Join Judy Steiner-Williams for an in-depth discussion in this video Formal and informal reports, part of Writing a Business Report.
- One of the decisions you as a report writer must make is whether your report will be formal or informal. Often this concept is misunderstood. Some people might think that all business writing should be formal. Actually, the vast majority of business writing is informal. This misunderstanding results from how the terms formal and informal are defined. Informal may be incorrectly defined as being able to use slang, of not having to pay attention to detail, or of the reader not expecting a professional document.
Formal writing, on the other hand, may erroneously be defined as using stiff and stilted business expressions. Or maybe trying to impress the reader with multi-syllable words, and long sentences and paragraphs. I talk more about the difference between informal or conversational, and formal writing in my business writing fundamentals course. So here, let's briefly clarify the difference between formal and informal reports.
Informal reports are usually short, one to three pages, with no need for prefatory parts, are informational, include no or limited research, use a direct approach and personal language. Formal reports on the other hand, are generally longer, have a variety of supplemental parts, do require research and an analysis, and the arrangement in wording are more indirect. An opening for that shorter, informal trip report might begin directly with: Here is an overview of my recent trip to the convention in California.
The longer formal report, however, may have to prepare the reader for the report's research and persuade the reader with facts before presenting the recommendation. The formal report's introduction will include the problem and the purpose of the report, before presenting the research. Next, what about the wording? The informal report may use words and sentence structure that focus more on the writer. For example, a three-page progress report on your team's success in securing a new contract might include this: As a result of our three phone conversations with Ms. Alison, she's agreed to meet with us next week.
The formal report, however, is worded more objectively, focusing on the problem and the solution. For example, in a 10-page report recommending a solution for your company, Space Crunch, the solution is what is important. In the conclusion you might see this wording: Hot desking or hotelling will help solve the marketing department's limited-space crisis. You and your team have already been identified as the preparer's of the report.
The reader wants to know what you recommended to solve the problem presented. Now let's take a closer look at a couple of these differences in wording. First, let's look at actual word choices. Informal writing may use first person: I, me, our. Second person: you, yours. And third person: they, them, pronouns. Contractions may be used, but be careful. And the wording is likely to use more active voice, and the writer's opinion may be noted.
Formal writing on the other hand, uses no first or second person pronouns. Only third person pronouns. So no pronouns referring to the writer, or to a group of which the writer is a part: I, me, my, our, or us. And no pronouns referring to your reader: you, your or yours. Only third person pronouns are acceptable: they, them, their, one. Finally, formal reports should have no editorializing or superlatives.
Giving opinions or meaningless comments such as, "The greatest ever," or "We'll quickly increase sales," should be avoided. Your informal trip report may say that the convention you attended had incredible speakers. That's your opinion expressed with a superlative, "incredible." Even though you might include that in an informal report, understand that not everyone will agree with your assessment. You still need support to explain your opinion. Credentials of the speakers, for example.
However, in a formal report, you give the facts, and let the reader decide. For example, rather than say sales will increase quickly, you would predict based on facts that sales have the potential to increase two percent over 12 months. You then let the reader decide if that is "quickly." Take a look at these examples. The informal version: We will be implementing the new payroll procedure as soon as you and your fellow employees let us know which form you prefer.
The formal version: The new payroll procedure will be implemented as soon as all employees identify their preferred form. Look again at those two examples, for another difference in formal and informal wording. Informal wording uses active voice. While passive voice is more likely to be used for formal writing. The first example uses active. The focus is on the writer, the person doing the implementing. Technically the subject "We" is doing the acting.
Now contrast that to the second example, which is passive. The action becomes more important. Implementing the new payroll procedure. The subject "procedure" is being acted upon. The use of contractions is another difference between formal and informal writing. Contractions are never used in formal writing, but are cautiously acceptable in most informal writing. The informal version: The plan won't be voted on until Friday.
Formal: The plan will not be voted on until Friday. Now that we've seen how the word choices differ, let's take a look at another difference to consider: the length of paragraphs. The paragraphs in shorter, less formal reports, generally should not exceed six to eight lines. The paragraph length in formal, longer reports, may be up to 10 to 12 lines. Although if paragraphs are consistently that long, the report may lose its reader-friendliness.
So be sure to examine those longer paragraphs, to be sure each has a clear topic sentence with only one idea. So regardless of whether you decide your report should be formal or informal, it should always be professionally written.
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- Differentiate between formal and informal reports.
- Write an effective transmittal.
- Identify when to use an appendix and what to include.
- Cite the purpose of a tentative outline and create one for a report.
- Clarify and emphasize data with report graphics.
- Distinguish between primary and secondary research.
- Explain how to incorporate graphics in a report.
- Write a tentative outline.