NASA: Technical Report Writing

Data Presentation

Because most technical reports rely on figures and tables for the presentation of data, the form and quality of the figures and tables are important in establishing the style and readability of the report. Good judgment should be used in selecting both the data to be presented and the method of presentation. Use only figures and tables that add to the value of your report. Present the data as simply and straightforwardly as possible so that your readers can easily grasp the significant points. Present data in the text, or in a figure, or in a table—but never in more than one way.

Before beginning to write the report, carefully select the data to include. Most carefully prepared programs yield more data than are needed to support the conclusions. Including all your data in the report is unnecessary. Use only data that are directly pertinent to your conclusions, and do not try to impress readers with how much data you have collected. Quantity is no substitute for quality in presenting technical results.

Once you have selected the data to be included in your report, decide how they can best be presented. Should they be tabulated or plotted? To answer this question, consider your readers' needs. Do they need to know exact values? If so, tabulate your results. If relative trends are more important, use graphs. Both the figures and tables should be as self-explanatory as possible and arranged logically to tell the main points of your story without reference to the text.


The figures used in technical reports generally are of three types— . . . graphs, drawings, and photographs. Figures are numbered with Arabic numerals in the order of their mention, unless the mention is clearly incidental. In the final report they are either inserted in the text near (preferably following) their first mention or grouped together at the back. Sketches are lettered consecutively ((a), (b), (c), etc.) if they are referred to more than once. Under no circumstances should the arrangement of black and white figures or the parts of one figure be out of sequence. Figures arranged in a group are in sequence from top to bottom or from left to right. Exceptions are sometimes made for color figures to reduce the number of pages printed in color.

Prepare figures with consideration for their appearance in the final printed document. The size of the printed figure including the legend (title) cannot exceed the dimensions of the report image area (7 1/8 by 9 1/8 in. in NASA reports). Within these limits various sizes, proportions, and arrangements of figures are possible. (A large, complex figure may be reproduced on facing pages.)

All figures must have legends; if a figure has parts ((a), (b), (c), etc.), it must have corresponding sub legends. Use similar wording in the legends of related figures. After you have assembled the rough draft of the report, thumb through the figures and tables, reading merely the title of each to make certain that the format and the nomenclature are consistent. Conditions applying to the entire figure or to a part are normally stated as part of the legend or sub legend. But when the same conditions apply, for example, to every graph in a report, they are best stated once in the text.


Graphs should be clear and simple with as few data curves as possible. It is usually best to have no more than six types of lines or data points on a graph—four is better. Try to avoid interlaced or unrelated curves. As few words (labels) as possible should be inserted directly on the figure. Equations should be placed in the text, lengthy tabular material should be presented in a separate numbered table, and explanations and conditions should be added to the legends or placed in the text.

Choose coordinates that will give your readers a physical feel for the variables being presented. Clearly label what is plotted and the units used. Whenever possible plot all parts of any one figure or related figures on scales with the same increments. Label main and auxiliary scales with a word description of the concept or quantity, its symbol, and its unit. For example, "Axial distance, x, cm" is more immediately descriptive than "x, cm." Add auxiliary scales at the left and bottom of the figure if there are four or fewer scales. Place additional scales at the right or top. For ease in interpolation divide scales into logical, consistent increments. For example, when both U.S. customary and SI units are used, each scale must stand alone. Do not simply convert the values on one scale into the other system of units. Such a scale is useless to the reader.

Use the same data symbols and lines to represent the same conditions consistently throughout the graphs of your report. The following data symbols and types of lines are commonly used:

Symbols and lines

Do not use the symbols + and x on figures with grid, and avoid solid or partly solid symbols if symbols overlap. The curves and data points may be identified by keys or labels. Keys are preferred when several curves must be distinguished or when several conditions are associated with each curve. Keys generally follow the format for tabular material and should be consistent throughout a set of figures.


When you use drawings or sketches to illustrate test equipment, try to keep them simple. Include only those features of the equipment that are essential to your readers' understanding, and avoid unnecessary detail. ...


. . . . Photographs of similar objects should be sized for compatibility. Glossy prints taken with black-and-white film reproduce best. Prints that have already been screened are not usable. The use of color in printing is discouraged because it greatly increases publishing costs.

Do not include a photograph of equipment which is so elementary that a sentence would describe it. Label the most important features being shown. Remember, equipment that seems simple to you may be complex to readers who are not familiar with it. Limit the labeling and the field of view to the main items discussed to avoid confusing readers with extraneous items. Mark up a copy of the photograph rather than the glossy print.

If your photographs are Polaroid prints, have negatives and additional prints made before submitting them for use in a report, for slides, etc. You are then protected in case of damage or loss, and prints are readily available for additional uses.

Include some object or scale in the photograph to help your readers judge the size of the objects shown. ...


Tables are often included in technical reports to present data in an exact, highly concentrated form. But because tabulated data are so concentrated, many readers have difficulty grasping their significance. Tables are therefore the least preferred method of transmitting results to readers and should be used only when absolutely necessary. When you use tables, make them as brief and simple as possible. Otherwise your readers may not bother studying the detailed columns of figures, and you will have wasted your time in presenting the data. "Whenever a table, or columns within a table, can readily be put into words, do it" (ref. 2).

Tables are numbered in the order of their mention, in Roman numerals except when a report contains 20 or more tables. Then Arabic numerals are used. Similar data at different conditions are organized into parts ((a), (b), (c), etc.) of the same table with subtitles. Numbered tables must have titles.

Present tabulated material in an organized manner. Like elements should read down not across. Variables are usually given in columns topped by boxheads, with the constants given in the first, or stub, column. Boxheads should be brief; if necessary, they may be amplified by footnotes. Boxheads usually contain a word description of a concept or quantity, its symbol, and its unit, separated by commas; symbols must be defined when they are used. Arrange tabulated data in a logical order that your readers can easily recognize. Usually this arrangement is an ascending or descending order of value for the prime parameter. The order is necessary to clarify trends. You can also help your readers see relations and comparisons of data by carefully wording the boxheads and the stub column. Put items to be compared in adjacent columns. Generally numbers in columns are more easily compared than numbers in rows. Another type of table is the leaderwork table, in which dissimilar data are listed in rows with leader dots connecting each parameter with the corresponding value.

Give conditions that apply to an entire table in a headnote. Indicate footnote citations by lower-case letters (superscripts) ordered across the table from left to right and top to bottom.

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