Introduction to Technical Reports
Purpose of Reports
Why write reports? Your job as an engineer will be to interpret results of laboratory tests. In industry, you will often be asked to deliver your interpretations in the form of a report. Through such reports, your managers, laboratory directors, and other professional colleagues will form their opinions of you and keep track of your work. You will want them to trust your judgment to conduct tests precisely, select the most pertinent findings, and present those findings in clear and concise language.
Audience for Reports
What kind of report you write depends on the audience. Your readers will be professionals who have varying degrees of knowledge about your research and varying needs for information. In your ChE laboratory classes, you will write for two audience levels: readers with a general science or engineering background, and readers with a technical specialist background.
General science or engineering background: This audience looks primarily for the who, what, when, where, and why of your report. Your immediate supervisor needs to know which tests you ran, what you found, and why you consider the findings significant. The head of your division wants to know why your findings are important and their significance for the corporation. How you ran the tests, however, is important only if you developed a new test or procedure, or modified the standard methods. This audience does not need to be able to duplicate your work.
Technical specialist background: This audience needs the who, what, when, where, why and also the how of your report. Technical specialists need to know the history of previous research (i.e. a literature review), and they also need complete details about the theory and methods, including the apparatus and procedure. This audience needs to be able to duplicate your work.
Overview of ChE Undergraduate Reports
Your ChE substantial writing component classes use two report formats: the Laboratory Report, and the Research Report.
The Laboratory Report outline is nearly identical to that of the Technical Memorandum, but the framework is more formal. The audience does not have to duplicate the experiment.
The Research Report is an expanded version of the Laboratory Report designed for complex experiments. The audience comprises technical specialists who require details on the history, theory, and methods. These specialists should be able to duplicate the experiment from the Research Report.
Writing Style of Reports
For the most part, Laboratory Reports and Research Reports are written in the past tense because you are talking about an experiment you have completed. However, you should use the present tense when describing equipment, or facts that are always true (e.g., “The experimenters used an NIST-calibrated thermometer.” vs. “An NIST-calibrated thermometer is a temperature-measuring device that contains mercury.”) Reports are written exclusively in 3rd person.
For more on tenses and point of view (3rd person, 1st person) see the FAQs. The FAQs offer advice for beginning the report. They also include guidelines for other technical writing issues such as handling numbers, writing equations and formulas, and creating Figures, Graphs, and Tables.