planning, structure, writing, and presentation skills
What is a report?
A report is a detailed and well-organised document that defines and analyses a subject or a problem.
A report should always be accurate, concise, clearly written, and well structured.
A report might also record a sequence of events, evaluate a product or a process, discuss a series of proposals, or make a number of recommendations.
A report should include all the information necessary for the reader to understand the topic under discussion and make informed decisions about it.
The purpose of a report
Reports are used in education, business, finance, government, manufacturing, and scientific research.
In small and medium companies they usually communicate information from one company to another. In large companies they communicate information between personnel.
You might write a report when applying for a grant; to accompany a business proposal; or to describe a project which has been commissioned.
Reports might also be important to record the progress of a business – as in a company’s annual report.
Reports do not have to be long – or boring. They should be clear and easy to understand, especially if they are written for somebody else.
How to write a report
Writing a report is often a major undertaking for many people. The task can be made easier by breaking it down into a series of steps. The following are recommended as guidelines for writing reports.
Stage 1 – Choose the type of report
Stage 2 – Decide the purpose of report
Stage 3 – Choose report sub-headings
Stage 4 – Assess your data
Stage 5 – Draft the report
Stage 6 – Edit and proof read
If you need to produce a report whose type is not discussed here, follow the same principles. That is – first of all think carefully about the form or kind of document you are going to produce.
It will help you enormously if you get hold of an example of the type of report you need to produce. In particular, study its structure, and use that as a model for what you have to write.
You might need to adapt another type of report for your purposes. If you need to create your own type of report, follow the guidelines for creating good structure in documents.
Acquaint yourself with some examples of various report types. This will help you to decide which type of report you need.
Stage 1 — Types of report
1. A meeting report communicates the details of a meeting to people who did not attend. It may also go to people who did attend, as a summary of events for future reference.
The minutes of a meeting record the major points made by a group of two or more people who conduct a meeting.
2. A project report is a record kept by the project manager, and is presented to management or sponsors. It usually details chronologically the events, achievements and attainment of a project’s targets and objectives.
3. A feasibility report is similar to a problem-recommendation report but it describes one possible solution in detail and makes recommendations.
4. A sales report gives the details of a salesperson’s contact with a specific customer or company – indicating whether or not sales have been made.
5. A status report tells the management what has been happening on a project, and to what degree it is going according to plan.
6. A problem recommendation report outlines the writer’s investigation into a particular problem and recommends a course of action to solve the problem
7. A site-visit report summarises the conditions which obtain at a particular location in relation to a project – such as the construction of a building.
8. A company report is the record of a business and its recent history, made usually at the end of a financial year. It combines management strategies, sales results, and accounts.
Stage 2 — The purpose of your report
The purpose of a report will have an effect on both its content and the manner in which it is presented.
A good starting point is to write out the purpose of the report in a sentence or two. This ‘purpose statement’ will help you to focus on your primary needs. It will help you by giving the report both a starting point and a goal.
Typical examples of purpose are to inform, instruct, persuade, or to record.
A report may have more than one purpose – just as it might have more than one audience. For instance, a company’s annual report is a statement for the directors, the shareholders, and the public in general.
An academic report (say, in science or engineering) may have a double purpose. First the recording of an experiement or a field visit. Second, demonstrating that the author is familiar with the conventions of academic writing in that discipline.
A commercial sales report might be used by regional and national sales managers, a finance controller, and the chief executive officer (CEO).
These various parties will be interested in different aspects of the report. And since each reader has different interests in the report’s content, it is important to plan the report so that it includes the information each reader is looking for.
Stage 3 — Report headings and sub-headings
Choose the sub-headings for your report from the following list. Doing this at the planning stage will help you to write a clear report which is easy for your recipient to read.
Arrange the sub-headings in conjunction with your main headings at a later stage. The following list of headings which belong with report types is arranged in alphabetical order.
Please select an appropriate time and place to meet and inform the members of the team.
The project team will consist of one half-time systems analyst and two full-time, experienced programmers.
You will find the following attachments which establish the legal status of this policy.
I met the Chair of Needwell last Thursday and we agreed that I would send you information regarding the expansion plans.
The benefits of a fully implemented WebCT system are as follows:
- better utilisation of resources
- a balanced production load
- decreased stock in inventory
- decreased order expediting
- reduced production costs
Although there is a new policy for internal promotion, there are more people qualified for advancement than there are slots available.
The union contract permits only eight hours work per day before overtime must be paid.
If you or anyone in your department wants to submit comments on our new word processing equipment, send them in writing to J.Bloggs Staff Depot
These changes apply to all applications we receive on or after 10 October 2015
Please let me know when we can meet to design a new form for travel reimbursement.
If the Company adopts the proposed retirement policy we can anticipate the following:
- a large pool of experienced executive talent for our T Project
- improved morale among all employees approaching retirement age
- slightly higher costs of medical expenses and insurance
If we do not have our new word-processing equipment running by 17 September 2010, we will not be able to support the production goals.
The Fine Food Marketing Company has recently entered the health food industry with a brand new type of food supplement called Gatewell.
The commissioner of environmental quality engineering or his designee may issue orders in the name of the department of environmental quality on being presented with proof of the violation of any statute, rule, regulation, or code which the department is authorized to enforce.
We expect that the new system will be fully operational by May 2006
The company has two staffing options available for this project
- use entirely new employees
- use a mix of employees and contractors
This company will employ individuals without regard to race, colour, gender, or national origin.
Our work processing system does not have the capability to handle special graphic presentations. This causes a loss of business.
The purpose of the meeting is to make and document an action plan for opening the Greenleaf Site.
Our decision to avoid genetically modified elements in our wines is based on the lack of evidence currently available concerning the effects of GM elements.
In conclusion, we strongly recommend that new measures be put in place for testing our boilers for corrosion.
Please refer to the Critical Quarterly for reviews on the publications mentioned in the body of this report.
The schedule below gives details of the staffing responsibilities
- Week 1 Payroll
- Week 2 Personnel
- Week 3 Support Team
I found the statistics for the Boston Flyer in The Engineering Journal published May 2000.
This report has examined the feasibility of a merger between Minibok and Fair Trading. It has examined the financial and social implications.
Stage 4 — Assess the data
Before sitting down to write your report, make sure you have all the research data to hand. Mark out each part of the data, allocating it to one of your sub-headings.
If you have some data which doesn’t fit any of the sub-headings, think carefully about whether to create a heading which fits the data or whether to discard the data as irrelevant.
It is perfectly normal to gather data which is not needed in the final report. Do not feel obliged to include material just because it exists.
Stage 5 — Draft the report
Draft your report in short sections, under each one of your headings or sub-headings. This way, you will be able to rearrange the sequence, or delete some content.
Working in short sections makes writing an easier process. Use the following guidelines for drafting the sections.
Create readability by structure
Your reader will digest the document most efficiently if the text is broken down into bite-size sections. Large dense blocks of text are overfacing and difficult for the eye to deal with.
Your sections should comprise no more than ten lines. Here is an example of the bite-size section.
The sales team has broken all records this month.
The number of new customers has rocketed from last month’s total of 10,000 to 12,975.
In view of this we are giving all members of the sales team an additional bonus of 0.5 per cent.
Create readability by relevance
Each section should contain one idea. Nothing else should be added. Extra ideas, even if they are connected with the subject, should be given their own paragraph.
In the example given above, the topic of increased sales stands alone. The extra topic of bonuses is related, but comprises a separate paragraph.
Create readability by navigation
Each topic in your report should have a signpost or a sub-heading. This prepares your reader for what is to follow.
It also helps the reader in referring back efficiently to a specific point or topic. In the example given above, each topic is signposted to prepare the reader for what is coming.
The heading ‘Increased sales’ introduces the main topic, whilst ‘new customers’ and ‘additional bonuses’ announce the sub-topics.
Create readability by verbal consistency
Your reader will digest your report quickly and efficiently if you use layout, headings, font style, and vocabulary consistently.
Reports are entirely functional and therefore quick, efficient reading is your objective.
In the example given above, vocabulary is used consistently. The word ‘sales’ is used both in the main heading and in the body text The word ‘customer’ is used both in the sub-heading and in the body text
Create readability by visual consistency
Consistency helps readers to find their way in a document. At every level of the document you should use consistency in:
- Font type and size
- Page layout
- Main Headings
- Bulleted lists
- Numbered lists
- Page numbering
- Justification (right, left, centre, full)
- Sentence size
- Sentence construction
- Style of expression
Follow the guidelines on How to present documents to give your report a professional appearance.
Stage 6 — Edit and proof read
Editing and proof reading a substantial report might be a lengthy and time-consuming process. But it will make the difference between an amateur and a professional piece of work.
Editing is the process of checking your work very carefully in order to –
- remove any spelling mistakes
- check your grammar
- make your punctuation consistent
- re-write any clumsy expressions
Proof reading is the very last stage of making any changes. At this point it is assumed that the content of the report has been checked for accuracy, grammar, and punctuation.
Proof reading looks at the presentation of the text in even greater detail – mainly for matters of bibliographic and typographic consistency.
- Capitalization of headings
- Font size and style
- Spacing between paragraphs
- Regularity of indentation
- Consistent use of italics and bold
Follow the guidelines on Editing your writing to produce a document which is free from minor blemishes.
Sample report structure
[This should normally include the following as a basic minimum]
the title of the report
the name of the author
the name of the organisation
[If necessary – in longer reports]
A list of people and organisations who have helped in the production of the report.
[Always included in any reports of more than a few pages]
A clear list of all the sections and sub-sections in the report – with page numbers.
If applicable, there should be a separate list of tables, figures, illustrations and appendices after the main index.
The headings in this list should correspond exactly with those in the main body of the report. Generate the list of contents after completing the report.
Terms of reference
A definition of the task or the brief you were given. This is statement of the specific objective and purpose behind writing the report.
Even if you don’t include this as a heading, it is a vital process to go through in your planning.
- What exactly is your report going to be about?
- Who exactly is responsible for what?
- How long have you got? What is your task timescale?
- Why are you writing the report?
- Who are you writing the report for?
- What does your reader want to see?
How your research was carried out; how the information was gathered and treated.
This section might also be called ‘methodology’ in some reports.
Materials and methods
[included if appropriate]
Similar to methodology or procedure, but more appropriate to scientific or engineering report writing. The following advice comes from Robert Barrass’ book Scientists Must Write (Chapman & Hall, 1978, pp.135-136).
1. List the equipment used and draw anything that requires description (unless this is very simple).
2. State the conditions of the experiment and the procedure, with any precautions necessary to ensure accuracy and safety. However, when several experiments are reported, some details may fit better in the appropriate parts of the Results section.
3. Write the stages in any new procedure in the order of implementation, and describe in detail any new technique or modifications of an established technique.
4. If necessary, refer to preliminary experiments and to any consequent changes in technique. Describe your controls adequately.
5. Include information on the purity and structure of the materials used, and on the source of the material and the method of preparation.
[usually included in longer reports]
This is a short summary of the entire report, created for those people who may not have time to read the entire document.
This is often called the Executive Summary (in business reporting), Abstract (in a dissertation or thesis) or Synopsis (in a scholarly work).
It’s a very brief outline of the report to give the potential reader a general idea of what it’s about. A statement of:
- overall aims and specific objectives
- method or procedure used
- key findings
- main conclusions and recommendations
This might be optional, but writing an introduction will help you to describe your overall purpose.
This should show that you have fully understood the brief and that you are going to cover everything required. Indicate the basic structure of the report.
Include just a little background or context and indicate the reasons for writing the report. You may include your terms of reference and procedure or research methods if not covered elsewhere.
Your introduction will often give an indication of the conclusion to the report.
Write this last of all so that you know what it is you’re introducing. You could have a working introduction that is edited when the body of the report is complete.
Main body of the report
This is the substance of your report. The structure will vary according to the nature of the material being presented, with headings and sub-headings used to clearly indicate the different sections.
Charts, diagrams, tables, and illustrations can be used to reinforce the points your are making.
Sometimes it may be better to include these as an Appendix, particularly if they are long or complicated.
Do not include opinions, conclusions or recommendations in this section.
[included mainly in scientific or engineering reports]
This section records your observations and would normally include statistics, tables or graphs.
These are called ‘findings’ in a business context.
Your conclusion should state the implications of your findings, with deductions based on the facts described in your main body. Don’t include any new material here.
These should follow on logically from your conclusion and be specific, measurable and achievable. They should propose how the situation or problem could be improved by suggesting action to be taken. A ‘statement of costs’ might be included if you are recommending changes that have financial implications.
Recommendations can be numbered for the sake of clarity.
An appendix (plural=appendices) is detailed documentation of points you outline in your findings, for example, technical data, questionnaires, letters sent, tables, sketches, charts, leaflets.
It is supplementary information which you consider to be too long or complicated or not quite relevant enough to include in your main body, but which still should be of interest to your reader.
Each appendix should be referred to in your text. You should not include something as an appendix if it is not discussed in the main body.
This is a list giving the full details of all the sources to which you have made reference in the body of your report.
This is a list of all the sources which you have used during your research – books, articles, and web sites. It should include those you have made reference to in your writing, as well as any other materials you may have consulted but not quoted.
A glossary contains specialist terms with their contextual definitions. This is particularly useful when specialist terms have been used in the report.
Include a glossary of terms if the report includes a lot of specialised vocabulary, technical jargon, or acronyms which may not be familiar to the reader.
© Roy Johnson 2013