some completely different purpose), or is your job to copy edit only for glaring errors (including consistency errors)?
  • Does the document have a prescribed format or style (in which case you will be expected to ensure it fits that format or style), or will you be responsible be establishing a style as well as enforcing it? (If it does have a prescribed format, for example a proposal being written in response to a government Request for Proposal, some of the material in this article may be irrelevant.)
  • Now might be a good time to refresh your memory of audience and document analysis.

The parts of a report

Many reports are organized into one of these three basic sequences:

  1. Introduction
    Body
    Conclusion
  2. Introduction
    Conclusion
    Body
  3. Conclusion
    Introduction
    Body

Which you choose depends on the purpose and audience for the report.

Executive summaries

Many reports also have an Executive Summary, which is a 1 or 2 page statement at the very beginning of the report. The Executive Summary generally states the conclusion in an easy to skim form (bullet points may be used): the main recommendations, the costs, and other things business executives or other decision-makers want to know.

When writing or editing an Executive Summary, assume that executives will not read any more of the report; they will leave the details to their staff, who will be responsible for understanding and acting upon the body of the report. If the report or proposal is intended to convince somebody to do or agree to something, the Executive Summary must contain enough information for the executive to make the decision to have someone follow up on the rest of the document.

The body of the report

The main body of a report usually follows one of three basic sequences:

  • Chronological order
  • Topic order
  • Problem solving order

Again, which you choose depends on the purpose and audience for the report.

Types of recommendations

The two main types of recommendations, and their advantages and disadvantages, are:

  • A plan of action
    • forces you to test your reasoning in the body and conclusions
    • makes your report very persuasive
    • facilitates rapid decision-making by your superiors
    • enhances your reputation as a planner and decision-maker
    • may not always be appropriate
  • A list of goals and general principles
    • recognizes that there are or could be considerable disagreement about the nature of the problems and how they should be handled
    • solutions to personnel problems often cannot be imposed by management or outsiders
    • solutions often require flexibility and an evolutionary approach

As you would expect, which type of recommendation you choose depends on the purpose and audience for the report.

Logical fallacies

One of the many things to look for when editing reports and proposals is the ‘logical fallacy’-an error in logical reasoning. These errors may or may not be deliberate, but in most types of writing they should be removed.

The two basic types of logical reasoning are deductive and inductive arguments.

Deductive arguments

  • A deductive argument is one in which the conclusion follows from the premises. You state the premises and deduce the conclusion from them.
  • A deductive argument is either valid or invalid. This is not the same thing as true or false.
    • An argument can be valid but have false premises and a false conclusion.
    • An argument can have true premises and a true conclusion but be invalid.

Inductive arguments

  • In an inductive argument, the premises act as evidence that goes to build up a case for the conclusion.
  • The test of an inductive argument is whether it is strong or weak, because the conclusion is never entirely contained within the premises.

Common fallacies

Begging the question
An argument that contains the conclusion as one of the premises.
Argument directed to the person (also known as “shooting the messenger”)
Attacking the person presenting the argument, rather than examining the argument itself.
False dilemma
A dilemma is an argument that holds up two alternatives, and states that only one of them can be true. A false dilemma occurs when there are actually more than two alternatives but the argument suppresses all but two of them.
Argument from ignorance
An argument that something is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false, or that it is false because it has not been proved true.
Appeal to authority
Can become a fallacy when authorities are speaking outside their own area of expertise.
Popular appeal
Something is not necessarily correct simply because it is popular. “Common sense” can be wrong.
Irrelevance
The premises of an argument appear to be related to the conclusion but actually have no connection with it.
Argument by analogy
The problem with analogies is that they often focus on one element within a complex situation, and shut out consideration of other factors that may well have much greater influence.

Anecdotal evidence
A sample of one (or a few) may be a completely misleading guide to the general situation.
False cause
Mistaking coincidence with cause.
Generalizations
Generalizations are necessary components of our understanding, but we should always be cautious when making them. Be wary of generalizing from exceptional cases.

Questions to ask yourself when editing reports

  • Are any facts misstated or misinterpreted?
  • Are any points exaggerated?
  • Have any opinions been presented as facts?
  • Are there any contradictions or inconsistencies?
  • Are all findings properly drawn from the evidence?
  • Are all numbers and dates accurate?
  • Are there any gaps in the argument or evidence that has not been considered?
  • Is there any material out of place?
  • Are there any irrelevancies or unnecessary disgressions?
  • Are any sentences or paragraphs too long?
  • Are any concepts left unexplained?
  • Are there too many abstract words or any unintelligible jargon?
  • Above all, is the report convincing?

Last updated 20 September 2001

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