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Adapted from the Guide for Writing Technical Reports (Third Edition 2007) by AH
Basson and TW von Backström of the Faculty of Engineering, University of
Stellenbosch, by Fran Saunders. Our thanks go to Professor Basson for generously
allowing us to use their material.


The nature and requirements of vacation work

To satisfy the degree in Engineering, students must complete 14 weeks of industrial

training. This work must be performed under the supervision of an engineer and will
vary depending on the type of industry, facilities available, and type of programme.

Two of the 14 weeks consist of a practical course where the student is shown the
fundamentals of hand tools, welding, lathe work, carpentry, and general machine
work. Exemption is possible if the student has had similar training and makes an
application for exemption to the Dean via the Faculty Office.

Since the availability of vacation work opportunities is limited, students are

encouraged to arrange their own employment and to accept offers made by their
bursars. A small number of firms offer work via the School of Mechanical Engineering
and applications for the latter must be made in April before the vacation. Employment
however cannot be guaranteed.

In certain cases where students have had industrial training prior to university
entrance, or hold technical qualifications, exemption from vacation work may be
granted. Applications together with supporting documents must be submitted to the

As far as the vacation work regulation is concerned: students are required to submit
both their own report and a certificate of progress from the firm concerned within six
weeks of the start of semester.

This means that the student is required to write a report and provide proof that the
work described was actually performed.

The importance of vacation work

• Application of theory is one of your main concerns; knowledge of size is

important. For example, approximately how large is a 100kW diesel engine or
electric motor; how large would a Mechanical Engineer expect a 30 ton
evaporative capacity boiler to be; what would the size of a large company’s
maintenance budget be? Questions like these can only be answered through
practical experience.

• Design, the integration of theory and practice, is integral to engineering. A curious

and observant student stands to learn much in industry and is not likely to
conceive impractical machines.

• Stressful human dynamics can emerge in the workplace. Students exposed to the
day-to-day interaction in industry will realize that problems do not only arise from
engineering concerns.

• Economics is an indispensable factor in engineering and paying close attention to

this dimension is very valuable experience.

• All the knowledge gained in practice enhances a student’s feeling for and
understanding of engineering and feeds back into his / her performance in the
pursuit of a degree at University.

The vacation report

The report must be typed on a word processor and spell-checked, and close
attention must be given to appearance and style.

What is required of you is an Engineering report. Two broad possibilities exist:

a) A description of the work done: a test, a specific project carried out for the
firm, or something that was manufactured.
b) A description of the firm, or a process in the firm.

Helpful hints:

a) Work done:
(i) define the work clearly
(ii) sketch equipment and give layouts
(iii) show results, solutions, and equipment designed
(iv) deliver a final statement or conclusion about the work; how did it
benefit you, how did your contribution benefit the firm?

b) Firm
(i) in your own words, contextualise the firm in the industry
(ii) give your insight into the engineering processes used by the firm
(iii) is the technology used by the firm innovative or does it simply
implement existing solutions?
(iv) suggest ways to improve the engineering process
(v) under no circumstances are you allowed to cut and paste
information from annual reports, in-house journals, or other
literature produced by the firm

(i) define the purpose of the process
(ii) give a comprehensive description of the process in terms of
material inputs and outputs, engineering consumption,
manufacturing processes, problem areas, impact, and economics
(iii) make sketches of equipment and/or flow charts of processes
(iv) describe the various aspects that an engineer would have to
contend with: for example communication channels and authority

1. General considerations
Report writing is an integral part of the thought process – it helps to define ideas
and to derive well-considered conclusions on which further planning can be

• Begin writing as soon as possible.

• Be concise, accurate and complete.
• Plan the writing by breaking down the task into sections or elements to be
• Draft a table of contents early in the process –after a section of work is
completed; after a computer program has been written; after a set of readings
has been taken; after some apparatus has been developed or set up.
• Ensure that the report is a reflection of your experience, insight, and
observations, and not information lifted from existing literature.
• If you make use of references, acknowledge them in an academically
appropriate way (see section on References).
• Ask someone to give you constructive criticism as you go along.

2. Style
Technical writing is formal, concise, and clear.

• Avoid use of the first person singular “I”; write in the third person, for example,
“the author”.
• Strike good a balance between the use of active and passive sentence
• Use complete sentences: each sentence must contain a subject and a verb,
and often also an object.
• Use commas sparingly; do not link two sentences by means of a comma.
• Use the present tense for something that is still valid, and the past tense for
something that happened in the past or is no longer valid.
• Use the correct word. The reader’s confidence in the technical ability of the
author will be greatly impaired if the correct terms are not used.
• Avoid sweeping statements; they are an indication of uncertainty and lack of
• Avoid waffling and irrelevant appendices; it is a waste of the reader’s time.
Keep the reader’s interests in mind. Remember engineers are interested in
results: what was done, how was it done, what did it mean? Mention
problems or mistakes only if it will prevent repetition otherwise leave it out.
• The technical level of the language must be adapted for the target reader.
The target reader of undergraduate reports is a final year student in
Mechanical or Mechatronic Engineering at another university.
• Explain less-known abbreviations for example CARS – “Coherent Anti-Stokes
Raman Spectroscopy” when used for the first time.
• Common abbreviations should preferably be written out (“for example” rather
than “e.g.”).
• Bulleted lists are seldom used in technical reports; only use them when all the
items in a list are of equal importance and when the sequence is not

3. Macrostructure (to be modified)

Cover page
Table of contents
List of tables

List of figures
Main body
Tables and Figures*

* Tables and figures are placed in the main text, and should be referred to in
the text before they appear
** The list of references follows immediately after the conclusion but if there
are references in the appendices, then the list should preferably be placed
at the end of the report.

3.1 Cover page

The title page serves to protect and identify the report and must also contain the
following essential information:
Title (NB).
Initials + surname
Name of department and university
Emblem of the university

The title has to be carefully considered:

• Think about the reader’s first impressions.
• Include important key words.
• Leave out words that are not essential.
• Avoid meaningless expressions and longwinded descriptions.
• Make every word count.

3.2 Abstract
A short summary of 100 to 150 words indicating the contents and most important
findings. It gives the reader an overview and kindles interest (or not).
• The abstract conveys key elements of the objective and context, and the most
important methods, findings, and recommendations.
• Be as economical as possible; every word counts.
• The abstract / summary is usually the last part to be written.
• The abstract should not contain references.

3.3 Acknowledgements
Other people or organisations directly involved in the execution, presentation,
and/or financing of the project or report are acknowledged here (for example
technicians, typists, institutions).

3.4 Table of contents

This starts on a new page with a heading: “Contents” or “Table of Contents” followed
by the main levels of headings and page numbers. Appendices must also be listed,
each with their title and page number.

3.5 List of tables
Starts on a new page and indicates the relevant page number. The titles must be
descriptive enough to facilitate identification and must correspond to the titles
used in the text.

3.6 List of figures

As for the list of tables.

3.7 Nomenclature
The list of symbols must start on a new page: all the ordinary symbols are listed
first, followed by superscripts, and then subscripts. Finally list auxiliary symbols,
for example overbar and underscore for vectors and averages, or accent marks
for time-dependent components.
The following order must be used:
• Firstly all Roman letters (in alphabetical order, with the capital letter of each
symbol before the small letter, for example “A” followed by “a” followed by
• Then all the Greek symbols (in the order of the Greek alphabet, capital letters
before small letters).
• Finally the symbols that begin with numbers, in numerical order.

Units must preferably not be given in the nomenclature section, as the symbol
represents a physical property that is independent of the system of units. In a
short document this section may be omitted (and explained in the text). A
consistent set of symbols should be used.

3.8 Introduction
The introduction provides:
• The context in which the report originated and how it links to or differs from
preceding or related work.
• Limitations that may have been placed on the work through choice or external
• The purpose of the report: problems examined and specific objectives.
• The motivation: why the work was undertaken.
• NB: the objectives should be stated in such a way that the conclusion section
can answer the following question: ‘Have the stated objectives been

3.9 Main body of the report

General guidelines and possible subheadings:

(a) Work done

• Specification of the problem – give detail
• Survey of solution or ways of performing the job
• Design of equipment and tests
• How the work was done
• Discussion of the work: successes and failures, improvements, interpretation
of results

(b) Description of the firm or a process

• A general survey of the firm or process
• If applicable, theory comes next, or a description of the management
structure of the firm
• A critical discussion of the firm or process: strengths and weaknesses

3.10 Conclusions
• The purpose of the conclusion is to make it clear to what extent the
purpose of the report was achieved and which findings were made. All
statements in the conclusion must be supported in the report. Restate the
major findings and discuss the implications of the work and indicate the
contributions made by the report.
• For type (a) give a short summary of whether your aims have been
• For type (b) comment on the effectiveness of the type of firm or process.

3.11 Tables and Figures

Tables are used for quantitative comparisons; when the differences between
lines on a graph will be too small; or when the relationship between the
dependent and independent variables is not clear. Figures (drawings,
sketches, graphs and photos) can usually be more easily interpreted by the
reader than tables and are therefore sometimes preferable.
As mentioned above, tables and figures may be placed in the main text, or at
the end of the main text. Figures are numbered as a single series, and tables
as another.

• Each table and figure must have both a number and a caption.
• The number and caption of a graph or diagram are placed below the
• The number and heading of a table are placed above the table.
• The text must refer to each table and figure before it appears in the text.
• Capital letters are used when a table or figure is being referred to: Table 2
and Figure 5. The abbreviation ‘Fig.’ may be used in the captions of
• The text in the tables and figures must not be smaller than font size 8.
• Tables: each column and sometimes every row must have a title, with
units if applicable; tables in the main text do not have more than a few
rows; longer tables should be in the appendices.
• Figures: should usually cover half a page or an entire page.
• Graphs: must be used particularly when trends are shown, or series of
data compared; graphs containing data that need to be compared must be
combined in the same figure for ease of direct comparison; most readers
expect the independent variable to be given on the horizontal axis and the
dependent variable on the vertical axis; the axes of graphs must be
named in words, in conjunction with units.

3.12 Appendices
• Detail that disturbs the flow of the main text, and particularly detail that
does not form an integral part of the main text, must preferably be
provided in the appendices. Examples are detailed descriptions of
apparatus, computer programs, lists of unprocessed data, sample
calculations, and commercial data sheets.
• Every appendix must have a descriptive title.
• The appendices are numbered “Appendix A”, “Appendix B” etc.
• If the appendices contain references, they are inserted in the list of

• When referring to the appendices in the report, the page number must be

3.13 References
• The purpose of references is to indicate the origin of statements that are
not general knowledge in the field, to acknowledge the work of others, and
to provide sources for readers who might want to obtain further
• No references may be included in the list to which you have not referred in
the report, and vice versa.
• Use a numerical system for your references in the report. In this system
references in the text are indicated by numbers (in the order of their first
appearance) in square brackets, and in the list they are arranged
numerically. In other words, the first source in the report is [1] and the
second is [2] without regard for the names of the authors or the date of

3.14 Bibliography
A bibliography is a list of sources, usually books, that provide a broad
background to the topic, but to which no specific reference is made. Only
comprehensive technical reports have a bibliography.

4. Microstructure – paragraphs and sentences

Pay attention to the following:
• Avoid long paragraphs; they are cumbersome to read.
• Place the main idea of the paragraph in the main sentence.
• It is a good idea to start a paragraph with a theme sentence; a theme
sentence states the purpose or theme of the paragraph.
• Be clear about the purpose of different paragraphs; for example introductory
paragraphs, explanatory paragraphs, descriptive paragraphs, linking
paragraphs, and concluding paragraphs.
• Make sure that the consecutive sentences in a paragraph are clearly linked:
use markers like “except for”, “therefore”, “for example” to indicate the
direction in which the text is moving.

Keep the reader of the report in mind and ask yourself if the reader will
understand what he or she is reading.

5. Checklist
While finalising the report ask yourself:

• Does the report clearly and unambiguously state what I wanted to say? (If
not, start again.)
• Is the structure correct?
• Are important aspects given enough emphasis?
• Are unimportant aspects emphasised too much?
• Is each section, paragraph, sentence, phrase, and word necessary? Can it be
shortened or improved? Is it in the correct place?
• Is there logical transition between paragraphs?
• Does the report follow the prescribed sequence?

• Have all the tables, figures, and appendices been included?
• Do the table of contents, references, and lists of tables and figures
correspond to the headings in the text of the tables and figures? Use your
word processor to set these up automatically.
• Have the axes of all the graphs been correctly named, and their units given?
Are there units in the column headings of the tables?
• Does the abstract state how the project originated or why it was done, what
was intended, how it was done, and what was found?
• Does the conclusion logically follow from the main body of the text, and link to
the introduction?
• Is the list of references complete, correct, and written according to the
prescribed format? Whichever format you choose, be consistent. For the
purposes of this guide, Harvard has been used.
• Does the report “flow”? If someone who knew nothing about the subject
picked up the report, would it make sense to them?

6. Internet resources
In general, the Internet is not considered a reliable source of technical
information. With the exception of recognised journal publications and formal
company reports or data sheets, material obtained from websites is best
avoided. If in doubt, check for an ISBN number or try to determine if the
information has been produced by an organisation or person with recognised
credibility. Technical publications are meant to include rigorously derived and
proven statements of fact. For this reason, Internet resources are to be used
sparingly. When citing Internet-based information, ensure that your report
reference list includes the URL of the website and the date on which it was
accessed. Use only Internet sources which have academic credibility.

NOT recommended: Wikipedia

7. Writing guide
For excellent tips on clear, economical writing, get a copy of the classic
William Strunk, Jr and EB White’s Elements of Style, Macmillan Company,
1997. This little book should be on every academic’s bookshelf.

Appendix - Common errors and examples of good writing

A good abstract

Notice how much a good abstract of 144 words can tell you about a report:

o What the report is about: ‘A method will be described which allows for a
uniform approach to determine the specific energy demand of aeroplanes and
other vehicle systems.’
o How the method was derived: ‘By the introduction of a dimensionless
o What the dimensionless figure is, and an indication that this was also the
starting point: ‘The entity ….’
o The basis for comparison: ‘…the primary energy demand…’
o What this choice requires: ‘…further factors have to be taken into
o Where the report is heading: the ‘..further factors….have to be…..expressed
as efficiency levels…’
o The outcome: ‘By doing this, a deep insight will be gained into the different
physical and technical elements of transportation processes.’
o Results: ‘Some unexpected results are derived.’
o Primary example: ‘In particular, the role of the aeroplane has to be adjusted


A method will be described which allows for a uniform approach to determine the specific
energy demand of aeroplanes and other vehicle systems. By the introduction of a
dimensionless figure, it can be used for comparison irrespective of dissimilar definitions.
The entity , well known from the physics of flight, the glide number—i.e. the inverse of
the L/D-ratio in Anglo-American literature—proves to be a convenient starting point.

In order to utilise the primary energy demand as a basis for comparison, further factors
have to be taken into consideration and expressed as efficiency levels, as is usual in
energy sciences. By doing this, a deep insight will be gained into the different physical
and technical elements of transportation processes. Some unexpected results are
derived. In particular, the role of the aeroplane has to be adjusted substantially with
respect to public opinion. [1]

Compare the above with:

The main aim of this report is to describe in detail the lists of tasks that were performed
during the vacation. The performed tasks include updating the list of defective parts, the
installation of a trammel jig, design and installation of boom gates and the design and
installation of a mobile crane roof. The report will further discuss day-to-day events like
updating the A.V.I., updating wagon rakes (maintaining constant sets) and helping
colleagues in their projects.

The above 76 words do no more than list tasks. It is not an overview. There is no
context, no mention of purpose or methods, no findings, no recommendations. It is
vague: ‘…helping colleagues in their projects’ could mean anything from engineering
to household projects. This kind of abstract does not spark interest in the reader.

A good paragraph
A good paragraph develops one main idea. This idea is contained in the topic
sentence, which more often than not, is the first sentence of the paragraph. The
supporting sentences develop the main idea and provide facts and examples. Do not
introduce several ideas in the same paragraph. In the paragraph below the topic
sentence is in italics.

When discussing the acceptability of vehicle systems with respect to the environment,
especially in Germany, an undisputed and biased preference by the prevailing lobby can
be observed. Where emissions are concerned, an almost irrefutable political credo has
evolved, that the electrified railway with its locally zero emission is environmentally
friendly, while cars and, even more, aeroplanes are extremely hostile. This opinion is held
especially in energy discussions, which the aeronautical community, at least as perceived
by the public, seems to bear without protest. In reality, this negative judgement is no
longer valid for new airline equipment. There is a need to make some adjustment and
replacement of opinions by facts [1].

A simple sentence contains at least a subject and a verb.
Compound sentences consist of more than one simple sentence joined by link words
or commas.
Complex sentences contain clauses, often inserted between commas, which tell us
more about some of the clauses.

Student examples
o The foundation of a transmission line is what the support structure is erected
on. It mostly reinforced concrete.

The second sentence above is not a proper sentence because it contains no

verb. It should read: “It is mostly made from reinforced concrete.” In addition,
the structure of the first sentence is poor. It should read: “The support
structure is erected on the foundation of a transmission line.”

o Non-load bearing hardware includes vibration dampers to counter the action
of vibration in conductors, corona rings used for minimising the build-up of
magnetic fields, radio, and audible noise.

The sentence above consists of two simple sentences incorrectly joined by a

comma which hampers the internal logic of the sentence. It should contain a
link word:
“Non-load bearing hardware includes vibration dampers to counter the action
of vibration in conductors, and corona rings used for minimising the build-up
of magnetic fields, radio, and audible noise.”

o As one could imagine, the cost of machining a new dye every time its service
life has passed would run into millions of rand so a process which was
brought from a Japanese company to allow the dyes to have a much longer
production life span.

This is a complex sentence gone wrong by the illogical combination of which

and to allow. The correct options are: “As one could imagine, the cost of
machining a new die every time its service life has passed would run into
millions of rand, so a process that was brought from a Japanese company
allows (or gives) the dies a much longer life span.” Or: “As one could
imagine, the cost of machining a new die every time its service life has
passed would run into millions of rand, so a process brought from a Japanese
company allows the dies a much longer production life span.”

Formal academic writing does not contain contractions, slang, and colloquialisms.

Avoid: “The system couldn’t handle the pressure.”

Write: The pressure exceeded the system limit.

Avoid: “The system hasn’t been checked.”

Write: The system has not been checked.

Avoid: “The chief engineer hooked up with the inspection team.”

Write: The chief engineer met with the inspection team.


Incorrect: The design chapter will start off with the CSIR standard, followed by
the IEC 60826 and then lastly the SANS 10280. The result from all
three will then be compared and from there deduce as to which
one is more conservative of the three standards.

Correct: The design chapter will start off with the CSIR standard, followed
by the IEC 60826, and then the SANS 10280. The results
obtained from all three standards will then be compared in order to
determine which is the most conservative.

Incorrect: By comparing firstly the individual wind loads on the conductors
and insulator strings at different conductor attachment heights one
cannot tell which standard is more conservative between the CSIR
standard and the IEC standard.

Correct: By comparing the individual wind loads on the conductors

and insulator strings at different conductor attachment heights, one
cannot tell which of the two standards is more conservative, the
CSIR standard or the IEC standard.

A good conclusion

Notice how the requirements of a good conclusion are met in the three paragraphs
o The extent to which the purpose of the report was achieved, is clearly stated.
o We are told which findings were made.
o The implications are indicated.
o Recommendations are made.

The method presented here fulfils the requirement of a dimensionless comparison figure
for the specific energy demand of transport vehicles. With the glide number as a basis
and the inclusion of common standard factors used in transport science as efficiencies,
one finally gets the important figure of specific primary energy demand.

Some common opinions held by the public concerning the position of aircraft with respect
to other vehicles have been corrected. By the way, human muscle power is recognised as
absolutely inadequate for transport purposes, if primary energy demand is considered
equally for man powered and motorised transport. It has also been shown that this figure
cannot be the only decisive criterion for the choice of traffic alternatives in relation to the
economic reason for the transport work done.

Here the aeroplane clearly holds a pole position due to its high performance. The public
should no longer treat the aeroplane as an enemy of the environment. There is a great
opportunity for a reassessment of development options for international transport in favour
of aviation. It should be taken! [1].

Compare the above with:

Vacation work was completed for SC skate park in the form of steel fabrication, electrical
installations, and a chain installation.
Much was learned and experience gained (on the job and afterwards) about private
contracting, skills such as welding, materials sourcing and electrical installations.

The conclusion above tells us almost nothing.


A few general rules:

o A direct quote should be placed in quotation marks, either single or double.

Be consistent in your choice.

Example: “A good supporting reference will add weight and authority” to your
argument (Cornford and Smithson 1996).

o If you use a direct quote that is longer than two or three lines, do not use
quotation marks. Instead insert it as a separate paragraph, indented, and

Solid wastes are classified as organic and inorganic material. Inorganic

wastes are glass, ceramics, and metals such as iron, especially used in
packaging materials, and others including zinc, copper and aluminium.
Recovery of these materials has been under study for a long time. Plastic
material is important for their impact on environment because of their long
half-life, wide-spread use and the once-off nature of utilization. Therefore,
they result in high waste bulk causing environmental pollution [4].

Do not lift an entire paragraph from a text, put it in quotation marks and
believe that by acknowledging it, you are behaving in an academically
acceptable way.

o Paraphrasing involves putting a passage from source material into your own
words and must also be attributed. Paraphrased material is usually slightly
condensed and therefore a bit shorter than the original passage.

o Summarising involves putting the main idea(s) into your own words and are
significantly shorter than the original. Summaries must also be attributed to
the original source.

Original version from Lester, JD. 1976, Writing Research Papers.

New York: Pearson/Longman [5]:

Students frequently overuse direct quotation in taking notes, and

as a result overuse quotations in the final paper. Probably only
about 10% of your final manuscript should appear as directly
quoted matter. Therefore, you should strive to limit the amount of
exact transcribing of source materials while taking notes.

A legitimate paraphrase:

In research papers students often quote excessively, failing to keep

quoted material down to a desirable level. Since the problem usually
originates during note taking, it is essential to minimise the material
recorded verbatim [5].

An acceptable summary:

Students should take just a few notes in direct quotation from sources
to help minimise the amount of quoted material in a research paper

An unacceptable, slightly changed, plagiarised version!:

Students often use too many direct quotations when they take notes,
resulting in too many of them in the final research paper. In fact, probably
10% of the final copy should consist of directly quoted material. So it is
important to limit the amount of source material copied while taking notes [5].

Reference List

1. Niedzballa, HA and Schmitt, D 2001, ‘Comparison of the specific energy

demand of aeroplanes and other vehicle systems,’ Aircraft Design 4 (4),

2. Ayrilmis, N, Candan, Z, Hiziroglu, S 2008, ‘Physical and mechanical

properties of cardboard panels made from used beverage carton with
veneer overlay,’ Materials and Design 29 (10), pp. 1897-1903

3. Basson, AH and von Backström, TW 2007, ‘Guide for Writing Technical

Reports,’ 3rd ed., University of Stellenbosch

4. Murathan, A, Murathan, AS, Gürü, M, & Balba i, M 2007, ‘Manufacturing low

density boards from waste cardboards containing aluminium,’ Materials
Design 28 (7), pp. 2215-2217

5. Saunders, F & Sweet, S 2004, ‘An Integrated English Language Course,’

Programme of Language Education, University of KwaZuklu Natal