Reports are a highly structured form of writing, often following conventions that have been laid down to produce a common format. Structure and convention in written reports stress the process by which the information was gathered as much as the information itself.
The difference between an essay and a report lies mainly in the style and structure. An essay is a reflection of how much you know about a particular aspect of a subject. A report is an account given or opinion formally expressed after an investigation, consideration or collation of information. It is largely fact-based i.e., it will have a higher percentage of factual, descriptive text in a highly formalised structure.
Unlike an essay, a report’s purpose is not to argue but to present information/facts, although the results of a report may be used to form the basis of an argument. Most reports are used to analyse a situation (usually a problem) to reveal findings and recommend a course of action. Unlike an essay, a report can present some information in the form of bullet points.
During your studies, you may be asked to write different types of reports, depending upon the subject area you have chosen. These could include laboratory reports, technical reports, reports of a work placement or industrial visit, and reports of a field trip or field work.
Reports vary in their purpose, but all of them will require a formal structure and careful planning, presenting the material in a logical manner using clear and concise language. The following section explores each stage in the development of your report, making recommendations for structure and technique.
Stages in Report Writing
The following stages are involved in writing a report:
- Clarifying your terms of reference
- Planning your work
- Collecting your information
- Organising and structuring your information
- Writing the first draft
- Checking and re-drafting
Terms of Reference
The terms of reference of a report are a guiding statement used to define the scope of your investigation. You must be clear from the start what you are being asked to do. You will probably have been given an assignment from your instructor, but you may need to discuss this further to find out the precise subject and purpose of the report. Why have you been asked to write it? Knowing your purpose will help you to communicate your information more clearly and will help you to be more selective when collecting your information.
Planning the Report
Careful planning will help you to write a clear, concise and effective report, giving adequate time to each of the developmental stages prior to submission.
- Consider the report as a whole
- Break down the task of writing the report into various parts
- How much time do you have to write the report?
- How can this be divided up into the various planning stages?
- Set yourself deadlines for the various stages
- Draw up an outline structure for your report
- Set the work within a sensible timescale for completion by the given deadline
Some of the most time-consuming parts of the process are collecting and selecting your information, and checking and revising your report.
There are a number of questions you need to ask yourself at this stage:
- What information do you need?
- Where do you find it?
- How much do you need?
- How shall you collect it?
- In what order will you arrange it?
You may have much of the information you need already such as results from a laboratory experiment or descriptions of your methods of data collection. However, you may need other material such as information on other research studies, or literature reviews. You may need to carry out some interviews or access the library to collect all the information you need.
- Make a list of what information you need
- Make an action plan stating how you are going to gather this
Organising and Structuring the Information
One helpful way to organize your information into topics is to gather your ideas into a ‘spider diagram.’ For more information on organizing your material see Section 5: Note Taking.
It was noted earlier that there are different types of reports such as laboratory reports or reports on a work placement or a special event. Always check with the person requesting the report (your instructor, your placement supervisor or event organiser) precisely what your report should include and how it should be presented. The following common elements can be found in many different reports:
- Title page
- Abstract or Summary
- Results or Findings
- Conclusion and Recommendations
- Reference books
This should include the title of the report (giving an indication of the subject matter), the author’s name, module, course and the date.
You should acknowledge any help you have received in collecting the information for the report. This may be from librarians, technicians or other staff at your college.
You should list all the main sections of the report in sequence with page numbers. If there are charts, diagrams or tables included in your report, these should be listed separately under a title such as ‘List of Illustrations’ together with the page numbers on which they appear.
Abstract or Summary
This should be a short paragraph summarising the main contents of the report. It should include a short statement of the main task, the methods used, conclusions reached and any recommendations to be made. The abstract or summary should be concise, informative and independent of the report. Write this section after you have written the report.
This should give the context and scope of the report and should include your terms of reference. State your objectives clearly, define the limits of the report, outline the method of enquiry, give a brief general background to the subject of the report and indicate the proposed development.
In this section, you should state how you carried out your enquiry. Did you carry out interviews or questionnaires? How did you collect your data? What measurements did you make? How did you choose the subjects for your interviews? If your report includes an extensive review of the literature, then you must also provide details of your search methodology, such as a sample of search terms and databases searched. Present this information logically and concisely.
Results or Findings
Present your findings in as simple a way as possible. The more complicated the information looks, the more difficult it will be to interpret. There are a number of ways in which results can be presented, including tables, graphs, pie charts, bar charts, diagrams.
This is the section where you analyze and interpret your results drawing from the information you have collected, explaining its significance. Identify important issues and suggest explanations for your findings. You should outline any problems encountered and present a balanced view.
Conclusions and Recommendations
This is the section of the report which draws together the main issues. It should be expressed clearly and should not present any new information. You may wish to list your recommendations in a separate section or include them with the conclusions.
It is important that you give precise details of all the work by other authors to which you have referred within the report. Details should include:
- Author’s name and initials
- Date of publication
- Title of the book
- Place of publication
- Page numbers
References should be listed in alphabetical order of the authors’ surnames. Make sure that your references are accurate and complete.
An appendix contains additional information related to the report but which is not essential to the main findings. This provides additional information for the reader, but the report should not depend on this. Here, you can include details of interview questions, statistical data, a glossary of terms, or other information, which may be useful.
- Are all your diagrams / illustrations clearly labelled?
- Do they all have titles?
- Is the link between the text and the diagram clear?
- Are the headings precise?
- Are the axes of graphs clearly labelled?
- Can tables be easily interpreted?
- Have you abided by copyright laws when including illustrations/tables from published documents?