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“The key to success in report writing lies with the planning: plan thoroughly and you will be in the best position to write well”
A report is a formal, structured piece of writing that usually presents the findings of some research, an enquiry, or an information gathering process.
Reports are often thought of as being mainly scientific and technical, but they can be produced in any subject area, for example, to give the results of a survey in the social sciences, or to describe a review of the literature in an arts topic. If you are writing a scientific report, please see our page on Scientific Writing.
Think of it like this: "This is what I did, and this is what I found - and this is why it's relevent/useful/important"
Essays are usually continuous pieces of prose; that is, a single argument that develops through a long and continuous piece of formal writing. Reports on the other hand, give you much more flexibility in how you present your information and your arguments. You can use subheadings, bullet points, charts and other graphics to help you structure your argument and add emphasis to important points. You can present the same information in a number of different ways (textual and graphical for example) to make sure a reader understands the point you are making.
A common misconception about reports vs essays is that reports are objective whereas essays are persuasive. Both should be persuasive. The difference is in how and where they are persuasive. Every paragraph of an essay should have a persuasive element to it which shows how it fits into your overall argument. With a report, the main persuasive part will come in your discussion, conclusion and recommendations. This does not mean that the earlier parts do not play a role in developing your argument - after all you will choose which information to present - but you will be presenting that information in as impartial a way as possible.
Reports are one of the most common forms of writing once you are in employment. You are unlikely to write another essay once you leave university - but the chances are you will need to write reports. It is therefore a key skill to learn.
Identifying the purpose
Reports are written for several different purposes, or combinations of purposes. These include:
To inform. To help your reader understand something that you have investigated/researched.
To analyse a situation. To investigate a situation, breaking it down to identify issues.
To propose a change. To persuade the reader that following your investigation/research, changes are needed and to make recommendations of what these should be.
To present the findings of a project. You may have been involved in some group work or an individual research project and the report will literally 'report back' on that.
To identify progress. Fieldwork or practice reports will show what you have learned whilst on placement or working in the field.
Identifying which of these purposes (or combination of purposes) is relevant for your assignment will mean you are more able to plan the report as you know what you are trying to achieve.
Identifying your audience
As well as being written for a purpose, reports are aimed at a specific audience. For an assignment, you may have been given a fictitious audience in your assignment brief, otherwise you should assume your audience is your module leader or tutor.
Different audiences require different approaches. For example:
- Specialist readers. You can use subject specific language and present more complex information.
- Informed readers. You can still present reasonably complex information but you should try to explain it more and not use language that only a specialist would understand.
- General public. Simplify both the information you are giving and the language you are using so that more people can understand it. Consider using graphics to inform (infographics) rather than just as evidence from your research. You can also use a more relaxed, less formal tone.
- Your tutor. Although your tutor is clearly a specialist reader, if no particular audience is given, it is usual to treat them as if they are informed rather than specialist. The exception would be for final year project reports when you can treat them as specialist.
As well as the complexity and language that you use. The requirements of your audience should also be considered with your content:
- What would they want to know?
- What do they need to know?
- What would they find interesting?
- What would they respond to?
- What type of information would they find most appealing?
- What type of information would they find most convincing?
How to structure a report
You are likely to find that different university departments or organisations have their own preferred structure and format for reports.
For example, in industry, companies often issue series of reports which all have a common format. It is vital that you check with your tutor to find out how your report should be structured and presented.
As general guidance, reports are usually arranged in sections, each with a clear heading. A simple report is likely to include at least the following:
Simple report sections
- Introduction, including aims and objectives
- Conclusions and recommendations
Each of these is covered in detail further down the page.
More complex reports (not covered in detail here) may have these sections:
- Title page
- Terms of reference, including scope of report
- List of tables and diagrams
- Acknowledgements, i.e. thanks to those who helped with the report
- Summary, i.e. key points of the report
- Conclusions and recommendations
Use formal writing style
The style of reports should be concise, giving precise detail. Flowery language should not be used. Data may be presented as charts, graphs or tables, if appropriate.
Descriptions of methodology should be sufficiently clear and detailed to allow someone else to replicate them exactly.
Using the passive voice
Scientific reports tend to be written in what is called the passive voice, which is more formal. For example, “The experiment would have been better if ….”, rather than “I could have improved the experiment by ….”. Similarly, “It is recommended that….” rather than “I recommend….”. This is because a scientific report is intended to be objective and based on the analysis of data, rather than subjective and based on personal views and opinions.
However, many leading scientists (including the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees) are encouraging a return to the active voice where appropriate. If you are unsure about this, you should ask your tutor.
The main sections of a report can be numbered, and can have sub-sections with sub-headings, which are also numbered. These correspond roughly to paragraphs in an essay.
You will often see reports where the main sections are given single numbers – 1, 2, 3 and so on; and the sub-sections are given a decimal number – 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and so on. Sub-sections can be further divided into – 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.3 and so on.
1.1. Aims and objectives
2.1. The survey
2.1.1. The questionnaire
2.1.2. The sample
MS Word can help you with this – go to our MS Word SkillsGuide and look for Numbering Headings for help with setting this up so that you use the different styles in your document to help. This also means you can produce an automatic table of contents.
The sections of a simple report
State what your research/project/enquiry is about. What are you writing about, why and for whom? What are your objectives? What are you trying to show or prove (your hypothesis)?
State how you did your research/enquiry and the methods you used. How did you collect your data? For example, if you conducted a survey, say how many people were included and how you selected them. Say whether you used interviews or questionnaires and how you analysed the data.
Give the results of your research. Do not, at this stage, try to interpret the results – simply report them. This section may include graphs, charts, diagrams etc. (clearly labelled). Be very careful about copyright if you are using published charts, tables, illustrations etc.
Interpret your findings. What do they show? Were they what you expected? Could your research have been done in a better way?
Conclusions and recommendations
These should follow on logically from the Findings and Discussion sections. Summarise the key points of your findings and show whether they prove or disprove your hypothesis. If you have been asked to, you can make recommendations arising from your research.
List all your sources in alphabetical order, using the appropriate University of Hull style. You might find our referencing pages useful.