DVR Week: Rakesh Mohan and Margaret Campbell on Making Evaluation Reports Reader Friendly

Greetings from Boise, the city of trees! We are Rakesh Mohan (director) and Margaret Campbell (administrative coordinator) of Idaho’s legislative Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE). Margaret reviews drafts of our reports from a nonevaluator’s perspective, as well as copyedits and desktop publishes each report. In this post, we share our thoughts on the importance of writing evaluation reports with users in mind. Some of our users are legislators, the governor, agency officials, program managers, the public, and the press.

Lessons Learned: Writing effective reports for busy policymakers embraces several criteria, such as logic, organization, and message. But in our experience, if your writing doesn’t have clarity, the report will not be used. Clear writing takes time and can be difficult to accomplish. We have examined some reasons why reports may not be written clearly and declare these reasons to be myths:

Myth 1: I have to dumb down the report to write simply. Policymakers are generally sharp individuals with a multitude of issues on their minds and competing time demands. If we want their attention, we cannot rely on the academic writing style. Instead, we write clear and concise reports so that policymakers can glean the main message in a few minutes.

Myth 2: Complex or technical issues can’t be easily explained. When evaluators thoroughly understand the issue and write in active sentences from a broad perspective, they can explain complex and technical issues clearly.

Myth 3: Some edits are only cosmetic changes. Evaluators who seek excellence will welcome feedback on their draft reports. Seemingly minor changes can improve the rhythm of the text, which increases readability and clarity.

Our goal is to write concise, easy-to-understand reports so that end users can make good use of our evaluation work. We put our reports through a collaborative edit process (see our flowchart) to ensure we meet this goal. Two recent reports are products of our efforts:

Equity in Higher Education Funding

Reducing Barriers to Postsecondary Education

Hot Tips

  1. Have a nonevaluator review your draft report.
  2. Use a brief executive summary highlighting the report’s main message.
  3. Use simple active verbs.
  4. Avoid long strings of prepositional phrases.
  5. Pay attention to the rhythm of sentences.
  6. Vary your sentence length, avoiding long sentences.
  7. Write your key points first and follow with need-to-know details.
  8. Put technical details and other nonessential supporting information in appendices.
  9. Minimize jargon and acronyms.
  10. Use numbered and bulleted lists.
  11. Use headings and subheadings to guide the reader.
  12. Use sidebars to highlight key points.

Rad Resources

  • Revising Prose by Richard A. Lanham
  • Lapsing Into a Comma by Bill Walsh

We’re celebrating Data Visualization and Reporting Week with our colleagues in the DVR AEA Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our DVR members and you may wish to consider subscribing to our weekly headlines and resources list where we’ll be highlighting DVR resources. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice.

2 thoughts on “DVR Week: Rakesh Mohan and Margaret Campbell on Making Evaluation Reports Reader Friendly”

  1. Jessica Manta-Meyer

    I would like to add to the Rad Resources Joseph Williams book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Recommended by a writing teacher, it helped me understand and work towards many of the Hot Tips points above.

    1. Thank you for the rad resource, Jessica. We are not familiar with the book, but we will look into it.

      One other important resource that we did not mention is the Chicago Manual of Style for formatting. The manual is comprehensive and a little intimidating, so we created a mini style manual that addresses most of the formatting of our reports. It does not, however, provide information on writing clearly and concisely.

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