Here’s a excerpt from my upcoming book on Small Archaeology Project Management. Technical report writing for cultural resource management, historic preservation, and heritage conservation is rarely taught in school. Oftentimes, we are left to fend for ourselves and have to write technical reports without any supervision or suggestions.
Here are some of the tips dozens of other CRMers, including myself, use to complete our reports quickly and on time.
Everyone has their own writing style. Based on my writing ability, I’m the last one to tell anyone how to write. I make enough mistakes of my own and, after more than 14 years of technical writing, I still struggle with comma usage. Most of us enter this profession straight from college where we’ve been taught by professors that, many times, have never worked in the corporate realm. Or, if they have, they have been using academic writing for a long time and may have forgotten that succinctness, brevity, and focus should drive all short report writing. Technical writing is a skill, an art, and a trade all in one. Strong writing skills can be cultivated with time and practice.
I have learned a few things writing CRM reports that I’ll freely share with you.
- Check state reporting guidelines. Know what you absolutely must have in the report.
- Use a writing schedule and stick to it. A writing schedule is essential to coming in on budget for small projects. You can’t put everything in a short report and you don’t have the time to. You only have time for the basics. Jotting down a report outline and a schedule of when you’ll complete each task can help you allocate your time wisely and prevent you from “kitchen sinking” it.
- Determine your objective and reader early on. Identify what specifically this report is supposed to accomplish and who’s going to read it. Is it a site evaluation for a construction company? Then stick to the information necessary to describe the site, its significance, and how the construction company can get their job done while doing justice to the cultural resource. Always remember the reader and audience.
- Build up from your outline. Once you’ve created a rough outline of all the topics that matter to your client, build each paragraph to address the subjects on your outline. Stick to the script. Don’t go out into left field.
- Use boilerplate wherever and whenever appropriate. Boilerplated material created by your company can save you time if used appropriately. Refrain from using boilerplate that doesn’t have specific page numbers in the citation at the end of the sentence or paragraph. Source text without page-specific citations usually means the source text has already been boilerplated without proper background research (unless the author is summarizing an entire document). Either do the background legwork and put the page citation back in the text or build a new sentence or paragraph. Also, not all reports are created equal. Don’t use bad boilerplate. It will just cost you come editing time.
- Use the hamburger technique. This one comes from elementary school English class. Think of each paragraph as a hamburger: the first sentence/ topic sentence is the top bun. The next couple sentences reinforce the topic sentence. The last sentence completes the topic and transitions to the next paragraph. You can also use this one on a sentence. Use the subject as the top bun and the support clauses in the predicate as the toppings. The period is the bottom bun. Try to keep the subject and the verb in the first five words.
- Shorter is sweeter. Keep your paragraphs short and sweet (about 4 to 7 sentences maximum). Mix paragraph sizes throughout the text. You can also write short sentences in your paragraphs to make the read more interesting. Remember, white space and periods are necessary pauses that give the reader’s mind a break. These pauses can be used to spice up our otherwise monotonous prose. Most of our readers don’t care about cultural resources and are reading our report because they have to. So don’t make their job more onerous by writing longwinded sentences daisy-chained together with commas and semicolons. Give ‘em a break by writing digestible paragraphs and sentences.
- Watch your adjectives and verbs. Creatively use adjectives and verbs to diversify your sentences, but make sure you know their dictionary meanings. Sometimes you might try to prescribe something that has been proscribed in the scope of work.
- Build call-outs into the text. Write your figure and table titles into the draft text as you go and simultaneously create the figures and tables lists. This keeps you from having to do it later. They may change, so keep track of them throughout the inevitable edits.
- Use tables liberally. Tables can usually convey complex, laundry list-type information more easily than written script. Constantly look for places where tables can replace text. Build a clearly labeled, quality table if you see that your descriptive text is getting longer and longer. Break huge, unwieldy tables down into multiple tables.
- Revise it yourself the best you can. Spend the extra few minutes reading through each section you’ve written a few times before you hand it over to someone else. Then, read it to yourself out loud. I like to do this when I get to work at the start of the day or when I feel burned out. It gives you a break from the writing process and gives you an opportunity to spot any glaring mistakes or inconsistencies.
These tips go for all CRM technical writing, but are particularly important for smaller reports that need to be written quickly and succinctly. Your report is one of your company’s products, but it is also an extension of your capabilities and skill. Make your job easier by treating each report like it’s a building that uses your outline as its foundation, is constructed from the data you’ve collected, and designed by you a master architect. Be a craftsman and tell your story.
I would really love to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.
Keep reading the Succinct Research blog for information on my upcoming book on Small Cultural Resource Management Project Success.
Learn how my résumé-writing knowledge helped four of my fellow archaeologists land cultural resources jobs in a single week!
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