How to Write a Great Report
“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." - Samuel Johnson
An Introductory Guide to Writing Academic, Business, Scientific and Technical Reports
A report is a written document intended to communicate specific information to a specific audience for a specific purpose. The emphasis on communicating information for a purpose is what sets report writing apart from other forms of writing, such as writing intended to entertain, persuade or motivate.
A report is typically the culmination of a range of related activities, which may include:
- carrying out research or an investigation
- performing an experiment
- gathering, analyzing and interpreting data
- constructing an artefact such as a computer system
The report often presents conclusions and recommendations - drawn from these activities - that inform future actions. This hubpage offers guidance on the process of writing a report, but not on the related activities.
Terms of Reference
The first thing that you need to do - before even starting to plan your report - is to ensure that you understand exactly what is expected of your report. The best way to achieve this is to have an explicit statement - often called the terms of reference - that clearly describes what you are expected to produce.
If you are fortunate you will be given a suitable terms of reference when you are asked to write the report. If you are not given one, or if the one you are given is vague, ambiguous or unclear, then you must ask for clarification before you begin planning the report.
Planning your Report
Having agreed your terms of reference you are in a position to start planning the report. This is an often overlooked aspect of report writing but you should approach it in much the same way as you would approach any project planning task.
- Identify the tasks that need to be completed - for example: deciding upon the structure of report; writing a section of the report; proof reading a section of the report, or revising a section of the report.
- Identify time and resource constraints - for example: the date by which the report must be completed; other dates - if any - when parts of the report need to be available, or how much total effort time you have available to write the report.
- Allocate effort hours to each task in such a way that all the tasks are completed within the time constraints.
The Report Structure
The structure of your report will depend on a variety of factors, including:
- Your terms of reference and the purpose of the report.
- Any conventions that exist within the discipline, subject area or business that you are working in.
- Any conventions that exist within the organization that you are working in.
There are, however, a number of commonly used elements that appear in a range of different report types. Some of these are described below.
This refers to a variety of information that might might precede the main text of a report or book. Common information found here might include: title page, acknowledgements, table of contents and abstract.
- Title Page: The title page should include the title of the report, the author's name and details of the organization. The title of the report should give a clear indication of the subject matter.
- Acknowledgements: Use this to acknowledge any help that you have had in preparing the report or in carrying out any related research work. For example: friends and colleagues, supervisor, library staff, technical support staff and proof-readers.
- Table of Contents: The table of contents lists all the main chapters or sections in the report, with the corresponding page numbers. If there are multiple levels of sections and subsection, you will have to decide how many levels to include in the table of contents. Bear in mind that more is not always better - you need to balance informativeness with clarity.
- Abstract: The abstract is a brief statement that gives the reader sufficient information to decide whether or not they should read the rest of the report. It may be up to a page in length but it is almost always much shorter than this: around 100-200 words is typical.
The introduction should give some background to the report, and should refer to, or include, the terms of reference. It should indicate:
- why the report was produced
- who might be interested in reading it
- how they might expect to benefit from reading it
Where appropriate, the introduction should make clear the limits of the report. In other words it should say what the report does not deal with or take into account - as well as what it does. It is common for an introduction to say something about the structure of the report by, for example, listing the chapters or main sections and giving a brief preview of each.
The results should be presented clearly and with a minimum of discussion. Where possible you should make use of tables and graphs rather than paragraphs of text.
In this section the results are analyzed and interpreted. You should identify and distinguish between:
- questions that are answered as a consequence of your work
- questions for which your work does not supply an answer
For questions that remain unanswered you might outline any further investigations that are required. You should pay particular attention to highlight evidence that will be used to support any recommendations that you intend to make.
This section lists that the report's recommendations as clearly and simply as possible. You might present a brief rationale with each recommendation but these should just recap and summarize arguments that have already been made - no new results or discussions should be introduced in this section.
It is important to make it absolutely clear to the reader, where and in what ways you report has been informed by other people's work: this is achieved by proper referencing. There are different ways of achieving this, but they all share some features.
- A citation is inserted in the text of the report to indicate the existence of the related work that you wish to acknowledge. There may be many citations - each inserted at the position at which it is relevant.
- A reference list gives full details for each work that has been cited. This is intended to give sufficient information to enable the reader to trace (and in principle acquire) a copy of the corresponding work.
An appendix is used when there is additional material that is related to the report but which either:
- is not essential to the report's main arguments or findings
- would unduly interrupt the flow of the main text
For example, the following information might appear in an appendix.
- a glossary of terminology or abbreviations
- the text of any questionnaires that were conducted
- detailed statistical data
The Writing Process
The ability to write clear and concise English is a skill that is developed, with practice, over time. There is no simple formula, and no short cut to becoming a good writer. However, the following general principles will help guide you in the right direction.
Start any writing task by brainstorming to get your ideas down in paper. Don't worry about grammar, style, punctuation or spelling at this stage - nor about whether your ideas are good or bad. Just get them down on paper.
When you have written your ideas down, start to organize them. Think about how they are logically related to one another, and about the order in which they should be presented to the reader. As you organize and refine your ideas you can start to weave them into a more coherent text.
Write, Read, Revise ... Repeat ...
Writing is an incremental process that includes multiple cycles of proof-reading and revising. It can be difficult to proof-read your own writing, because you will tend to see what you meant to write rather than what you actually wrote. The ideal solution is to get a friend to proof-read your writing for you, but if this is not possible then the following advice may be helpful.
- Read your report out aloud to yourself - this often uncovers problems that would otherwise go unnoticed.
- Do not try to do everything at the one session - leave some time between writing and proof-reading.
Do not use more words than you need to convey your meaning. Inexperienced writers sometimes believe that a longer document appears more thorough or more serious than a shorter one - this is a mistake. Remember that your goal is to convey your findings and recommendation as clearly as possible - not to impress the reader. Your report should be as long as it needs to be, but no longer.
"I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter." - Blaise Pascal
Avoid phrases that add nothing to your meaning. For example, the following expressions have the same meaning, but the latter is shorter and - more importantly - clearer.
- Due to the fact that the Microsoft Word was installed ...
- Because Microsoft Word was installed ...
As you proof-read and revise your writing, try to find ways to make it shorter without compromising the meaning.
In general, it is better to choose words that are:
- specific rather than ones that are generic - e.g.
The car would not start - rather than - The vehicle would not start
The secretary arrived - rather than - The employee arrived
- familiar rather than unfamiliar - e.g.
The coat is waterproof - rather than - The coat is impermeable
The house was full - rather than - The dwelling was full
- concrete rather than abstract - e.g.
The PC was regularly maintained - rather than -
The maintenance of the PC was regular The chip was removed - rather than - The removal of the chip was completed
Be suspicious of long sentences: they are difficult to construct properly and often conceal grammatical errors and ambiguities. The reading out loud test is good at identifying problem sentences. If you are in any doubt it is usually better to split a sentence into two or more simpler ones.
Do not use jargon or abbreviations unless you are sure that the intended audience will fully understand.
- The first time you use an abbreviation in a report, give the full phrase followed by the abbreviation in brackets. Thereafter you may freely use the abbreviated form.
- The first time you use a piece of jargon in a report, explain what it means. Thereafter you may freely use the jargon.
- Consider collecting all jargon words into a glossary of terminology that explains their meanings. Abbreviations may be similarly collected into a glossary of abbreviations. These glossaries would normally be put into the appendices.
Adopt an Impersonal Style
The purpose of your report is to inform the reader about some specific topic - not to tell them about yourself or what you did.
- If survey data was analyzed, it does not matter who analyzed it - all that matters is the result.
- If an experiment was carried out, it does not matter who carried it out - all that matters is the result.
- If a computer program was written, it does not matter who wrote it - all that matters is how it works.
For this reason it is normal to adopt a particular style of writing that emphasizes the act rather than the doer - what was done rather that who did it. This style of writing is known as passive voice - in contrasts to active voice.
Active voice emphasizes the doer, and should be avoided in report writing - e.g.
I analyzed the data
You carried out the experiment
She wrote the computer program
Melissa wrote the computer program
Passive voice emphasizes what was done, and is preferred in report writing - e.g.
The data was analyzed
The experiment was carried out
The computer program was written
You should almost never use a personal pronoun (I, you, he, she, we, they, me, him, her, etc.) in a report. Similarly, you should almost never refer to a named individual. You may occasionally refer to an individual indirectly, via their role, function or job title - so you might write write:
The computer program was written by the programmer
The medication was given to the patient
but only if the reference to the programmer or patient was significant.
I hope you have found this hub useful. I am interested in your views and I welcome feedback. Please feel free to leave a comment, suggestion or question below.