It may seem like technical writing – indeed, many kinds of professional business writing – must be huge undertakings involving much effort and endless detail. With all the emphasis on being complete, accurate, and collaborative, do you wonder whether you can develop enough skill during college to compete as a writer in a technical or other business position? You may be hoping there’s an engineering or other professional position out there where you can stay under the radar and do your job without having to write anything important.
There is good news on this matter, and then there is great news.
First, the good news: virtually all entry-level professional positions present opportunities to practice writing in a variety of situations and for multiple types of readers. Writing in technical fields, as you may now realize, can require significant time commitment and collaboration, as well as various other “soft skills.” As a result, employees working to gain experience in the field may be tapped frequently to complete writing tasks.
Do you wonder exactly how the preceding paragraph is good news? Consider the great news: the day-to-day business of technical writing is largely short, direct reporting for specific purposes and audiences. While short reports aren’t necessarily easy to write, they do offer opportunities to practice crafting clear and concise documents. The progress report is one of several standard forms of short reports. This chapter aims to help students understand how to plan and write progress reports that meet the needs of their assignments as well as the standards of professionalism required by their fields of study and work.
What is the audience and purpose of a progress report?
Progress reports are typically requested and reviewed by one or more stakeholders in a project. Stakeholders is a general term for people who have a business interest in the subject project and may need progress reports because of fiscal, legal, financial, or other responsibility for the work in question. While progress reports may be required by the person or group at the next level of responsibility above your own, the readership and reach of your periodic progress reports can be greater than you know, sometimes applying to the top tier of an organization.
Put simply, stakeholders use progress reports to communicate about work on projects, including levels of completion and delays alike. These reports provide a number of opportunities for communication, including but not limited to
- reporting early research findings
- notifying stakeholders about problems
- discussing potential changes in planned work, schedule, and other project factors
- evaluating work completed
As with all technical writing opportunities, careful characterization of the audience and the context in which the report will be used is crucial to successfully achieving the purpose of a progress report. In addition to these standard considerations, other specific questions a writer should ask in preparation for writing a progress report include the following:
- Has the requestor specified a form you must use? If so, do you have the most up-to-date form and specifications to follow?
- What is the date of expected delivery for this report? What is the expected frequency of reporting? For example, do you need to report once weekly, or more or less frequently?
- Is supporting documentation necessary? If so, how should you include it?
- Is there an oral presentation component required with this report?
- Have you set aside enough time to complete this report and obtain a peer review?
In a word, the key to writing efficient, clear progress reports is preparation. Always take the time needed to ask these practical questions about the rhetorical situation in which you will be writing a progress report for any project.
What is the necessary content for a progress report?
Depending upon the information you collect through the questioning activity outlined in the previous section, the specific content your project progress report will need can vary. In general, though, you might think about the content required in a progress report in a specific way: that is, part of the content comes from the past; part of it discusses the work you are doing today; and the third part of the content represents the project’s future.
Activity: begin drafting a progress report
Begin with an individual or group project in which you are currently involved, whether for your writing course or another class. Proceed by making notes in response to the following directions.
- On the day and at the moment you are preparing a progress report, review all the project-related events since the beginning of the project or since the last progress report. Write a quick description of what took place during that time, using the past tense to describe what you and your team completed, discovered, and so on.
- Next, a brief discussion of the work you are doing today or this week will address the present tense portion of your discussion.
- Third, from the same point of view in the present moment, look ahead of you at all the project-related work you want to address between now and the next reporting milestone. Write a quick description of what plans you have for the project’s future, using the future tense to describe what you and your team will begin, what you will complete, and so on.
- Finally, build a draft timeline that displays the entire list of tasks for your project, whether completed, ongoing, or to begin at a point in the future. You may consider developing a Gantt chart, like the one presented in Figure 11.7, shown below and adapted from Exploring Business, published by University of Minnesota (2016).
Use the notes you have prepared in this activity to complete the Homework at the end of this chapter.
What are the important stylistic considerations for a progress report?
If you put yourself in the position of the typical audience for a progress report, you can identify the characteristics that are most important for that reader’s use of the document. As you know, writing that is clear, concise, complete, and correct is vital to the success of any technical document in reaching its audience and accomplishing its purpose. With regard to progress reports, particularly those written in business, one additional quality critical to success is brevity. The progress report is an ideal demonstration of writing that should include only significant details and nothing extraneous. To the extent a progress report for your work can be accomplished in one single-spaced page, do not make it longer.
Use active construction
Because they constitute a direct communication from the writer to one or more identified readers, progress reports are frequently presented in one of the common business correspondence formats: namely, an email, memo, or letter report. Correspondence is a genre of writing that lends itself to the use of personal pronouns like I, we, and you in particular. Being able to use a first-person voice with personal pronouns gives writers an advantage toward writing progress reports: personal pronouns make it easier to use active constructions.
Using the active voice, or active construction, essentially means that you construct sentences and passages in which the following characteristics are evident:
- The subject performs the action of the verb rather than receiving the action of the verb.
- The use of forms of “to be,” also known as state of being verbs, is minimized.
- The emphasis of an active sentence is on the subject and verb, rather than on an object.
Consider the following examples:
|Passive Construction||My sister was bitten by the neighbor’s dog. (8)
The carpool is being organized by my office mate. (9)
My missing glasses have not been seen by anyone all week. (11)
Notice that the nouns first written in each sentence – my sister, the carpool, and my glasses – are all receiving the action of the verbs in the sentences.
Notice also that each of those verb phrases includes a form of to be: was bitten, is being organized, and have…been seen.
Finally, notice that the same word follows the verb phrase in each sentence – by – creating a prepositional phrase that indicates the noun or pronoun performing the action in each sentence.
Now examine the same three statements below, written in the active voice:
|Active construction||The neighbor’s dog bit my sister. (6)
My office mate is organizing the carpool. (7)
Nobody has seen my missing glasses all week. (8)
Notice the change in arrangement of words in each statement. You can identify the subject that appears at the beginning of each sentence; followed by the verb or verb phrase that indicates the action being performed by the subject; and finally the direct object of the sentence that receives the action of the verb. The numbers in parentheses in both sets of examples indicate the total number of words in each sentence.
What are your thoughts about converting sentence construction from passive to active for purposes of being clear in a progress report? Discuss the question with a partner in class and make some notes about your observations. Do you think the active construction has advantages over passive construction? Does active construction have disadvantages?
Near the beginning of this section, you read “… personal pronouns make it easier to use active constructions.” Do you think that statement is true? Discuss why or why not.
Stick to the facts
Your goal is to write an excellent progress report by making your work clear and complete while keeping the document brief. In the previous section, you practiced revising sentences from passive to active construction, a tactic that increases clarity while usually decreasing overall sentence length. Another useful practice in writing short reports – particularly those for the workplace – is to resist sharing your opinions, suggestions, and other unrequested content. Concentrate on reporting the facts and responding to exactly what the reader has requested.
What organizational structure should be used for a progress report?
Recall that one of your earliest tasks in preparing to write a progress report is to discover what information you must report and whether a specific form is required. In the event these details are not part of the assignment you receive, you may need to determine the clearest and most efficient way to organize the body of your report. Consider the following possibilities.
|Chronological order||Initial report is focused according to dates of milestones, beginning with earliest tasks undertaken/complete and ending with future tasks/milestones and their levels of completion.
Subsequent reports do not repeat status of tasks previously completed: instead, begin with updates on tasks identified as ongoing in the previous report.
|Priority order||Initial report begins with most critical task and its information, followed by discussion of tasks in order of importance to the overall project.
Subsequent reports continue in the same fashion.
|Topic order||Initial report includes discussion of separate tasks, phases, or the like that may have been predetermined for reporting purposes.
Subsequent reports continue in the same fashion.
As is the case with structural considerations for any technical report, the most important point in choosing an organizational pattern is to make that pattern clear to the reader. Keep in mind that the structures delineated in the previous table are intended to guide the development of the body of your report in the event you do not receive specific guidance from the project manager or your instructor. Similarly, you may have to decide whether the report should be submitted as a letter, a memo, an email, a presentation, or another format that may be preferred by your reader.
In her 2019 book Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in the Technical Fields, author Suzan Last provides the following suggested outline of elements to include in a progress report generally (pp. 178-179):
Review the details of your project’s purpose, scope, and activities. The introduction may also contain the following:
- date the project began; date the project is scheduled to be completed
- people or organization working on the project
- people or organization for whom the project is being done
- overview of the contents of the progress report.
2. Project status
This section (which could have sub-sections) should give the reader a clear idea of the current status of your project. It should review the work completed, work in progress, and work remaining to be done on the project, organized into sub-sections by time, task, or topic. These sections might include
- Direct reference to milestones or deliverables established in previous documents related to the project
- Timeline for when remaining work will be completed
- Any problems encountered or issues that have arisen that might affect completion, direction, requirements, or scope.
The final section provides an overall assessment of the current state of the project and its expected completion, usually reassuring the reader that all is going well and on schedule. It can also alert recipients to unexpected changes in direction or scope, or problems in the project that may require intervention.
4. References section if required.
Progress reports are an ideal example of workplace technical writing for science and engineering students to study. Progress reports represent short, clear documents with a specific purpose. These reports use typical business correspondence formats to communicate detailed technical information to a known audience. A successful progress report’s other characteristics include
- sentences constructed in the active voice
- factual information without opinions, speculation, or extraneous content
- an appropriate pattern of organization
Use the notes and project schedule you prepared in the Activity earlier in this chapter to write a progress report for your current research project. Address all of the following considerations, but do not use this list to organize your report:
- Confirm with your instructor the required report format – email, letter, memorandum, or presentation
- Determine the appropriate organizational pattern – chronological, priority, or topic – for the body of the report
- Include an Introduction, body, conclusion, and references (if appropriate). In the body section, address the following items:
- summarize and evaluate research findings to date
- present the project schedule
- problems, changes, delays, and questions