What You Need to Know About Writing Technical Reports for Industry
Whether you enjoy writing or not, you spend about 3-4 years in school learning to write in a specific style for lab reports and research articles. After a while, the writing process becomes familiar, and you get more comfortable with it. You think you are prepared to write anything. However, when you get your first industry position, you may be surprised by how different technical reports are outside of school.
Greg Ogden, a research professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, admits that industry reports can be like nothing a student has ever seen. “In school we are training students to write,” says Ogden. To expose students to different writing tasks, Ogden points out that writing assignments “vary from the traditional…lab report where you throw in everything including the kitchen sink, down to a four-page memo.”
To adapt what you know from academic writing to the expectations of the industrial workplace, there are some important differences to note that can make all the difference when you transition into the working world.
Academic vs. Industry Technical Reports
Academic scientific writing is usually either journal articles or lab reports. In journal articles you are writing to expand the body of scientific knowledge that researchers will build upon in their own research. Lab reports that you write for class give you practice in explaining your research methods, analyzing your research results, and demonstrating what you have learned from your lab. “We want [students] to really look at how their data validates theory,” says Ogden.
Industry reports are written for group leaders and managers in a business that moves in days, not years. Their primary responsibility is to advance a project or day-to-day operations. Managers want the bottom line: Will this turn a profit? Will this help achieve goals in safety, sustainability, or any other metric?
“When I have research projects, and I'm writing the monthly progress reports, those are very much: this is what we got,” Ogden says of grant updates or updates for industry. “We're meeting the objectives of the project, we’re staying within budget, and trying to maintain certain levels of accuracy.”
Industry objectives are less about learning for the sake of learning and more about solving problems. You will have a set of experiments or tests to run. And once those are done, your audience wants to hear your conclusions about the best plan for the company.
Suppose you are testing a water treatment system. “As an undergraduate lab, we say ‘You're going to run this for two hours. Give a summary. Does the reverse osmosis work?’” says Ogden. Things are different in industry. “They'll have a spiral-wound thing that is designed to treat thousands of gallons of water a day.” You would measure pressure drops, fouling, how to clean it. “They're measuring operational characteristics, dealing much more with economics and having assurances that if we say it removes 99% of chlorine, it really does.”
Your bosses are less interested in what you’ve learned about the experiment and more interested in how what you’ve learned will benefit the company. This shift requires you to change how you perceive the reader: from a teacher to an interested peer or manager.
It also helps to realize that the reader perceives you in a different way—not as a student to teach or test but as a team member whose conclusions impact the company’s operations.
Academic and industry reports also differ in structure. In scientific journal articles or lab reports, readers are looking at your science—what can be learned. So, you write about your process in order. You begin with an introduction that outlines the motivation for why this work took place, then move step-by-step through what was done (methods), what you found (results), what it means (discussion and conclusion).
In industry, the purpose is different. Your report goes to managers, directors, internal teams, external regulators, and the public—all people who want the bottom line. They don’t want the narrative of how you did the work; they want to know what it means for them. You’ll likely need to address how time, money, and safety will be affected and describe what actions are needed.
In a technical report, your bottom line needs to appear at the beginning. Then, you can work backward through the process: this is the recommendation; here are the results that explain the recommendation; and here is how we obtained the results.
Imagine you work for a bubble gum company. In a more traditional academic research role, says Ogden, “you write, ‘I came up with this new, super-duper bubble gum and we're evaluating it.’” But if you are a chemical engineer who works in a bubble gum plant, you’re probably responsible for manufacturing 10,000 lb of bubble gum every day, so your report would analyze the impact for the business’s bottom line.
Suppose you need to find out why customer satisfaction with the product suddenly dropped. After some analysis, you find that one of your suppliers has been providing a different gum base that is less elastic. You could summarize this bottom line concisely:
Recommendation: switch to Megachomp gum base
Analysis of the current Polychew gum base shows that the current version of the product has a viscosity (at 38 ºC) of 7.5 cSt, compared to its original 16 cSt. Analysis of a variety of gum bases shows that Megachomp has a viscosity (at 38 ºC) of 16 cSt, which is preferred by customers.
Results of testing of all the gum bases can be found in Table 1. For a complete description of the evaluation protocols, see Appendix A.
Rather than prioritizing the essence of science and discovery in the report, you may be expected to lead with conclusions that inform the business. What are the costs (in terms of time and money) for enacting some change? What are the costs of inaction? Describe your recommendations and indicate what evidence, such as measurements from reliable instruments or lessons from past projects, makes you most confident in this decision.
Bill Simpson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, teaches a chemistry capstone course that emphasizes industry writing. He asks students to write internal industry reports from the perspective of an R&D department addressing other members of the company. His other assignments might ask them to write a more externally oriented report, like “mimicking writing a report to a customer,” he says. “You're doing an environmental analytical type analysis—developing a method for that—and you're trying to tell a client what you can do.”
“We also worked on making a good executive summary, because this is going to be read at multiple levels—maybe the CEO is a business person,” he says. “We wanted there to be a pretty high-level summary up-front that addresses that. And then it's going into procedures for other people in the company to think about. But it’s this idea of getting the result out and trying to go from there.”
Style and Format Differences
When you are writing industry technical reports, it’s important to make it as easy as possible for readers to find the information they want to read. You will want to make liberal use of headers to break up text and highlight key points. Unlike the headings of Intro, Discussion, etc., that you’re used to, headers for industry reports often reflect the business priorities—Cost Analysis, Safety, Quality Assurance—or more project-specific metrics.
Another notable difference is the use of the active voice, rather than passive voice. Active voice creates clearer and more concise writing, which is easier to read. Consider:
Passive Voice: After the experiment was conducted and repeated three times by the team, the results were interpreted, and it was concluded by the team that goldfish lives cannot be maintained outside of the fishbowl.
Active Voice: Our team repeated the experiment three times and interpreted the results. We concluded that goldfish will not survive outside of the fishbowl.
Do everything you can to make your report a fast read. “We try to emphasize conciseness,” says Ogden, “for the four-page memo especially but across-the-board.” Lengthy blocks of text are harder to skim through, so keep sentences and paragraphs short.
“Have a really good summary,” adds Simpson. “Everybody's really busy. And it's going to be read at different levels.” Organize your information so that the broad conclusions come first and the details are at the end.
“Say it's a bunch of environmental analysis. You’ve got to have all the data, and good quality control, and a good description of that,” says Simpson. “But for the top boss … they're looking for a more ‘big picture’ view.”
Remember that you don’t need to include all of the supporting details up-front with your key takeaways. Provide just enough of a sample to get your point across. “When you want to send that two-page memo to the CEO, it's really got to be two pages,” Ogden adds. And stick to plain language, rather than jargon and acronyms.
Reserve supporting information for any curious readers in an appendix at the end. Always make it clear when an appendix is available. Note it in the table of contents, within the text, or both.
Adapting to Needs
It’s helpful to remember that there’s no one standard “industry report.” In an academic setting, the tone, the content, and the style tend to be more consistent because the audience and objectives are more consistent. But in industry, there is more variety. Your audience will vary. The type of project and data will vary. The goals will vary. One week you could be updating your manager about the week’s cost-cutting experiment. Another week you could be drafting an annual memo to the VP that showcases the year’s progress and requests a budget increase. Your best bet is to ask for examples of each type of report before you get started.
Just as with reports in school, there may not be a positive recommendation at the end of it all. Simpson recalls an assignment where students were asked to create a surface-based pH sensor. “We did some experiments in solution—those worked pretty well. We tried to put it on surfaces. And things didn't go very well,” he says. “They said, here’s some ideas that the company could explore to try to figure out where to go from here to a product.” Their bottom line emphasized that more work was needed.
Learning to be nimble with assignments is important. As a chemist, your work will be moving science and your organization forward—you won’t always be doing the same things. But regardless of what tasks and challenges await you, know that you are capable. All of those lab reports you’ve written so far are useful preparation. “I feel like the recipe is generally the same,” says Simpson. “Think about who you're writing to, and I think it can be a pretty transferable skill.”
About the Author
Max G. Levy
is a freelance science journalist based in Los Angeles, CA. He has a PhD in chemical engineering and writes stories about public health, the environment, and technology.