Friday, January 19th, 2018

Writing Reports


Introduction

Report writing is an essential skill for professionals in almost every field: accountants, teachers,
graphic designers, information scientists (the list goes on). That’s one of the reasons why your
instructors will require you to write reports.

A report aims to inform, as clearly and succinctly as possible. It should be easy to read, and
professional in its presentation.

Exactly what you include in your report and how you present it will vary according to your discipline
and the specific purpose of the report. Here we give some general guidelines, but you should check
with your instructor for more detail on what is expected.

Report structure

What follows is a generic structure for reports. Using this structure will help to give your
report the correct level of formality; it will also help to ensure that you do not leave out
anything important. However, the actual structure required by your discipline may not be exactly
what is represented here – you should check with your instructor.

A report should generally include the following sections. Sections marked with an asterisk (*)
are essential; others are optional depending on the type, length and purpose of the report.

Title page

This must contain:

  • the report title which clearly states the purpose of the report
  • full details of the person(s) for whom the report was prepared
  • full details of the person(s) who prepared the report
  • the date of the presentation of the report

Table of Contents (usually only if the report is longer than
ten pages, or so)

This is a list of the headings and appendices of the report. Depending on the complexity and
length of the report, you could list tables, figures and appendices separately. Make sure the
correct page numbers are shown opposite the contents. Up-to-date word processing packages can
generate a table of contents for you.

Abbreviations

If necessary, you should provide an alphabetical list of the abbreviations you have used in the
report, especially if they may not be familiar to all readers of the report.

If you have used a lot of technical terms, you should also provide a glossary (an alphabetical
list of the terms, with brief explanations of their meanings).

Abstract (Summary or Executive Summary)

An abstract is quite different from an introduction. It is a summary of the report, in which you
include one sentence (or so) for every main section of your report. For example, you can include:

  • the context of the research
  • the purpose of the report
  • the major findings (you may need several sentences here)
  • the conclusions
  • the main recommendations

Write the abstract after you have written the report.

Introduction

  • Give enough background information to provide a context for the report.
  • State the purpose of the report.
  • Clarify key terms and indicate the scope of the report (i.e. what the report will cover).

Body

The content of the body depends on the purpose of the report, and whether it is a report of
primary or secondary research.

A report of primary research (based on your own observations and experiments) will include:

  • Literature review (what other people have written about this topic. See our webpage for
    hints on writing a literature review). The literature review should lead towards your
    research question.
  • Method (summarizes what you did and why). Use the past tense.
  • Findings or results (describes what you discovered, observed, etc, in your observations and
    experiements). Use the past tense.
  • Discussion (discusses and explains your findings and relates them to previous research).
    Use the present tense to make generalizations.

A report of secondary research (based on reading only) will include:

  • Information organized under appropriate topics with sub-headings. It is unlikely that your
    report will discuss each source separately. You need to synthesize material from
    different sources under topic headings.
  • Analysis/discussion of the sources you are reporting.

Conclusion

Sum up the main points of the report. The conclusion should clearly relate to the objectives of
your report. Don’t include new information here.

Recommendations (if appropriate)

These are suggestions for future action. They must be logically derived from the body of your
report.

Bibliography

See the page on Using References for more information.

Appendices

An appendix contains material which is too detailed, technical, or complex to include in the body
of the report (for example, specifications, a questionnaire, or a long complex table of figures),
but which is referred to in the report. Appendices are put at the very end of the report, after
everything else. Each appendix should contain different material. Number each appendix clearly.

Presentation of the report

The content and structure of your report is important; so is the presentation and style.
First impressions count, so consider these simple tips to ensure your report is reader-friendly:

  • use plenty of white space
  • ensure the separate parts of your report stand out clearly
  • use subheadings
  • allow generous spacing between the elements of your report
  • use bullets/numbers/letters to articulate these elements
  • use tables and figures (graphs, illustrations, maps etc) for clarification. Label them
    clearly and cite the source. These graphics should relate to the text of your report;
    for example, Figure 1 shows that the population of Arkadelphia has increased
    dramatically since 1890.
    , or The population of Arkadelphia has increased
    dramatically since 1890 (see Figure 1).
  • number each page (a neat header and/or footer makes your work look more professional)
  • use consistent and appropriate formatting (you may like to follow the report format
    supplied with your word processing package)
  • use formal language. It would be worth having a look at the language that is used in other,
    similar reports to check out useful expressions and terms.

Common problems

Some common problems with research report writing that you should take care to avoid are:

  • the inclusion of careless, inaccurate, or conflicting information
  • the inclusion of outdated or irrelevant data
  • facts and opinions that are not separated
  • unsupported conclusions and recommendations
  • careless presentation and proof-reading
  • too much emphasis on appearance and not enough attention to solid content.

Reports and essays—what’s the difference?

A common problem is that students transfer what they have learned about essay writing to report
writing.

Both essays and reports need:

  • formal style
  • careful proof-reading and neat presentation
  • introduction, body and conclusion
  • analytical thinking

But there are also some essential differences between the two:

A Report An Essay
Presents information Presents an argument
Is meant to be scanned quickly by the reader Is meant to be read carefully
Uses numbered headings and sub-headings Uses minimal sub-headings, if any.
May not need references and bibliography/reference list Always needs references and bibliography/reference list
Uses short, concise paragraphs and dot-points where applicable Links ideas into cohesive paragraphs, rather than breaking them down
into a list of dot-points
Uses graphics wherever possible (tables, graphs, illustrations) Rarely uses graphics
May need an abstract (sometimes called an executive summary) Will only need an abstract if it is very long, or if your instructor asks
for one specifically
May be followed by recommendations and/or appendices Seldom has recommendations or appendices