Report Writer Series: Don’t settle for ugly reports! Part 1

Now that most of the payroll year-end tax update season is behind us, it’s back to the Report Writer series of articles.

You’re not the only one who is sick of looking at ugly plain-text edit lists and searching for the information you want to review. Have no fear, more useful and attractive reports are a few mouse clicks away!

Lots of users have gone to other reporting tools to get better looking reports and I don’t blame them. Crystal and SQL Reporting Services give us a lot of great tools to improve reporting in terms of look and feel as well as flexibility of layout and many other benefits. As much as some of us would like Report Writer to die a slow death, the reality is for posting journals and edit lists and anything with temp tables, Report Writer is “it”.

So, you have two choices: you can put up with the out-of-the-box ugly reports or you can roll up your sleeves and make some reports more visually appealing, enhancing the fields which are of importance to you. The next 2-3 articles will be focussed around how to spruce up your reports, using an example of modifying the General Posting Edit List, converting it from text to graphical and cleaning it up.

First, if you are new to report writer, take a moment to review my background posts to get up to speed.

Begin with the end in mind

With a nod to Stephen Covey, who I believe coined this phrase, best practises dictate that you have a goal in mind when you start a project. If you don’t, one can argue, where exactly are you going? Well, with report writing, the same principle applies: don’t start until you know what you want to end up with. This usually means “mocking up” a report.

What are mock-ups?

By “mocking up”, I mean printing out a sample of a report you want to edit. It’s best to ensure your mock-up represents the typical information that is printed on the report. I.E. ensure you are printing samples where you are typing descriptions or filling in all of the fields you may use in the course of ordinary transactions. Also, don’t limit yourself to “one” of anything – try to have a large enough sample that your report is more than one page. Why? The Page Header often is not displayed on page 1 of a report and you don’t know what the report fully looks like until you print a two-page or more report.

Example of a mock-up

Pictured below is a mock-up of the report I plan to modify. I’m circling fields I want to move or edit in some way and drawing in new items that I want added. In this example I am not removing any fields however that is very common, and putting a big “X” through the fields and field titles you don’t want is an important part of the mock-up exercise. Usually the client or end-users are doing the mock-ups and you should ensure you clearly understand their scribbles and notations if anything needs further explanation.


Some people take this a step further and draw these mock-ups up a lot neater than mine, or even cut and paste the fields on a blank page the way they want them to appear. That’s ok too… the goal is to be clear on what the desired output looks like. Try to avoid the vague “can you just pretty this up for me” approach to report modification! What I find looks great, may be quite unreadable to someone else!

Here is my process when modifying a report, after I have a mock-up ready, and launching GP pointing to my own copies of the reports dictionaries.

Step 1: Check for previous customizations

This may sound obvious, but stranger things have happened. Do a quick check before starting a modification of a report by checking if that report already exists in your reports dictionary. A quick look at the Customization Maintenance window should tell you that, assuming you are in an environment where you can see everything that is currently modified.

If, by chance, you see the report you plan to modify is already listed, you may want to do a little digging to find out what the modified version looks like (if you are seeing the original) and who, if anyone, is using it (i.e. who has security access to the modified version).

Step 2: Modify the right report!

There is a saying, “Good Judgement comes from Experience. Experience comes from Bad Judgement.” I used to modify a report by going into Report Writer then finding the report I wanted and inserting it my reports list. That seemed to work just fine until one day I spent a great deal of time modifying a posting journal only to find out the client uses the multicurrency version of the posting journal – an entirely different report. I still remember the dull thud sound of my head hitting the desk. Ugh!

Learn from my “experience” and instead of that approach, find the report you want in GP and print it to screen, then click on Modify to get into Report Writer. Remember, this approach does not work if there are any reports that will print after the one you want to modify though, but at least in the title bar, it shows you the exact name of the report, to find it in Report Writer!

TIP: Don’t go by the name in the Report Destination window! (it’s not the real name, and doesn’t tell you if you are using a multicurrency version for instance!)


Use the name of the report in the Title Bar instead!


Step 3: Convert from text to graphical

The layout of a text report, for this report, looks like this:


To change it to graphical report, exit the Layout screen, and unmark the Text Report option on the Report Definition screen.


After doing that, the layout will initially look something like this:


Step 4: Start to make your changes!

The first thing I usually do is to mass-change the fonts on all of the fields. If you do this first, you can easily select all fields (CTRL+A) and then go into Drawing Options (CTRL+D) and change everything to a more suitable font than Courier 11pt.   If you start adding graphical elements first, then when you “select all” you will be grabbing graphical items as well as text and the shortcut to mass-change fonts won’t work.

I generally stick with plain fonts for readability – Arial, Helvetica, Calibri work for me. I also try to get away with small font sizes to make things fit better – 9 or 10pt for most text is often a nice size to work with as long as people can read it.  This is purely preliminary - I mass-change to what I want the majority of the font sizes to be and as I get closer to the report being final, I spot-change titles or other fields to different sizes as required.

Next, start moving the fields into place. Moving from text to graphical throws the fields off the page so-to-speak. Consider changing the layout to landscape if your report has more information width-wise than length-wise. Use some of the techniques described in my previous posts about selecting multiple pieces of text to move things around.  I usually focus first on getting things to the right general area before finalizing the exact location and aligning things precisely.

Next post, I will continue with this example and show tips on how to use the Toolbox to arrange fields and make your report a thing of beauty! Until then, here is a sneak peak at the end result.


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