Some academic assignments ask for a ‘report’, rather than an essay, and students are often confused about what that really means.
Likewise, in business, confronted with a request for a ‘report’ to a senior manager, many people struggle to know what to write.
Confusion often arises about the writing style, what to include, the language to use, the length of the document and other factors.
This page aims to disentangle some of these elements, and provide you with some advice designed to help you to write a good report.
What is a Report?
In academia there is some overlap between reports and essays, and the two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but reports are more likely to be needed for business, scientific and technical subjects, and in the workplace.
Whereas an essay presents arguments and reasoning, a report concentrates on facts.
Essentially, a report is a short, sharp, concise document which is written for a particular purpose and audience. It generally sets outs and analyses a situation or problem, often making recommendations for future action. It is a factual paper, and needs to be clear and well-structured.
Requirements for the precise form and content of a report will vary between organisation and departments and in study between courses, from tutor to tutor, as well as between subjects, so it’s worth finding out if there are any specific guidelines before you start.
Reports may contain some or all of the following elements:
- A description of a sequence of events or a situation;
- Some interpretation of the significance of these events or situation, whether solely your own analysis or informed by the views of others, always carefully referenced of course (see our page on Academic Referencing for more information);
- An evaluation of the facts or the results of your research;
- Discussion of the likely outcomes of future courses of action;
- Your recommendations as to a course of action; and
Not all of these elements will be essential in every report.
If you’re writing a report in the workplace, check whether there are any standard guidelines or structure that you need to use.
For example, in the UK many government departments have outline structures for reports to ministers that must be followed exactly.
Sections and Numbering
A report is designed to lead people through the information in a structured way, but also to enable them to find the information that they want quickly and easily.
Reports usually, therefore, have numbered sections and subsections, and a clear and full contents page listing each heading. It follows that page numbering is important.
Modern word processors have features to add tables of contents (ToC) and page numbers as well as styled headings; you should take advantage of these as they update automatically as you edit your report, moving, adding or deleting sections.
Getting Started: prior preparation and planning
The structure of a report is very important to lead the reader through your thinking to a course of action and/or decision. It’s worth taking a bit of time to plan it out beforehand.
Step 1: Know your brief
You will usually receive a clear brief for a report, including what you are studying and for whom the report should be prepared.
First of all, consider your brief very carefully and make sure that you are clear who the report is for (if you're a student then not just your tutor, but who it is supposed to be written for), and why you are writing it, as well as what you want the reader to do at the end of reading: make a decision or agree a recommendation, perhaps.
Step 2: Keep your brief in mind at all times
During your planning and writing, make sure that you keep your brief in mind: who are you writing for, and why are you writing?
All your thinking needs to be focused on that, which may require you to be ruthless in your reading and thinking. Anything irrelevant should be discarded.
As you read and research, try to organise your work into sections by theme, a bit like writing a Literature Review.
Make sure that you keep track of your references, especially for academic work. Although referencing is perhaps less important in the workplace, it’s also important that you can substantiate any assertions that you make so it’s helpful to keep track of your sources of information.
The Structure of a Report
Like the precise content, requirements for structure vary, so do check what’s set out in any guidance.
However, as a rough guide, you should plan to include at the very least an executive summary, introduction, the main body of your report, and a section containing your conclusions and any recommendations.
The executive summary or abstract, for a scientific report, is a brief summary of the contents. It’s worth writing this last, when you know the key points to draw out. It should be no more than half a page to a page in length.
Remember the executive summary is designed to give busy 'executives' a quick summary of the contents of the report.
The introduction sets out what you plan to say and provides a brief summary of the problem under discussion. It should also touch briefly on your conclusions.
Report Main Body
The main body of the report should be carefully structured in a way that leads the reader through the issue.
You should split it into sections using numbered sub-headings relating to themes or areas for consideration. For each theme, you should aim to set out clearly and concisely the main issue under discussion and any areas of difficulty or disagreement. It may also include experimental results. All the information that you present should be related back to the brief and the precise subject under discussion.
If it’s not relevant, leave it out.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The conclusion sets out what inferences you draw from the information, including any experimental results. It may include recommendations, or these may be included in a separate section.
Recommendations suggest how you think the situation could be improved, and should be specific, achievable and measurable. If your recommendations have financial implications, you should set these out clearly, with estimated costs if possible.
A Word on Writing Style
When writing a report, your aim should be to be absolutely clear. Above all, it should be easy to read and understand, even to someone with little knowledge of the subject area.
You should therefore aim for crisp, precise text, using plain English, and shorter words rather than longer, with short sentences.
You should also avoid jargon. If you have to use specialist language, you should explain each word as you use it. If you find that you’ve had to explain more than about five words, you’re probably using too much jargon, and need to replace some of it with simpler words.
Consider your audience. If the report is designed to be written for a particular person, check whether you should be writing it to ‘you’ or perhaps in the third person to a job role: ‘The Chief Executive may like to consider…’, or ‘The minister is recommended to agree…’, for example.
A Final Warning
As with any academic assignment or formal piece of writing, your work will benefit from being read over again and edited ruthlessly for sense and style.
Pay particular attention to whether all the information that you have included is relevant. Also remember to check tenses, which person you have written in, grammar and spelling. It’s also worth one last check against any requirements on structure.
For an academic assignment, make sure that you have referenced fully and correctly. As always, check that you have not inadvertently or deliberately plagiarised or copied anything without acknowledging it.
Finally, ask yourself:
“Does my report fulfil its purpose?”
Only if the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ should you send it off to its intended recipient.
This guide has been written to provide a general introduction to writing reports. It outlines the typical structure of a report and provides a step by step guide to producing reports that are clear and well structured.
Other useful guides: Writing for science; Avoiding plagiarism; Referencing and bibliographies.
What is a report?
A report is written for a clear purpose and to a particular audience. Specific information and evidence are presented, analysed and applied to a particular problem or issue. The information is presented in a clearly structured format making use of sections and headings so that the information is easy to locate and follow.
When you are asked to write a report you will usually be given a report brief which provides you with instructions and guidelines. The report brief may outline the purpose, audience and problem or issue that your report must address, together with any specific requirements for format or structure. This guide offers a general introduction to report writing; be sure also to take account of specific instructions provided by your department.
What makes a good report?
Two of the reasons why reports are used as forms of written assessment are:
to find out what you have learned from your reading, research or experience;
to give you experience of an important skill that is widely used in the work place.
An effective report presents and analyses facts and evidence that are relevant to the specific problem or issue of the report brief. All sources used should be acknowledged and referenced throughout, in accordance with the preferred method of your department. For further information see the Learning Development guide: Avoiding Plagiarism. The style of writing in a report is usually less discursive than in an essay, with a more direct and economic use of language. A well written report will demonstrate your ability to:
understand the purpose of the report brief and adhere to its specifications;
gather, evaluate and analyse relevant information;
structure material in a logical and coherent order;
present your report in a consistent manner according to the instructions of the report brief;
make appropriate conclusions that are supported by the evidence and analysis of the report;
make thoughtful and practical recommendations where required.
The structure of a report
The main features of a report are described below to provide a general guide. These should be used in conjunction with the instructions or guidelines provided by your department.
This should briefly but explicitly describe the purpose of the report (if this is not obvious from the title of the work). Other details you may include could be your name, the date and for whom the report is written.
Geology of the country around Beacon Hill, Leicestershire
2 November 2004
Example of a title page
Terms of Reference
Under this heading you could include a brief explanation of who will read the report (audience) why it was written (purpose) and how it was written (methods). It may be in the form of a subtitle or a single paragraph.
A report submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for Course GL456, Department of Geology, Univeristy of Leicester.
Example of terms of reference
The summary should briefly describe the content of the report. It should cover the aims of the report, what was found and what, if any, action is called for. Aim for about 1/2 a page in length and avoid detail or discussion; just outline the main points. Remember that the summary is the first thing that is read. It should provide the reader with a clear, helpful overview of the content of the report.
Exposure of rocks belonging to the Charnian Supergroup (late Precambrian) were examined in the area around Beacon Hill, north Leicestershire. This report aims to provide details of the stratigraphy at three sites - Copt Oak, Mount St. Bernard Abbey and Oaks in Charnwood. It was observed that at each of these sites, the Charnian Supergroup consists mainly of volcaniclastic sediments (air-fall and ash-flow tuffs) interbedded with mudstones and siltstones. These rocks show features that are characteristic of deposition in shallow water on the flanks of a volcano (e.g. welding and alteration of ignimbrites). Further studies are required to understand depositional mechanisms and to evaluate the present-day thickness of individual rock units.
Example of a summary (abstract)
Contents (Table of Contents)
The contents page should list the different chapters and/or headings together with the page numbers. Your contents page should be presented in such a way that the reader can quickly scan the list of headings and locate a particular part of the report. You may want to number chapter headings and subheadings in addition to providing page references. Whatever numbering system you use, be sure that it is clear and consistent throughout.
The introduction sets the scene for the main body of the report. The aims and objectives of the report should be explained in detail. Any problems or limitations in the scope of the report should be identified, and a description of research methods, the parameters of the research and any necessary background history should be included.
In some reports, particularly in science subjects, separate headings for Methods and Results are used prior to the main body (Discussion) of the report as described below.
Information under this heading may include: a list of equipment used; explanations of procedures followed; relevant information on materials used, including sources of materials and details of any necessary preparation; reference to any problems encountered and subsequent changes in procedure.
This section should include a summary of the results of the investigation or experiment together with any necessary diagrams, graphs or tables of gathered data that support your results. Present your results in a logical order without comment. Discussion of your results should take place in the main body (Discussion) of the report.
The main body of the report is where you discuss your material. The facts and evidence you have gathered should be analysed and discussed with specific reference to the problem or issue. If your discussion section is lengthy you might divide it into section headings. Your points should be grouped and arranged in an order that is logical and easy to follow. Use headings and subheadings to create a clear structure for your material. Use bullet points to present a series of points in an easy-to-follow list. As with the whole report, all sources used should be acknowledged and correctly referenced. For further guidance check your departmental handbook and the Student Learning Centre guide: Referencing and Bibliographies.
In the conclusion you should show the overall significance of what has been covered. You may want to remind the reader of the most important points that have been made in the report or highlight what you consider to be the most central issues or findings. However, no new material should be introduced in the conclusion.
Under this heading you should include all the supporting information you have used that is not published. This might include tables, graphs, questionnaires, surveys or transcripts. Refer to the appendices in the body of your report.
In order to assess the popularity of this change, a questionnaire (Appendix 2) was distributed to 60 employees. The results (Appendix 3) suggest the change is well received by the majority of employees.
Example of use of appendices
Your bibliography should list, in alphabetical order by author, all published sources referred to in your report. There are different styles of using references and bibliographies. Refer to the study guide Referencing and Bibliographies and check your departmental handbook for guidelines. Texts which you consulted but did not refer to directly could be grouped under a separate heading such as 'Background Reading' and listed in alphabetical order using the same format as in your bibliography.
Where appropriate you may wish to acknowledge the assistance of particular organisations or individuals who provided information, advice or help.
Glossary of Technical Terms
It is useful to provide an alphabetical list of technical terms with a brief, clear description of each term. You can also include in this section explanations of the acronyms, abbreviations or standard units used in your report.
You will not necessarily be required to use all of the headings described above, nor will they necessarily be in the order given here. Check your departmental guidelines or instructions.
Writing the report: the essential stages
All reports need to be clear, concise and well structured. The key to writing an effective report is to allocate time for planning and preparation. With careful planning, the writing of a report will be made much easier. The essential stages of successful report writing are described below. Consider how long each stage is likely to take and divide the time before the deadline between the different stages. Be sure to leave time for final proof reading and checking.
Stage One: Understanding the report brief
This first stage is the most important. You need to be confident that you understand the purpose of your report as described in your report brief or instructions. Consider who the report is for and why it is being written. Check that you understand all the instructions or requirements, and ask your tutor if anything is unclear.
Stage Two: Gathering and selecting information
Once you are clear about the purpose of your report, you need to begin to gather relevant information. Your information may come from a variety of sources, but how much information you will need will depend on how much detail is required in the report. You may want to begin by reading relevant literature to widen your understanding of the topic or issue before you go on to look at other forms of information such as questionnaires, surveys etc. As you read and gather information you need to assess its relevance to your report and select accordingly. Keep referring to your report brief to help you decide what is relevant information.
Stage Three: Organising your material
Once you have gathered information you need to decide what will be included and in what sequence it should be presented. Begin by grouping together points that are related. These may form sections or chapters. Remember to keep referring to the report brief and be prepared to cut any information that is not directly relevant to the report. Choose an order for your material that is logical and easy to follow.
Stage Four: Analysing your material
Before you begin to write your first draft of the report, take time to consider and make notes on the points you will make using the facts and evidence you have gathered. What conclusions can be drawn from the material? What are the limitations or flaws in the evidence? Do certain pieces of evidence conflict with one another? It is not enough to simply present the information you have gathered; you must relate it to the problem or issue described in the report brief.
Stage Five: Writing the report
Having organised your material into appropriate sections and headings you can begin to write the first draft of your report. You may find it easier to write the summary and contents page at the end when you know exactly what will be included. Aim for a writing style that is direct and precise. Avoid waffle and make your points clearly and concisely. Chapters, sections and even individual paragraphs should be written with a clear structure. The structure described below can be adapted and applied to chapters, sections and even paragraphs.
- Introduce the main idea of the chapter/section/paragraph
- Explain and expand the idea, defining any key terms.
- Present relevant evidence to support your point(s).
- Comment on each piece of evidence showing how it relates to your point(s).
- Conclude your chapter/section/paragraph by either showing its
significance to the report as a whole or making a link to the next chapter/section/paragraph.
Stage Six: Reviewing and redrafting
Ideally, you should leave time to take a break before you review your first draft. Be prepared to rearrange or rewrite sections in the light of your review. Try to read the draft from the perspective of the reader. Is it easy to follow with a clear structure that makes sense? Are the points concisely but clearly explained and supported by relevant evidence? Writing on a word processor makes it easier to rewrite and rearrange sections or paragraphs in your first draft. If you write your first draft by hand, try writing each section on a separate piece of paper to make redrafting easier.
Stage Seven: Presentation
Once you are satisfied with the content and structure of your redrafted report, you can turn your attention to the presentation. Check that the wording of each chapter/section/subheading is clear and accurate. Check that you have adhered to the instructions in your report brief regarding format and presentation. Check for consistency in numbering of chapters, sections and appendices. Make sure that all your sources are acknowledged and correctly referenced. You will need to proof read your report for errors of spelling or grammar. If time allows, proof read more than once. Errors in presentation or expression create a poor impression and can make the report difficult to read.
Any feedback from tutors on returned work can be used to create a checklist of key points to consider for your next report. Identify priority areas for attention and seek out further information and advice. Speak to your tutor or an adviser from the Learning Development. Used in this way, feedback from tutors can provide a useful tool for developing and improving your writing skills.