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.
Difference between essay and report writing
Most students get confused in the difference between essay writing and report writing. Despite of having some similarities, they both are written insignificantly different styles. Both of them must be written in a formal academic style with carefully checking of grammar, spelling and presentations. There are some common things in essay writing and report writing because both start with an introduction, body with discussions and analysis and then conclusions and both are demonstrated in analytical thinking. But essay writing and report writing have some differences and writers should keep in mind before planning and writing. Essay starts with presenting an argument but report contains information presentation. In essay minimal or no use of headings and sub-headings but reports often use number of headings and sub-headings. In essay paragraphs are used for expressing your ideas in the body but in report some short, concise paragraphs and dot points are use at points where they are needed. Essay will require addition of abstract if you are writing very long essay but report may need abstract and sometimes it is called executive summary (Saigon, Learning Skill Unit).
How Essay Writing is Different from Reports Writing
Essay writing is different from report writing because the purpose, theme, needs, writing style and structure of essay writing essay is significantly different from that of report. Essays are mostly written by students who’re given a particular topic to discuss. Students show their understanding on the assigned topic in the form of descriptive writing, along with self-analysis and interpretation of problem is given. It has been reported that if a group of students are required to write an essay they’ll face number of challenges, whereas there are hardly any issues for report writing in the group. Therefore in most of the academic institutions essay writing is always given as individual task whereas report writing is preferred for group work.
Essays are always based on logical representation of your arguments presented to some specific question raised and the reader should have a background information about the question, which in most cases are your teachers and supervisors. The main purpose of essay writing it to evaluate how best one can develop an argument and then present it in their own language, with sound reasoning and using appropriate evidence. With the transition of sentences and summaries, writers show connection between different stages of arguments presented. By reading some parts of essay readers may not understand the purpose of essay in totality, however for thorough understand and evaluate of essay it has to be read completely (EDU, Australian School of Business).
Reports indicate the structure of assigned topic very clearly by dividing it into headings and subheadings which are not covered in essays. After reading every different section, readers can obtain significant level of understanding about the topic. Each section in reports contains information that reader wants to know and he can understand the purpose of other parts (EDU, Australian School of Business). Report writing includes examples, cases, tables and illustration for explanatory purpose. By including supplementary relevant evidence the writer makes bases for its research. It is highly recommended to breakdown entire report into small headings and subheadings based on the concepts/areas to be covered, that given and excellent report structure and ease for the reader to understand and interpret.
- Saigon. 2010. ‘Report Writing: A Quick Guide’, Learning Skill Unite.
- EDU. ‘Writing an Essay’, Australian School of Business.