Assignment 10 - Technical writing

- Technical report content & formats -

This week's assignment covers the character of technical reports, specifically technical geology reports. A geological report, or geotechnical report, typically describes project objectives, field work and tests performed, field conditions or site character, findings and recommendations for "action" (further work, if needed), and references cited. Most professional geologists will prepare a geological report at some point in their career; some geologists do so regularly. In fact, for most geologists, compiling geological reports is a major part of their job, so knowing what is involved early in your career is probably worth some extra effort. Some students who have been to field camp may already have prepared a geological report.

During the early years of this course, the final project involved preparing a geotechnical report (e.g. a Phase I environmental site assessment) using environmental data provided by your instructor. Since that time, however, MTSU geology students have begun entering M.S. (graduate) programs in ever increasing numbers; therefore, a research project seems more apropos. Nonetheless, in my opinion, no geology major should graduate without some familiarity with the format of a geotechnical report. This assignment is intended to provide you with that knowledge. It requires a bit of reading on your part, but you will not be preparing a geological report. Rather, you only have to submit the answers to a short question set (see #1 below) concerning their format and purpose.

Once you've reviewed the examples provided below, you'll note that a geologic report really bears little resemblance to the kinds of papers -- journal articles -- that you've been reading for this course. This is not surprising as the goals and intended audience of the two are substantially different. Nonetheless, the skills that you've developed in this course should help you in preparing either type of document.

I should also emphasize two other important differences between geotechnical reports and journal articles. First, geotechnical reports rarely go through a formal evaluation process (editorial peer review) nor are they typically subject to public scrutiny (i.e. available in published form). One exception would be government documents that go out for "public review and comment" and are then published as government reports. These are widely read and critiqued. Few other geotechnical reports ever see the light of day outside of the clients' organization -- with one exception (see next paragraph).

Secondly, few journal articles are used in legal battles, whereas geotechncial reports commonly are (this is the exception referred to just above). For that reason, great attention should be paid to the format and wording of geological reports. In fact, large environmental and engineering firms quite often have their more important reports vetted (i.e. okayed) by legal counsel. In addition, junior technical staff (e.g. less experienced geologists) have their technical reports vetted by more senior technical staff as well as peers. This keeps "dumb stuff" from going out the door and ending up in court where it may create serious financial liability for the author's company.

I have provided several web documents below for you to review if you wish. These consist of suggestions for technical report formats and examples of actual geological reports. If you are serious about a career in the geosciences, I suggest you spend a little time at least skimming over their contents.

Report Formats
Guidelines for preparing engineering geology reports in California
  • an excellent resource for what a geologic site assessment should contain
Guidelines for preparing engineering geology reports in Washington State
  • another excellent resource for what a geologic site assessment should contain
BFI (Browning-Ferris Industry's) standard "Brownfield" report format
  • typical example of a report for a major environmental consulting project; very good example of decimal numbering system for a technical report (1.0, 1.10, etc.)
Technical report design overview

Specific examples of geologic site assessments
TDEC Modified Site Check Letter
(if you skim nothing else, please look this over)
Thinking about working in the environmental field? Due diligence work, especially Phase I & Phase II ESA's in Brownfields, is the bread and butter of that industry. This brief report to the TN Dept. of Environmental & Conservation (TDEC) is a great example of the end product on a "Quicky Mart" (thank you, Matt Groenig) gasoline spill. "Boilerplate" text is highlighted in yellow. (24 pages including 21 pages of attachments)
The geology of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
This is typical of a report strictly summarizing the bedrock geology of a site, i.e. it is not a worksite-related report. It contains a number of well-drafted figures as well as site photographs.
Geologic report on Moscow (Idaho) monitoring wells
This is typical of a report strictly summarizing wellbore geology of a site, i.e. it is not a worksite-related report. It contains a number of well-drafted figures as well as site photographs. It also has tables containing water well chemical analyses. 
Engineering geologic evaluation for the Vista Grande Watershed Plan
 In contrast to the previous report, this study provides considerable detail on a variety of site aspects & includes details of a proposed work program. As a result, it is considerably longer than the two preceding reports. 
Phase II Environmental Site Assessment Report: 
Maine Energy Recovery Company Property
An excellent example of a Phase II environmental site assessment performed in Biddeford Pool, ME. 
[Note that only 34 pages of this 293-page report consists of technical writing; it is well worth your time to read it if you want to get a notion of what environmental/engineering consulting work involves when it comes to "due diligence" and "Brownfield" work]

Once you have satisfied your curiosity concerning what a geologic report is, and the typical content of such a report, you can proceed to the assignment (#1) below.

Assignment 10 materials
Document title
1) Confirm/Deny question set (today's assignment)
Twelve questions to be printed out, completed, and submitted for credit: answers should be recorded on a Form B scantron (5-1/2 x 11"). These are available for purchase in DSB 241 (departmental office)
Using the Find function (^F) in most PDF file readers you can easily find the answers in the following documents. However, I would hope you would instead read (or at least skim) along to find your answers--not reading these source materials would pretty much defeat the whole purpose of this assignment. 
2) Outline of the geologic report format referred to in the question set
American Institute of Professional Geologists
Organization and Content of a Typical Geologic Report
This is a source of answers to many of the questions in #1 above; note that none of the report examples provided above follow the AIPG format that closely. However, AIPG's document is a good starting point for understanding the rationale of what should go into a geologic report.
Again please note that you are not going to be preparing a geotechnical report for this assignment, only answering questions about their form and function. 
3) A Chemical Engineering Treatability Study
Independent, professional consultant
(Professional [chemical] Engineer)
Bench-Scale Batch and Column Soil and Groundwater Treatability Study
This is another source of answers to questions in #1 above
Note #1: I have purposely chosen a short report and then highlighted this consultant's "boilerplate." Wikipedia defines "Boilerplate" (circa 2016) as "any text that is or can be reused in new contexts or applications without being greatly changed from the original." By highlighting this text, I hope to give you some idea of what kind of information can be "cut and pasted" from report to report, and what typically has to be written anew for each work site. Of course, this varies from company to company & project to project.
Note #2: When I contacted this author (Dr. Doug Kennedy) concerning the fact that the report does not include a list of references, he said that the EPA methods listed in the report are typically not cited within industry reports (or in industry publications) to save room, since these methods are generally considered standard references in the industry. In addition, Dr. Kennedy said that he also did not include a citation for "JAS, 2014" because the receiving government organization would have that report on file (however, this might not be a universal approach since this citation would probably have been helpful to most any reader).
4) TDEC Modified Site Check Letter
(same example as listed above with other geologic reports)
Corporate consultant 
(TN Registered Geologist)
Modified Site Check Report, Pantry Store No.
This is another source of answers to questions in #1 above
This is an unusual format, but it is well worth noting what TDEC "site check letters" are designed to accomplish & what a report like this entails. 
5) List of writing problems for novice geotechnical writers
Corporate  consultant
Shortcomings (too) often observed in novices' geotechnical reports
This is another source of answers to questions in #1 above
For a recent perspective on this topic, I interviewed an MTSU graduate who is a senior geologist for a large consulting firm.