The English word ‘report’ comes from two Latin words:

• ‘Portare’ meaning to carry
• ‘Re’ meaning back or again.

Accordingly, the report is a way of carrying back information to somebody who needs it.

“A report is a specific form of writing that is organised around concisely identifying and examining issues, events, or findings” (Massey University, 2012). It usually covers the who, what, where, when, why and how of a particular situation, issue, or problem.

Reports are different to essays in many ways, with one difference being the structure. While essays are read linearly from beginning to conclusion, reports can be broken down into independent sections that can be read as stand-alone pieces. These sections contain headings and subheadings to help the reader navigate the document.

There are a few different types of reports you may be required to write at University.

  • A general report - covering a specific topic or issue
  • A laboratory report - outlining an experiment you or your group has undertaken
  • A scientific report - a long-form report that outlines an experiment as well as the theory in the broader context of the chosen field.

How to write a report

Reports tend to be written objectively, containing facts and information rather than personal viewpoints. Reports often use formal language; however, unlike essays, reports may contain dot points to convey information succinctly.

To prepare a report, you first need to:

  • Research information and literature surrounding the topic: statistics, interviews, news articles, journals, biographies etc.
  • Analyse and interpret the information you find
  • Organise your interpretation of the topic into key findings and observations
  • Consider the actions you would recommend to address your findings and their implications.

Structure of a report

Test your knowledge - Structure

The structure of a report depends on the type of report that is to be written, but a typical report will include the following:

The title page will contain:

  • The report title, which clearly states the topic of the report
  • Full details of the person/s for whom the report is intended
  • Full details of the person/s who prepared the report
  • Date of the presentation of the report (or date submitted if you are not presenting it).

The abstract is one of the most important components of the report. It will be read by vastly more people than those who will read the whole report (if your report is published), and needs to provide enough information to invite the audience to read on. Although the audience will read this first, you should leave the writing of your abstract as the last step. This will allow you to summarise the content of your report in a concise and clear format. Depending on the length of your report, an abstract is usually no longer than 10% of the paper, or 100-200 words.

An abstract aims to:

  • Provide a brief overview of the whole report
  • Give concise, complete, specific and self-sufficient information that can be easily understood
  • Offer recommendations for executives and managers to base their decisions on.

Your table of contents will inform the reader of the layout of your report, and allow them to navigate to the sections that will be most relevant to them. The format of your report can take on an alphanumeric system, or a decimal system, which is the more common of the two. See the examples below of the two different styles. Both tables are divided into headings and subheadings to break up the information into sections that can be easily read out of order.

Alphanumeric

I. Coffee

A. Espresso

B. Cappucino

C. Latte

II. Tea

A. Earl Grey

B. English Breakfast

Decimal

  1. Coffee

1.1. Espresso

1.2. Cappucino

1.3. Latte

  1. Tea

2.1. Earl Grey

2.2. English Breakfast

Your introduction will: Provide background information on the topic

  • State the purpose of the report
  • Indicate the scope, including limitations
  • Outline the methods used to gather information
  • Clarify key terms
  • Inform the reader of what your report will cover
  • Give the reader a preview of how the information will be presented.

It will also include your literature review of any publications you have used for your report. Literature reviews are covered in later in this module.

The content of your report will depend on its purpose. Your report should contain primary sources if possible (such as observations and interviews), as well as secondary sources to provide explanations of theory and background. Your lecturer will set guidelines on whether to use primary and/or secondary sources. You should further detail the methods of your investigation, including what you did and why, and any issues encountered in the process. In the body content you will explain the findings gathered from your research, and discuss the implications they hold. Remember to separate your key ideas and concepts into clear headings and subheadings, so that you break up your report into digestible pieces of information for the reader.

The body of your report will contain the following sections:

  • Method (what was done and how?)
  • Results and analysis (what happened? Why did it happen?)
  • Discussion (what are the implications of this in the broader context of the topic?)

Your conclusion will be a summary of the key points you have raised in your discussion.

In this, you will need to:

  • Contextualise your observations, findings, and analyses
  • Remind the reader of what you have informed them in the body content (i.e. what you researched, what you discovered, what implications or problems this raises)
  • Give a sense of completion.

Make sure you do not include any new information in the conclusion – it is a summary of what you have already told the audience.

Think of this as an action plan for how to resolve or improve the issue. Try to make your recommendations as realistic as possible, and identify clear paths of how these recommendations could be achieved by the responsible parties.

This is a section where you can include further information that is relevant to your topic but did not fit in the body of your report. This can include (but is not limited to) graphs, tables, images, and raw data collected as part of your investigation.

As for all academic writing, the sources used in your report must be properly referenced. Refer to your unit outline or ask your tutor for the appropriate referencing style for your assignment. You can also refer to our Citing in your writing module for advice on how to use references within your report, and refer to the Library’s referencing guides for the different types of referencing styles and examples of how to use them.

Refer to your unit outline for specific information when writing a report. Make sure you have analysed the question you are being asked before starting your report.

Writing style

In most cases of report writing, you will write in the passive voice, particularly when writing scientific reports. This is because you are outlining the action or method performed, rather than focusing on who was completing the action.

You can learn more about active and passive sentences in the Structure and mechanics section of this module.

In some cases you will need to write the report as though the audience does not know much about the topic your report covers. For a general report you should clearly define key terms and provide sufficient background information to inform the reader of your discussion.

For more technical or scientific reports, it is wise to assume that the intended audience will have a fair idea of the methods and scientific terms of your study; therefore, technical language can be used.

Always remember to spell out abbreviations in the first instance you use them, followed by the abbreviation in brackets. For example: “The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that…”

You should constantly keep the purpose and audience in mind throughout the stages of writing your report. This ensures the report’s information is relevant to your audience.

Test your knowledge - comparison of essays and reports

Report writing checklist

Use this checklist, along with your assignment guide and marking rubric, to ensure you have covered the main requirements of a report.

  • The title includes key words
  • Your abstract concisely summarises the contents of your report
  • Your table of contents corresponds with the report content and page numbers
  • Your introduction provides context for your topic
  • The purpose and scope of your report is clearly stated
  • Acronyms and abbreviations have been defined
  • The discussion is organised logically and contains all relevant information
  • All facts and information are correct
  • You have stated the limitations and assumptions
  • Your results relate to the data presented
  • Your conclusions interpret, analyse, and evaluate the results or research
  • Your recommendations are appropriate and clearly explained
  • All in-text and end-of-text graphics are relevant
  • All appendices are numbered and titled (if applicable)
  • All sources are correctly cited with in-text references and a complete reference list
  • Your spelling, grammar, and punctuation is correct and consistent
  • Your report is clear, concise, and has been written at an appropriate level for your audience
  • Your report is consistent in form, font, and layout.