Writing for the United Nations


II. Reader and purpose



A. First steps in writing the report
B. Statement of purpose
C. Types of United Nations reports
D. Purpose indicated by title
E. Questions your reader might ask

A. First steps in writing the report

Ask yourself: Why am I writing this report? What is the subject of the report? Who will be reading it?

Your report should not be a mystery. You must be very clear on the reason that you are writing the report and the major points you want to make and you should convey these to the reader in your introduction. You can safely assume that if you do not state the purpose explicitly, at least some of your readers will not realize [TIP] what it is. If you have several purposes of equal importance, state them in parallel structures to indicate their equivalent value.

Sometimes, the reason you are writing the report (its statement of purpose) will be very similar to the content of the report (its subject), especially when the purpose is merely to inform the reader. Sometimes, however, the statement of purpose will be quite distinct from the subject. In such cases, your introduction will benefit from keeping these two aspects separate. 

For example, the purpose of the report of the Secretary-General on the financing of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) [TIP] is to obtain funding for the mission from the General Assembly. The subject of the report - in other words, its main content - is an account of UNMIL activities and the estimates of the money that will be needed to finance them. Your introduction will need to include both these aspects.

The present [TIP] report on the financing of the United Nations Mission in Liberia is submitted to the General Assembly at its fifty-ninth session for review and appropriation of the financial resources required for the functioning of the mission for the period July-December 2005. The report outlines the proposed activities to be carried out by the mission and indicates the estimated financial requirements.

Note that stating the purpose at the beginning is sometimes essential to indicate legislative authority for the report (General Assembly and Security Council resolutions and so forth) and will be helpful to you as well as your readers. If your report is in response to a specific resolution, make a copy of the resolution and highlight the main points. Keep checking back to make sure you are not deviating from your main purpose. Now take a look at an exercise to show how the resolution can help you to keep your report focused on its subject. You can check your answers using the link at the end of the exercise. 

[Click here for exercise 1]

B. Statement of purpose

Stick a note with a sentence or two stating the purpose of the report above your computer as a reminder.

Defining your purpose at the very beginning keeps you on track and lets the reader see where you are going. You may also find that the process of drafting a statement (or sometimes for a long report, a paragraph) about the purpose helps you to clarify the purpose in your own mind.

However, bear in mind that there might be some types of writing, usually shorter and more direct internal communications, that do not require an explicit statement of purpose.

Some of the purposes of United Nations reports are the following:
  (a) To recommend or call for action;
  (b) To educate or inform readers about the situation in a region or for a particular group of people;
  (c) To persuade through logical argument;
  (d) To present a theory and back it up with evidence;
  (e) To describe a procedure;
  (f) To show what progress has been made (over time or geographically) in a programme since the last report;
  (g) To provide an account of a situation or incident for the official record.

Use the examples in subparagraphs (a)-(g) to decide what the purposes of the reports in exercise 2 might be. 

[Click here for exercise 2]

C. Types of United Nations reports

The various types of United Nations reports [TIP] often have similar purposes. Some examples are given below.

1. Substantive research reports of the Secretary-General

Audience: Member States that will be voting on resolutions or deciding on policies, taking the findings of the report into consideration. Reports of the Secretary-General will be submitted to a specific legislative body, such as the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council or the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

  (a) To provide information on activities of the United Nations, Member States and other players in the international community, or to update readers on the latest situation or findings if the report is part of a series;
  (b) To formulate conclusions and make recommendations;
  (c) To argue in favour of a course of action.

2. Internal department reports

  (a) Chief of the department;
  (b) Managers or other staff of the department;
  (c) Colleagues throughout the United Nations system working on similar issues.
  (a) To explain a procedure;
  (b) To report on the findings of a study of interest to the department;
  (c) To describe a staff member's work on a project, a conference or some other outside assignment.

3. Mission reports

  (a) The department that sent the staff member on mission;
  (b) Policymaking [TIP] units of the United Nations;

Other departments whose work is related to the mission.

  (a) For non-specialist readers, to lay out the situation or problem, summarize the findings of a study and present conclusions and usually recommendations;
  (b) For specialist readers, the above purposes and also to present the details of the study.

4. Other types of United Nations reports

  (a) Public information reports;
  (b) Technical reports;
  (c) Reports on conferences and expert group and working group meetings;
  (d) Inter-agency reports;
  (e) Project proposals;
  (f) Incident reports;
  (g) Analytical reports on application of rules and policies.

Staff members are also often required to write notes for the file, summaries of longer documents or articles, summary records of meetings, analytical reports and memorandums and other correspondence. How to write summaries will be covered later in this course.

What kind of reports do you write? Take a moment to think about why you write them and who reads them.

[Click here for exercises 3 and 4]

D. Purpose indicated by title

The title of your report should immediately alert your reader to the subject of the report and why you are writing it. If you include only a general topic statement, the reader is forced to search further for the purpose or even to guess what it might be.

An example of a good title is "Measures to strengthen accountability at the United Nations". It tells us what the report will be about (measures to strengthen accountability), and in what context (at the United Nations).

In contrast, the title "Human resources development" [TIP] is not so clear. We know that the report deals with human resources development, but in what context? The United Nations? We could assume so, especially since the General Assembly indeed considers many such issues in the Secretariat. In fact, the summary of the report says that it "provides an overview of the need for promoting comprehensive and cross-sectoral approaches to human resources development" and that it "emphasizes the mutually reinforcing relationship between human resources development and the realization of the internationally agreed development goals". The agenda item is entitled "Eradication of poverty and other development issues: human resources development". This title could therefore usefully be expanded to read "Contribution of human resources development to the eradication of poverty". If in doubt about how to develop a title, however, the simplest solution is often to follow the wording of the agenda item. For example, the title of the report could read "Eradication of poverty: human resources development".

For internal documents, using words such as "recommendation", "request", "proposal" and "authorization" often helps to indicate the purpose. For example,

Request for temporary staff assistance

Project proposal: cultivation of roses instead of coca bush in Colombia

Recommendations for staff training in 2007

[Click here for exercises 5 and 6]

E. Questions your reader might ask

In A Guide to Writing for the United Nations, [TIP] W.H. Hindle writes (p. 6):

"Accuracy, clarity, conciseness, consistency are fine words, finer and rarer things. How are they to be achieved in United Nations documents?

"The first step to this end consists in giving thought, before writing, to why we are going to write, what we are going to write, and how and for whom."

If you keep your reader in mind as you draft your report, just as you do when you write a personal letter, you will find it easier to make decisions about what to include (and what to omit), how to organize the material and what tone to adopt.

Ask yourself the following questions before you begin to write:

  (a) Who requested the report?
  (b) What information was requested?
  (c) Is this a new report on the subject or part of a series?
  (d) How much background information will the reader need?

[Click here for exercises 7 and 8]

  | I. Introduction | II. Reader and purpose | III. Pre-writing techniques | IV. Standard report formats | V. Sentence and paragraph development | VI. Clarity in writing | VII. Writing a summary | VIII. Writing conclusions and recommendations | IX. Some last tips |  

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