What is a report?
A report is a formal way to document an enquiry and the lessons which should be learnt from it. It is an objective account of a real-world situation, process or event, which draws conclusions based on evidence and then makes a set of recommendations based on these findings. Reports are always written after a situation or event has happened, but they try and suggest lessons for the future. A report is a document about a certain aspect of the world which provides reasons for the reader to take a particular course of action.
All reports need to tell the reader:
- Why an enquiry was carried out
- How it was done
- What was found
- The actions which should happen in the future
What are reports for, where are they used?
Reports are widely used in academia, government and also commercially: wherever people are trying to decide what to do about something or want to find out how successful a particular course of action or process has been (i.e. an evaluation). An example is the recent investigation into concerns about young people’s access to the internet and video games: ‘Safer Children in a Digital World’ (Byron 2008).
Planning a report
There are 5 steps to planning a successful report: –
- Identify what your objective is: Read the brief carefully to find out exactly what you are supposed to consider. You then need to think of a single sentence which will summarise what you hope to achieve with your report – e.g. ‘This report will compare the strategies of Apple and Google in promoting their mobile phone platforms and seek to identify principles for future market success’.
- Identify and locate your evidence: Think about what the facts of the situation are and how much you will need to tell your intended reader. What evidence will you provide and how will you locate it? Evidence can be all sorts of things depending on your subject: a project diary, facts and figures from trade organisations, different people’s memories of how something happened, newspaper articles or research findings. Reports in the arts and social sciences are usually based on secondary evidence – this means you would not be expected to go and do your own research; instead, you will ‘take evidence’ from others who have done the research. However, an important part of writing reports is making judgements about the quality of the evidence you are given (or find) – this will affect how much weight you give the evidence in reaching your conclusions.
- Once you have your evidence, you will need to organise it so that it makes sense when you present it to the reader. Think about both what they will need to know and also what is not central to your decision-making process; if it’s not needed, leave it out! Once you have an order, see if you can present some of your data using tables or bullet points. Short is always good in a report!
- Review your evidence and check that it leads to your conclusions about what happened and why. Think about the chains of reasoning you will use, the logical steps to get from the facts you present to your conclusions.
- From your conclusions, you should be able to make some recommendations; these are suggestions for the future – either for you or for others.
Writing a report – style
Reports are always written in a highly structured way and are intended to be concise and clear. The text is divided up into sections (see below) which are always given headings. The text is written in a series of short paragraphs made up of short sentences. You may be asked to number your paragraphs – this is so that references to text in reports are easy to make. In your text, you may use bullet points, lists, tables, graphs and illustrations whenever they will help you make your points more concisely.
Reports are usually written in the third person (so do not use ‘I”; to refer to yourself use ’the author’) and use short, direct language; remember that you are trying to present what happened in the quickest, clearest and most unambiguous way e.g. ‘Apple released the iPhone 4 in the US on the 24th June 2010’.
The sections of the report
Reports have a fairly standard set of sections and, unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise, you should follow these exactly. Remember each section should be named and heading should be emphasised through formatting.
- Abstract or Executive Summary
This is a short summary of your whole report (including your conclusions and recommendations). For short reports, it may not be required. It is intended as a quick overview for those who do not have time to read the whole report!
You should briefly describe the reason you are writing the report (terms of reference) and what its context is. You should then present your objective (see step 1 above) to the reader. What do you want your report to do and who will it help?
In this section, you will explain how you gathered your evidence. Which sources did you use? How did you search for them and how did you decide if they were relevant and unbiased?
This is where you present your results. These may be facts, or in a larger scale report, they may be things that witnesses have said. The material in this section is the evidence on which you will base your conclusions. For a large-scale report, this section may be split up into chapters.
It is best to begin this section by restating your objective. Then lead the reader from the facts you’ve presented to what you judge to be the ‘real’ or ‘true’ explanation or evaluation of the situation. What happened, why – and how good was it really? Do not introduce any new information here – this section should refer only to evidence you’ve presented earlier.
Based on what you have shown to be as objective conclusions about what happened, you should always present some recommendations for the future. These may be bullet points, but make sure they relate to your conclusions and are based on evidence rather than your feelings or opinions.
As with all academic writing, you should include a bibliography listing the sources you have used.
Any material which the reader may wish to refer to, but which would break the flow of you argument should be placed in appendices.
Useful sources on report writing
Stella Cottrell (2008) has an excellent section on report writing (pages 263-268). In it she explores the differences between reports and essays and goes into detail about the sort of material which goes into the different sections of a report. StudyNet has an i-Spy tutorial on report writing which takes you through the report structure in detail.
Byron, T. (2008) Safer Children in a Digital World [available online:]
http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120106161038/http://education.gov.uk/publications/eorderingdownload/dcsf-00334-2008.pdf Department for Education [accessed 21 July 2016]
Cottrell, S (2008) The Study Skills Handbook (3rd Edition) Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.