'When you write non-fiction, you sit down at your desk with a pile of notebooks, newspaper clippings, and books and you research and put a book together the way you would a jigsaw puzzle.'
Janine di Giovanni
Report writing is an essential skill in many disciplines. Master it now at university and writing reports in the workplace will be easier. A report aims to inform and sometimes to persuade. They should be written as clearly and succinctly as possible, with evidence about a topic, problem or situation.
Here are some general guidelines, but check with your lecturer for more detailed information about what is expected.
What is a report?
Differences between a report and an essay
A report is similar to an essay in that both need:
A report is different to an essay in that a report:
How to write a report
Types of reports for university
For all reports you have to ensure that the conclusions that you draw are supported by the evidence that you find. At university you will mostly be writing business, experimental / laboratory or technical reports.
A business report aims to:
- examine how an organisation can achieve an objective
- highlight a problem and suggest a solution.
- offer information, interpretation (e.g. product surveys), analysis and recommendations
An experimental report aims to report on:
- an experiment or research
- what was achieved during the course of the experiment
- what was concluded and how this compares with previous published results.
Technical design report
A technical design report aims to:
- solve a problem
- recommend a design.
Typical format of a report
|Letter or memorandum|
Provided to the person or group who commissioned the report, stating the purpose of the report, brief summary and/or recommendations, and acknowledging others who have contributed.
|Abstract or Executive summary|
Approximately 200 words. States the problem, how it was investigated, what was found, and what the findings mean.
|Table of contents|
A list of the major and minor sections of the report.
Sets the scene and gives some background information about the topic. States the aim/purpose of the investigation and outlines of the sections in the body of the report.
Organised into sections: what was investigated, how it was investigated it, what was found (evidence), and interpretations.
Summary, what the report achieved – did it meet its aims, the significance of the findings and a discussion and interpretation of the findings.
What is recommended as a course of action following the conclusion?
A list of all the sources you used.
Any information (graphs, charts, tables or other data) referred to in your report but not included in the body.
Layout of the report
Lay out the report for easy reading and comprehension. Many managers will only read the recommendations, but will dip into the report for the details, which they want to find quickly and easily.
Use this checklist:
Plan to write your report
Ask some questions first:
- Who has requested the report?
- Why have they asked for a report?
- What do they need to know?
- How will the report be used?
- Who is/are my audience or audiences? (e.g. clients, lecturers, assessors, managers etc.)
Analyse your task
Analysing your task is very important. Here are some questions to explore:
- What type of report needed? (e.g. experimental report, technical design proposal, business report.)
- How long does your report need to be?
- What is required in the report?
- What is the problem/question to be solved?
- What is the aim of the report?
- What key points or issues need to be addressed?
- What information do you need to collect?
Unlike an essay, which sets out and defends a writer's view about a topic and does not have to feature headings, a report discusses a topic in a structured, easy-to-follow format. Reports are divided into sections with headings and subheadings. Reports can be academic, technical or business related, and feature recommendations for specific actions. Reports are written to present facts about a situation, project or process and will define and analyze the issue at hand. Reports relay observations to a specific audience in a clear and concise style.
Preparation and Planning
First, you should take some time to prepare and plan for your report. Before you start writing, identify the audience. Your report should be written and tailored to the readers' needs and expectations. When planning, ask yourself several questions to better understand the goal of the report. Some questions to consider include:
- Who are the readers?
- What is the purpose of the report and why is it needed?
- What important information has to be in the report?
Once you identify the basics of your report, you can begin to collect supporting information, then sort and evaluate that information. The next step is to organize your information and begin putting it together in an outline. With proper planning, it will be easier to write your report and stay organized.
Formatting the Report Elements
To keep your report organized and easy to understand, there is a certain format to follow. The main sections of a standard report are:
- Title Section: If the report is short, the front cover can include any information that you feel is necessary including the author(s) and the date prepared. In a longer report, you may want to include a table of contents and a definition of terms.
- Summary: The summary consists of the major points, conclusions, and recommendations. It needs to be short as it is a general overview of the report. Some people will read the summary and only skim the report, so make sure you include all of the relevant information. It would be best to write this when the report is finished so you will include everything, even points that might be added at the last minute.
- Introduction: The first page of the report needs to have an introduction. Here you will explain the problem and inform the reader why the report is being made. You need to give a definition of terms if you did not include these in the title section, and explain how the details of the report are arranged.
- Body: This is the main section of the report. The previous sections needed to be written in plain English, but this section can include technical terms or jargon from your industry. There should be several sections, each clearly labeled with a subtitle. Information in a report is usually arranged in order of importance with the most important information coming first. If you wish, a “Discussion” section can be included at the end of the main body to go over your findings and their significance.
- Conclusion: This is where everything comes together. Keep this section free of jargon as many people will just read the summary and conclusion.
- Recommendations: This is where you discuss any actions that need to be taken. In plain English, explain your recommendations, putting them in order of priority.
- Appendices: This includes information that the experts in the field will read. It has all the technical details that support your conclusions.
This report writing format will make it easier for the reader to find what he is looking for. Remember to write all the sections in plain English, except the body, which can be as technical as you need it to be. Also remember that the information needs to be organized logically with the most important points coming first.
Presentation and Style
You will want to present your report in a simple and concise style that is easy to read and navigate. Readers want to be able to look through a report and get to the information they need as quickly as possible. That way the report has a greater impact on the reader.
There are simple formatting styles that can be used throughout your report that will make it easy to read and look organized and presentable. For example:
- Font: Use just one font in your report. An easy-to-read font such as Arial or Times New Roman is best for reports.
- Lists: Use lists whenever possible to break information into easy-to-understand points. Lists can either be numbered or bulleted.
- Headings and subheadings: You can use headings and subheadings throughout your report to identify the various topics and break the text into manageable chunks. These will help keep the report organized and can be listed in the table of contents so they can be found quickly.
There are also some writing styles to consider:
- Keep it simple. Do not try to impress, rather try to communicate. Keep sentences short and to the point. Do not go into a lot of details unless it is needed. Make sure every word needs to be there, that it contributes to the purpose of the report.
- Use an active voice rather than passive where possible. Active voice makes the writing move smoothly and easily. It also uses fewer words than the passive voice and gives impact to the writing by emphasizing the person or thing responsible for an action. For example: "Bad customer service decreases repeat business" is more concise and direct than "Repeat business is decreased by bad customer service."
- Good grammar and punctuation are also important. Read the report aloud and have someone proofread it for you. Remember that the computer cannot catch all the mistakes, especially with words like “red / read” or “there / their.” You may even want to wait a day after you write it to come back and look at it with fresh eyes.
Make the Right Impression
Reports should be well organized and easy to follow. To achieve this, following a structured format keeps your writing on track. How a report is presented to the reader makes not only a lasting impression but also makes the writer seem credible and the information contained in the report reliable. A finishing touch that can make a great impression on the reader is how you package the report. Always print the final report on good quality paper. You may also want to consider placing the report in a binder or a folder.