Writing reports is a straightforward task of “translating” visual information into words. That being said, it is not an easy task and it does have certain standards and approaches. Though this is hardly an everyday duty, those of you who will be taking the academic IELTS test will recognize this process as the Writing task 1. This task asks the test taker to convert an infographic (information graphic) into words and sentences.
1. Types of Infographics
The visual presentation comes in different forms:
It might be in the form of a graph or chart (bar or line, pie or flow, respectively):
What you will present in return is a two- to three-paragraph report that outlines what you see in 150 words or more (more is recommended—aim for around 175.)
What is central to this task is the idea that it is an objective summary of key information as provided in the visual. It is not an opinion piece, an analytical piece requiring a conclusion, or a resource for further analysis. Put another way, what you will write is nothing more than what you are given, what you see.
With this in mind, the first point of discussion regarding this task is the style. Nowhere in this short piece does the author make his or her presence felt. In other words, there is no need for any personal pronoun other than it. Under no circumstances should the writer make use of first person pronouns (I, we, us) or the second person pronoun (you). Third person pronouns (he, she, it, they, them) are only relevant if/when the information contained in the task makes this necessary in terms of reference to the content provided in the visual. Avoiding these pronouns will ensure that the piece is written in a neutral voice, with only the given information as content.
2. What to look for
Next, the writer must decide what information to include in the summary report. This of course depends on what visual is presented.
Charts and Tables
These visuals will present ideas in terms of numbers, trends, and movement. The key to picking out notable details lies in isolating particular points of interest. In this regard, you should look for:
- Highlights and lowlights (peaks and valleys in charts)
- Changes in status quo (i.e., have final points changed significantly from initial figures?)
- Trends and anomalies (out-of-place items)
- Comparisons: are there items that are similar and can be grouped together? Are there items that are different from the rest (anomalies)?
- Groupings: are there items that can be put in a group based on a shared category? For example, cities in the same country, food items that are in the same category (meats or vegetables), etc.
Illustrations and flow charts
These tend to be more straightforward. What you have to find here are the beginning and end points (especially if the diagram shows a cycle). It is important to be able to follow the flow of the infographic and pick out the significant details. In some cases you will be able to get away with writing all the phases of a process, for instance. If however, there is too much information in the infographic, you will have to choose the most important stages, or group stages into single points as far as writing a sentence about them is concerned.
3. What should you NOT do?
- Do not try to include every item in the infographic. Firstly, you will likely not have the time and word count to do this. Secondly, it demonstrates an inability to pick out important details and leave irrelevant ones behind. Also, do not write too many numbers for each item you do include. Create ranges for the numbers. For example, a chart tells you the average price for a pound of chicken over the course of a decade. Do not write the price for each year in that decade. Instead, write the price at the beginning, at the end, at the highest point in the decade and the lowest point in the decade. If there has been a steady increase or decrease, write that.
- Do not repeat names of items more than once. For example, if you are given a table comparing the average annual rainfall in six countries in the world, do not repeat the names of all six countries in any given sentence. You can do this once, in the introduction, but then you will have to divide these countries into smaller groupings and refer to them as necessary. In some cases, you might be able to make a grouping and rename it. For instance: if the six countries are India, Mexico, China, Canada, Ethiopia, and Morocco, you will group these and rename the groupings as North American, Asian, and African countries in order to avoid writing the six names again and again.
- Absolutely do not include information that is not clearly visible in the infographic. Even if the information you include is correct and relevant, it is not asked for. Avoid this mistake. However: something that is considered common knowledge, that is, it does not require any special knowledge or training, and would be agreed on by most observers, might be included. That being said, do not write it into your report as confirmed fact, but rather as an assumption or presumption (see the sample report below). (if you are not sure about this point, then avoid adding anything that is not in the graph)
- Do not include an opinion at any point. Do not draw a conclusion at any point. With that in mind, you do not need a conclusion paragraph. When you are done delivering the information, you are done with the report.
- Do not have fewer than two paragraphs in the report. Do not have more than three.
- Do not attempt to do too much math. If it is clear that in 1985 there were 2.5 million cars on the roads of Los Angeles, and in 2010 there were 7 million, it is alright to say that the total number of cars driven in LA rose by 4.5 million. It is also alright to say that the number of cars almost tripled. Do not bother doing the math to say that the number of cars grew by 280 percent.
- Do not worry about being exact when it comes to a position on a graph. Close enough will do.
- As much as possible, try not to use the same words to describe changes. At the end of this section there is a list of useful vocabulary for writing reports. For example, make sure you know at least two synonyms to the verb increase.
4. The Process
Now, let’s look at a sample report:
The graph below shows radio and television audiences throughout the day in 1992.
Summarise the information by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant.
Let’s begin with a quick look at the graph. On the vertical axis we read, percentage of UK population (over 4 years old). On the horizontal axis we read, time of day or night, and see a full day’s cycle in increments of 2 hours. We also have a small legend (in the box) telling us which line refers to which medium (long tabs for TV, short tabs for radio). The heading for the graph repeats what was given in the task, with the addition of a minor detail, which is that this information is representative of an average, taken from October to December.
We want to take note of outstanding details. These are:
- Almost no one watching TV at 6 am, but about 7% listening to the radio
- Radio most listened to just after 8 am (about 27%); TV most watched between 7 and 8 pm (nearly 50%), with a small spike at its peak.
- Radio listenership sees a sharp incline in the early morning, then a steady decline over the rest of the day, with a couple of minor bumps along the way, at 4 pm and about 10:30 pm
- TV viewership fluctuates between 6 am and about 3 pm, then sharply rises to its close to 8 pm peak, also known as “prime time”, and falls of dramatically thereafter to its midmorning low.
- At no point in time during the day do more than half of the people in the UK watch TV together
- Only around 1 pm and around 3 am do an equal percentage of UKers watch TV and listen to the radio.
- Nearly 50% of UKers watch TV in the evening *presumably after work.
- Only the morning rush hours do a lot more people listen to the radio than watch TV (we are not adding information here. These hours (7-10) are universally regarded as rush hours in most countries)
*presumably, and alright to mention, but if you can avoid it, avoid it.
Begin to write
That should be enough. Now we are ready to write our report.
We’ll begin with the introduction. This paragraph is hardly even a paragraph. It can be one sentence, it can be two. There will rarely be a need for it to be more than two sentences long.
Begin with what has been given to you, namely the task itself, as well as the information in the infographic:
– The graph below shows radio and television audiences throughout the day in 1992.
– the percentage of UK population (over 4 years old) surveyed
– radio and television audiences in the UK, October to December 1992
– a 24-hour clock
The introduction is all this information, condensed into 1–2 sentences that say nothing new. The only new things you need to add here are the vocabulary you will use. Avoid using as much of the language given to you in the task. This means that other than dates and times, most other words need to be changed.
The line graph illustrates television viewership and radio listenership in the UK over the course of a 24-hour period of a typical day in the fall of 1992.
The infographic compares the numbers of people in the United Kingdom who watched television or listened to the radio on an average day in autumn, 1992.
Both of these sentences are acceptable. We can include the idea of an average day, because the period October to December consists of more than one day, and so this is obviously an average (we are not adding any information—this is given to us).
We can add a second sentence about the age of the audiences, but this is not very important and will probably not be mentioned anywhere in the report.
The introduction is done.
Let’s move on to the body paragraph(s):
Every task will require a different structure for discussion. If, for instance, you have to report on two graphs, or a graph and a table, you might want to write one paragraph for each, with the relationship mentioned in the second paragraph. If it is a single infographic, then you will need to decide on the division of the paragraphs in a way that allows you to focus on one central element in each. Remember that a paragraph contains one central idea. This is true in both essays and reports.
In our example, then, we have a couple of options: we can devote a paragraph each to radio and television, or we can divide our report into two time periods, for example 6 am to 6 pm, and 6 pm to 6 am.
Since this graph seems to have been created as a comparison of the two media over the course of a day, let’s go with the latter division. We’ll start with the period of morning and afternoon in the first paragraph, then move to the evening and night period for the second.
The line graph illustrates television viewership and radio listenership in the UK over the course of a 24-hour period of a typical day in the fall of 1992.
According to the infographic, audiences are split in the morning, with more people tuned in to the radio than the television. From 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., radio listeners outnumber television viewers almost five to one at the greatest range, around 8:30, with radio listenership nearing 30 percent of the population, and TV viewership reaching about 6 percent. At one in the afternoon, the numbers converge and TV audiences start climbing, far outstripping those of the radio. While TV viewership fluctuated in the morning hours, it surges in the late afternoon. Radio audiences, meanwhile, begin to wane into the late afternoon and evening.
In the evening and night period, television audiences far outnumber those of the radio, especially between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., with a sharp peak just before 8. From 9:30 p.m., viewership declines steeply, but steadily, finally bottoming out at 2 a.m. Radio listenership continues to slide throughout the evening and night hours, with only a couple of minor bumps at 4 in the afternoon and 10 p.m.
Word count: 199
5. Useful vocabulary for reports
Show: demonstrate, illustrate, provide information on, map out, highlight, outline, detail, reveal, compare
Go up: increase, rise, raise, trend up, spike, jump, bump, boost, balloon, grow, expand, boom, climb, escalate, swell, top out
Go down: decrease, lower, lessen, trend down, fall, dip, bottom out, decline, contract, drop, dive, reduce, diminish, dwindle, drain, shrink, subside, taper off, wane
Increase (noun): rise, gain, expansion
Decrease (noun): drop, reduction, fall, loss, dip, decline, shrinkage
Degree: dramatic(ally), significant(ly), abrupt(ly), sudden(ly), marked(ly), gradual(ly), gentle(_ly), steady(ily), slow(ly), even(ly), stable
Top: peak, high, maximum, (at its) height
Bottom: valley, low, minimum
Incomplete: percentage, fraction, portion, part
Relativity: to a certain degree, to a certain extent
Change: fluctuate, vary
Geography: country, nation, state, city municipality town village, rural = countryside; urban = city; suburban = between city and countryside
Process; stage, step, level, phase
Closeness: Nearly, almost, about, approximately, around
Time: annual/yearly = every year; biennual (also biannual) = every two years OR twice a year; 10 years = a decade, 100 years = a century, 1000 years = a millennium; every day = daily, every week = weekly, every month = monthly, every other day = every two days = every second day
Changes/comparisons with numbers:
- 2— double, twice as many/much/large, twice the number/amount, increased/grew twofold, two times more/larger/the size/etc.
- 3— tripled;
- 4— quadrupled;
- 5 (and higher)— five times as many five times more/larger/etc.
Percent vs. Percentage:
- Percent is always used with a number. It cannot stand alone in a sentence. For example: correct: 5 percent of audiences rank X highly; incorrect: More percent of audiences rank Y highly.
- Percent is always a rate, and so needs to be used with a number (out of a hundred: per = for every; cent = hundred)
- Percentage is a noun. When you want to compare rates, you can use this noun as the thing being compared. For example: A higher percentage of Americans think that the government is a doing a bad job than those who think it is doing a good job. (Notice here that we are comparing percentage of Americans with those. In this case we are using percentage in the same way as numbers, though we are actually comparing Americans.)
- With both percent and percentage, make sure that you are talking about rates, not actual figures (numbers). If the table or chart you are looking at provides information in numbers, refer to those numbers. If it provides percentages, refer to the percentages.
Amount vs. Number (of): These are not interchangeable nouns. They are specifically used with countable (number) and uncountable (amount) nouns to express groupings.
- Canadians spend a large amount of money on eating out; time outdoors; their energy on philanthropic gestures.
- Students must utilize a large number of resources in order to complete their assignments; methods to do their research; tools that are specific to their area of study.
- Quantity can be used for both countable and uncountable nouns, yet this word does not sound as “natural” in the sentences above.
Ranges: You will have to express many range types in reports. Whether it’s ages, changes over time, minimums and maximums, or any other range, there is specific language with which to do this:
- Between X and Y
- From X to Y
- From X until Y
- Since X until Y
- What is important to remember here is that these structures cannot be mixed. For example, do not write between X to Y.
If you want to express change over a long period of time:
- Over the course/span of six decades, the number of houses in the suburbs of Toronto have quadrupled.
- During the six decades from 1940–2000, the number of houses in the suburbs of Toronto quadrupled.
- The last sixty years have seen a significant rise in housing construction.