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Webinar: Tips for Editing Laboratory Reports

Many laboratory professionals have difficulty in writing reports. The process often takes longer than it should with the result being a poorly written report. This problem are often most severe for lab professionals with English being their second la

Many laboratory professionals have difficulty in writing reports. The process often takes longer than it should with the result being a poorly written report. This problem are often most severe for lab professionals with English being their second language. This is a large and growing group in many laboratories. Recently, I began undertaking assignments for lab managers editing customer and technical service reports written by this group of scientists and engineers. I would do "clarity editing;" sometimes while managers would continue reviewing the reports for technical accuracy. I was amazed at the time savings managers reported for this two-stage process, more than 50%.

Working with these lab managers led me to conclude that many were being inefficient in the use of their time spend editing reports. Another problem some managers had was that staff members were becoming discouraged by the feedback they received during the editing process. So how can lab managers do a better job editing reports?

Planning and conducting your edit

Before beginning to edit a particular report, understand the objectives of the work described in the report. Be sure the writer has explained these clearly and succinctly. Then decide if there are any other areas on which you need to focus. For example, has the writer prioritized or explained the pros and cons of the different problem solutions described in the report?

Decide if the report needs an "Executive Summary" section. Long reports in particular usually benefit from an executive summary section. Then ask the following questions: • If your firm uses a standardized report format, has the writer followed this format? • Is the report concise and easily understood? This is particularly important for the Executive Summary and Conclusions section. The Introduction section can often be substantially reduced in length if it contains information well-known to readers of the report. • If the Introduction contains historical information of value, consider relocating this information to an Appendix placed at the end of the report. Lengthy discussions of analytical procedures or discussion of various strategies the writer considered and discarded to solve the problem also may be relegated to appendices. The objective is to take readers to the conclusions quickly while persuading hem of the conclusions' validity.

Coaching report writers

Focus on what the writer should do. Present your recommendations and discussion from this perspective rather than from the perspective of what the writer has done poorly.

Be sure you discuss all aspects in which the report needs improvement. Repetitive edits in which first one aspect of the report such as content is discussed followed by subsequent edits focusing on grammar, spelling and brevity can be demoralizing for the report writer.

Be diplomatic

Getting feedback from a manager who has edited their report sometimes can be a demoralizing experience for a young laboratory professional. Minimize this unpleasantness by being diplomatic when discussing the changes needed in a report. Coach the employee in writing a better report rather than just providing corrections and requiring changes. Providing examples of well-written lab reports and explaining why they are well-written can help lab professionals understand what is required.

Be honest but avoid the extremes of being overly critical (trying to show the writer that you are smarter than him/her) or overly permissive about problems such as poor organization, unclear explanations, poor sentence structure and poor grammar.

Be specific in your suggestions for improvement and word them carefully. Don't use such statements as "good writers always ...."

Remember, you are evaluating the report, not the person. Being diplomatic helps the writer stay motivated and nourishes self-esteem. Being undiplomatic when discussing a staff member's reports can lead to the individual being reluctant to write reports. As a result, reports, when they finally issue, are not timely.


John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.