Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 12: Progress Reports

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 12: Progress Reports

Whereas a proposal outlines your expected workflow, timeline, costs, etc., a progress report outlines the work you have done to date and how your progress corresponds to the projections made in your proposal, work plan, or the like. As The MIT Guide notes, progress reports can range from formal documents required by outside funding agencies to informal reports intended to brief supervisors responsible for tracking employee activity and costs within an organization. Likewise, a progress report can range from a report of more than 100 pages to a one-page memo or even a brief oral presentation.

Audience

Generally, the audience for progress reports are people with the technical knowledge to understand your activities and who have a vested interest in your progress. As The MIT Guide explains, “They want to know what has been done and what needs to be done, what problems you have encountered, and how likely you are to stay within a previously agreed-upon budget and schedule” (184).

When writing for such an audience, your impulse may be to paint a rosy picture and elide over difficulties, be they past, current, or expected future problems. Don’t. Be open and honest regarding the status of your work and the challenges and successes you’ve experienced. While it’s possible that you might be able to figure out how to cut costs and speed up work, it’s also possible that additional problems will set you back even further. The sooner you report the challenges and difficulties you’ve faced, the more likely it will be that a renegotiation of your previously agreed-upon timeline and funding or a reframing of the project’s goals are possible.

As this is the case, all progress reports should have a section in which you offer a realistic assessment and evaluation of your progress to date and your ability to stay within the previously agreed-upon parameters.

Organization and Design

As with many of the genres we’ve looked at this semester, readers often skim progress reports looking for specific information rather than reading through the whole of the report from start to finish. To assist with this kind of reading, you should organize your progress reports into clearly defined sections and make effective use of headers and subheaders. Think of each section of your progress report as its own stand-alone module.

Depending upon the context, the organization of your progress report may be defined for you, or you may be free to design it as you wish. Obviously, if you are given a format to follow, follow it. If you’re not, be aware of the common elements within the genre and include those. Page 187 of The MIT Guide offers a possible model based upon the elements commonly expected in a formal progress report (see Figure 12.1). Likewise, page 188 offers two possible organizational patterns for reporting your progress to date (see Figure 12.3).

Strongly consider using visuals such as charts and graphs to represent your progress vis-à-vis your initial projections and to document what has been done and what still needs to be done. Well designed visualizations such as these can offer a quick summary of your project’s status which are then supported by narrative explanation and commentary. For example, in a progress report submitted at the half-way point of your project, you might have a visual (a graphic or a table) that provides a detailed breakdown of the money you’ve spent might reveal that you’ve spent 80% of your budget. It might be the case, however, that the majority of your budget was always intended to be spent on costs during the first half of the project and that you are in fact on track with your projected spending. A brief narrative commentary accompanying the visual(s) can make that point.

However you organize and design your progress reports, if you are required to submit more than one report for the same project, keep your organization and design consistent across all of the progress reports you submit.