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.
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 writer starts.
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 writer’s own analysis or informed by the views of others, always carefully referenced of course;
An evaluation of the facts or the results of writer’s research;
Discussion of the likely outcomes of future courses of action;
Writer's recommendations as to a course of action;
Not all of these elements will be essential in every report.
If it is a report in the workplace, it is better to check whether there are any standard guidelines or structure that writer needs 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 and page numbers as well as styled headings; it should be taken advantage of these as they update automatically as it is edited in the 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 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 the brief
It includes what is being studied and for whom the report should be prepared. First of all, considering the brief very carefully and making sure that it is clear who the report is for, and why it is being written, as well as what is wanted the reader to do at the end of reading: making a decision or agreeing a recommendation are important.
Step 2: Keeping the brief in mind at all times
During planning and writing, writer should make sure that he keeps his brief in mind: who is he writing for, and why is he writing? All his thinking needs to be focused on that, which may require him to be ruthless in his reading and thinking. Anything irrelevant should be discarded.
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, writer should plan to include at the very least an executive summary, introduction, the main body of his report, and a section containing his 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 writer knows the key points to draw out. It should be no more than half a page to a page in length.
The introduction sets out what writer plans to say and provides a brief summary of the problem under discussion. It should also touch briefly on his conclusions.
Report Main Body
The main body of the report should be carefully structured in a way that leads the reader through the issue. Writer should split it into sections using numbered sub-headings relating to themes or areas for consideration. For each theme, he 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 he presents should be related back to the brief and the precise subject under discussion.
The conclusion sets out what inferences wirter draws from the information, including any experimental results. It may include recommendations, or these may be included in a separate section.
Recommendations suggest how writer thinks the situation could be improved, and should be specific, achievable and measurable. If his recommendations have financial implications, he should set these out clearly, with estimated costs if possible.