8 tips for pain-free progress reports

Bored man snoozing on computer keyboard

via Flickr user Brandon Heyer

A progress report (also known as an activity report or status report) is requested by those who are interested in the past, present, and future of something you are working on. Unlike a more formal research report, a progress report can be brief, with no need for cross-references or detailed front and back matter. A progress report can even be delivered verbally, although most organizations also require something in writing. Often a template will be provided, but occasionally you may be asked to draft something on the fly.

Planning the report

1. Assume the reader is 100% unfamiliar with your work. Even if your supervisor is familiar with what you do, a future supervisor or different department may not be. Plan to write the report to account for those things that are internalized: things you might (incorrectly) assume everyone already knows. Don’t skip or gloss over the details that your reader needs. This is where a journal (tip #8) can be a lifesaver.

2. Understand the time-frame you will report on. By definition, a progress/activity report is not a summary of your entire project. It covers a specific time segment. Progress reports can be weekly, monthly, quarterly, or some other combination. In any case, the basic format is to explain what you have accomplished and what you still plan to do. Stick to this time-frame so that your content does not become bloated.

3. Define the purpose, audience, and format for your report. Even in a short, informal report, the good old “reporter’s questions” are a fine starting point. Two important things should be considered:

  • What are the special needs or interests of your readers? Do they like lots of detail or just the big picture? Do they prefer graphs and charts? Are they interested in reporting to stakeholders outside your organization?
  • Who else might read your report? In addition to your supervisor and any stakeholders, consider your organization’s executive level, future employers, auditors, and even lawyers. The need for accuracy and ethics is higher than it might appear.

4. Structure your report logically. A structure will help you cover all the highlights. Your employer may give you specific guidance, but a progress report typically contains these items:

  • Introduction
  • Summary and Results of Activities (past, present)
  • Future Activities
  • Conclusion

Some employers also ask for things like expenses and risks to be called out separately. A simple table or bulleted list often does the trick.

Drafting the report

5. Find a quiet time to write your report. (Good luck with that!) If you try to write when you are busy or distracted, you might forget important details.

6. Take a straightforward approach. Write in plain style and keep your page design simple. Avoid long paragraphs if a short paragraph (or list, or visual) will do the job. Brevity is both a requirement and a bonus for progress reports. As we know, most readers prefer short communications, even when the content is important.

7. Proofread! Carefully review, edit, and proof your report. Even though it is tempting to dash off a progress report without taking time to check your spelling and writing style, your supervisor will appreciate the extra attention. And as tip #3 suggests, other people may read your report and make judgments based on what they see.

Going forward

8. Keep a project journal. Depending upon your organization’s tools and customs, you may already be recording tasks at a granular level. But if not, find a way to record your daily activities–in a wiki, an online journal, or even a paper journal. You will save time in the long run.

What other tips do you have? Add them in the Comments below!