I write a lot of reports but I don't usually think about how I do it. After being asked to give a presentation on report writing, I have started noticing what I do, and I can see a pattern emerging. Every report is different, but here are my basic steps.
1. Access the content
The fastest, easiest reports I write are ones where I can talk to an expert on the subject, asking them non-technical questions to clarify what they want to communicate. It is also the quickest way to access the relevant written information.
The hardest and slowest reports are the ones where I have to dig around in a lot of different written material, hunting for the relevant information and figuring out what I need to say and how to bring it together in a coherent way.
2. Follow the required structure
Many organisations have a template for their reports, which is a huge help in speeding up the process. If not, I spend some time identifying headings under which to group the information, and number the headings in the order I think they need to be in. The heading order usually changes during step three, below.
3. Fast, free flow writing
I write the report in one go, without stopping to check things or perfect sentences. At this stage it's all about getting the information down. Often the writing experience is quite uncomfortable at this stage because I feel like I am making stuff up, but I have learned to stick with it. It's amazing how much of this first draft turns out to be worth keeping.
4. Respond to what is on the page
This is the stage when silence is essential, so that I can hear the words in my mind. (It is bliss to be able to do this in a room of my own, rather than in an open plan office with my fingers in my ears!)
This stage is far more about the meaning of the report than the individual sentences. It's having my radar on, and going slowly, checking anything that doesn't seem right or is missing, and making substantive changes - both additions and subtractions.
5. Slow polish
This is the luxurious stage. The report's message is in place. Now it's just about making each sentence read well. It's the time to pick up typos and improve sentence structure. It's the easiest step of the whole process, but it adds to the professionalism of the report. It's ideal to do this one more time than I think I need (or want to do!). Where possible, if the deadline isn't too tight, I take a break between the last two reviews to refresh my mind, so it's easy to spot those very last, minor changes.