Report writing is not my favorite professional activity, but it is one of the most important. Just as with therapy, a report can affect other people's lives.

Whenever I sit down to write a report, I have three main goals in mind - two of them for clinical purposes and one for business purposes:

1. Identify and answer the referral question

Reports are usually requested in order to answer a question - What progress has this person made in therapy? Why is this bright child having difficulty in school? What psychological problems does this victim suffer as a result of being attacked, and what is the prognosis for long-term adjustment? Is this security guard psychologically fit to carry a gun at work? Is this parent at risk for harming her child? What type of psychological adjustment can be expected if this patient has bariatric surgery?

Sometimes referral sources just request a "psychological evaluation." (I see this frequently in court orders.) Since most of the general public have never had a psychological evaluation, they may assume that it's a standard procedure, similar to a physical exam that a physician would administer.

If you get such requests, contact the referrer and ask, "psychological evaluation to answer what question?" The more specific the question, the better able you will be to focus your evaluation, and the more useful your report will be.

2. Communicate findings in a user-friendly way

By the time I sit down to write my report, I've already invested several hours in conducting the evaluation and sifting through the data. But that time is wasted, unless I can explain the results in a logical and unambiguous way. This makes it easier for the reader to understand the basis for my interpretations and recommendations, and to make use of the information in planning and decisions.

It goes without saying that one should strive to provide accurate and complete data, as well as sound interpretation. That's the substance. But style is important, too. Paying attention to the following can go a long way in communicating what you intend to communicate, with less chance of being misinterpreted:

Headings and subheadings - Headings divide the report into sections, and enable the reader to see at a glance the topic areas you've covered. Headings also make it easy for the reader to go back later and find specific points that you made in your report.

Paragraph breaks - Write in short paragraphs. Depending on the content, some paragraphs will be longer than others, but keep in mind that shorter pararagraphs are easier to read. See this older post for a demonstration.

Jargon, acronyms and initialisms - Terms like splitting, WAIS and CBT will be familiar to the reader - if that reader is a mental health professional. However, for all others, it's best to spell out the acronyms and initialisms, and to include a brief explanatory clause for jargon terms, at least the first time.

Proper spelling - Spell checkers miss homophones that are spelled correctly but misused, such as their and there. The reader can often make mental corrections from the context, but too many misuses make the report look sloppy, and it may imply that you don't pay attention to details.

Good grammar - Grammar is not just about adhering to the rules you learned in grade school. Besides conveying a polished, educated impression, good grammar can help avoid misinterpretation. Ambiguous pronouns, for example, can sometimes convey a totally different meaning than you intended, as in the following:

"Medicines can be harmful to young children. Make sure you keep them locked in the bathroom cabinet."

Similarly, misplaced modifiers can leave your readers scratching their heads. Check out this 3-minute tutorial:

More writing lessons and tips: Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).

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3. Audition for my next gig

Sometimes a report is just a report, as a Freudian might say. But I view it as much more.

Each report that I write is not just my best effort in responding to a referral question. It's also a solid sample of my expertise. The reading "audience" of my report is at most a few people - but these people (some of whom are other professionals) are highly interested in what the report has to say, and they read it thoroughly. If they find my report helpful, they will be inclined to refer future clients to me.

Thus, I consider my report writing as an audition for my next referral. This helps mitigate the drudgery of the task, and also inspires me to create a polished, professional product.