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Skills for Learning

Report Writing

Overview

Report writing is one type of academic writing which is not confined to university. Most employers expect graduates to have report writing skills. 

Reports are different from other types of academic writing. They present information, analysis and recommendations, rather than addressing a question or debate. Your report’s format will be determined by module or course requirements. If you are studying a professional course, you might write client reports. Science students will write lab reports. In many cases, the content of a report will be based on earlier work. For example, a report about a group assignment will refer to records of group meetings and tasks completed.

Decide whether your assignment brief is asking for an academic or a business / professional report. This will help you establish the types of material you need to collect and discuss. For example, a professional report doesn’t usually have academic literature as its focus. This type of report will outline a situation and possible courses of action. However, most reports written at university will require citations and references to published material.

One specialised type of report which many students will write is the dissertation. For more information about dissertations, see our topic ‘Dissertations and Literature Reviews’.

We run interactive workshops to help you develop your report writing skills. Find out more on the Skills for Learning Workshops page.  

Report writing structure and content

A report is: 

  • A structured document with headed sections. 
  • Written in formal English and in the third person. 

A longer report requires: numbered headings, a table of contents, and may have appendices.

The typical structure for a report is as follows: 

Unless it is a very short report, include a contents page. Use Word to generate this automatically from your headings. The contents page should give a clear overview of your report.

For long reports, provide a summary of the contents, findings, conclusions and recommendations.  Write in the past tense. Aim for about half a page. 

If you are asked to write an Executive Summary instead of an abstract, this will contain similar content but more detail. An executive summary is a mini version of a report. An abstract, on the other hand, is a taster of the main report.

Top tip! Try to give the reader a sense of why your project is interesting and valuable.

 

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Introduce the reader to your project.

  • Provide context and define key terms.
  • Outline your aims and objectives.
  • Provide a brief description of the methods used to collect and analyse your information.
  • Finally, give an indication of your findings and conclusions.

Top tip! Start with the bigger picture (background information) and get more specific (data and findings).

This is where you explain the work you have done.

Sections here could include for example: Methodology, Findings/Results, Discussion.

A research report or dissertation will contain a Literature Review section. For more information about literature reviews, see our topic Dissertations and Literature Reviews.

For a professional / business report, consider the needs of your proposed readers.  Your main body sections and sub-sections should set out the scenario or issue(s) being investigated. Do this in an appropriate style and tone. For example, a board of directors' report is different from one aimed at consumer groups.

Check your assignment brief for specifics. You will usually start by describing how you have collected your information or data. For example, a Marketing student's focus group, a Construction student's building survey. You need to demonstrate how any information you provide meets the purpose of the report.

The remainder of the main body will present and discuss your data. Consider the most suitable methods for presenting your data. Many reports will contain graphs or tables. Some may also include photographs or other images. 

The discussion of your information or data is the most important part of your report. This is where you interpret your findings and draw conclusions. Identify trends, themes or issues arising from your findings and discuss their significance. Structure this section around the themes or trends that emerge.

Provide an overview of your main findings and demonstrate that you have achieved your aims. Pick up themes or issues from your introduction and summarise what has been established. Review your evidence. The conclusions should be based on the evidence considered in the main body of the report. Your reader should be able to understand the major issues, points, and findings from this section alone.

Top tip! Do not introduce any new information in this section.

You may want to add a separate ‘Recommendations’ section or include these in your conclusions. If you do make recommendations, ensure they relate to the content of the report. If you don’t have anything specific to suggest, you might wish to recommend recommend further study on the topic.

Recommendations for further work or research should aim to examine the issues in your report in more detail. 

Most reports written as part of your course will refer to published sources. List all sources that you have cited in the text of your report. Your Reference List or Bibliography must follow the specific guidelines for your discipline (e.g. Harvard, APA or OSCOLA).  For advice about reporting verbs to use alongside citations in your text, download our Reporting Verbs Worksheet. 

This section presents data or transcripts that are too long for the main report. Usually, extracts from these will be provided in the main body of the report. Appendices are referred to in the text by letter or number; for example, ‘See Appendix B’. Check your assignment brief for any specific guidance. 

Top tip! Discuss with your supervisor whether you will need an appendix or appendices and what to include.

Report writing style and language

Aim for an objective and logical presentation of your material. Your report should inform a reader about the outcomes of your project or research. You may also make recommendations based on what you have found. Think carefully about how best to communicate the information. The style of writing throughout your report should be concise, professional, and direct.  

Use the third person. This means avoiding using the first person ‘I’. For example, instead of saying ‘I conducted a survey to...’, you would write ‘A survey was conducted in order to...’.

Your report document should be divided into sections. Headings and sub-headings direct your reader to the relevant information.

This is crucial as, unlike essays, reports won’t necessarily be read all in one go. Charts and tables aid clear communication and understanding. They should be labelled (and numbered if appropriate). Raw data, such as completed questionnaires, can be included as an appendix and summarised in the main part of the report.  

Report writers typically use cautious language. This shows that the report is based on a specific set of data. As such, the findings can’t necessarily be generalised. 

For example:  

  • ‘Problem x could be rectified by initiating….’ 
  • ‘Another possibility would be…’

The Manchester Academic Phrasebank contains useful examples of cautious language. 

Download the Report Writing Checklist to help you.

If you have previously completed a report type assignment, review the feedback you received. Use the Feedback Action Plan Worksheet to help you. 

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