As I plug away at writing the materials-engineering-informed failure-analysis book that has been on and off my “Get it Done!” list since 2003, I have at last come to the part about writing the report. This flow chart (Fig. 1) represents my preferred method. When all goes well in the work, this chart shows quite closely how I actually work. I start at the large blue rectangle at upper left, stop to ask myself a final time if everything makes sense. If so, when I get to the blue diamond I’m ready to write in a fairly smooth process. Some of the steps may be fairly informal. Especially if it is a small project, I can keep most of my key points, findings, theories, conclusions and recommendations in my head until they flow out of my fingertips into the computer keyboard.

When I showed this graphic to some colleagues for comments, however, a few of them did not like it. They said that it didn’t show each section of writing in the order it would appear. But I did that on purpose. If you have had to spend a lot of time in the big green NO rectangle, it may be easier and more efficient to just start writing the parts that are straightforward. If there is still a microstructure feature that doesn’t make sense, you can leave that part for last. Sometimes it gets clarified as you write the other sections. If not, then you will just have the longer task of explaining that there are some problems with the data and that there may be more work required before high confidence emerges.

The results section is usually the easiest to write. The hardest part of the report for me is usually the first step, which involves selecting the key images and graphs that I will include in the formal report. Once I do this, usually the summary and other sections are fairly straightforward to write.

For a typical report on a failure analysis of a component, the photo list usually includes an overview of the component or subassembly in which it was installed and then one or two photos from each of the microscopes I used. Finally, a graph of the hardness data taken from the spreadsheet where I usually provide all of this data is often included.

The last step, the dark blue rectangle at lower left, includes preparation of any appendices, cover letters and distribution. Cover letters are sometimes required to separate the direct findings from recommendations and, occasionally, interpretations. If the report itself needs to go to a government entity, there may be sensitive commentary that management needs to hear, but the government may not be entitled to by law or regulation.

One other point to make before we say goodbye for now is that I am often finding that people are open to a video conference presentation before I write the report. I like this because it gives the client a chance to ask any questions they may have, and knowing the concerns of the client makes it easy to sort out what to explain first. Why spend five pages on the dimensional variations when they only care about the composition?