1.02 How to
write a report
What is a report?
: Initial preparation : Planning
and research : Report structure : Style
What is a report?
A report is a systematic, well organised
document which defines and analyses a subject or problem, and which
the record of a sequence of events
interpretation of the
significance of these events or facts
evaluation of the facts
or results of research presented
discussion of the outcomes
of a decision or course of action
Reports must always be:
Various courses require you to write
reports (as opposed to essays), notably business and scientific or technical
subjects. There are, however, different interpretations of what a report
should look like, so it is important that you check with your course
tutors and course documentation as to the report format and content
expected. In addition, there is at times some blurring between what
“essays”, “reports” and “assignments” are, so again check within your
department. Much of the advice given in Guide 1.01, How to write an
essay, also applies to reports.
Always analyse your brief carefully,
making sure that you fully understand the topic, question or case, that
you know what the purpose of the report is, and who it is being written
for. The clearer these things are in your mind, the easier the report
will be to write and the more effective it will be.
When you are researching, planning
and eventually writing, continually ask yourself what the main purpose
of the report is, what your objective is in writing it: is it to inform;
to argue; to persuade; to evaluate? What does your reader want to see
in the report and what will they do with it?
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Planning and research
You first need to decide your basic
framework. With your main topic or question as a central focus, jot
down your initial thoughts and start to group these together. You may
find the Mind Mapping technique useful: see Guide 2.11. Start to divide
key ideas from subsidiary information, and continually ask yourself
if everything is relevant; if it isn’t, then delete it.
From your prior knowledge (from
reading and lectures), you should be able to put together a fairly basic
You will now be able to plan your
research. Ask yourself what you need to find out, maybe in the form
of questions that need to be answered, then approach your reading from
this starting point. If you have specific information to look for, it
will make your reading easier and less time consuming. (See Guide 2.02
Try not to gather too much information.
Again, keeping your topic or question in mind, reject anything which
is not 100% relevant. When you’re making notes, always try to summarise
the main points as concisely as possible. Remember to make a comprehensive
record of any sources consulted in order to be able to correctly reference
Make a record of the research methods
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: Acknowledgements : Contents
page : Terms of reference : Procedure
: Materials and methods : Summary
: Introduction : Main
body : Results : Conclusion
: Recommendations : Appendices
: References : Bibliography
Unlike essays, reports are written
in sections with headings and sub-headings, which are usually numbered.
Below are the possible components of a report, in the order in which
they would appear. Check within your department which of these you should
page (always included)
This should normally include the title, your name and the name of the
tutor to whom it is being submitted, date of submission, your course/department,
and if applicable, the name of the person and/or organisation who has
commissioned the report.
Avoid “fancy” fonts and effects and don’t include any clipart.
See Guide 1.24.
(usually just in long reports)
A list of people and organisations both within and outside Birmingham City University who have
See Guide 1.26.
page (always included in reports of 4+ pages)
A clear, well-formatted list of all the sections and sub-sections of
the report. Don’t forget to put the page numbers! If applicable, there
should be a separate list of tables, figures, illustrations and/or appendices
after the main index.
Make sure that the headings in this list correspond exactly with those
in your main body. It is best to do your list of contents right at the
See Guide 1.25
of reference (sometimes included)
A definition of the task; your specific objective and purpose of writing.
Even if you don't include this as a heading, it is a vital process to
go through in your planning.
is your report going to be about?
If it is group
work, who exactly is responsible for what?
How long have
you got? What is your task timescale?
Why are you
writing the report? What exactly are the assessment criteria?
Who are you
writing the report for? Are you actually playing a role? What does your
reader want to see?
See Guide 1.27.
How your research was carried out; how the information was gathered.
and methods (included if applicable)
Similar to procedure, but more appropriate to scientific or engineering
report writing. The following advice comes from Robert Barrass' book
Scientists Must Write (Chapman & Hall,1978:135-136):
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 right
order 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
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(usually included in longer reports; may be called Executive Summary,
Abstract or Synopsis)
This is 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 (unless included in terms of reference)
(unless included in separate section)
main conclusions and
This should show that you have fully understood the task/brief and that
you are going to cover everything required. Indicate the basic structure
of the report.
You should include just a little background/context and indicate the
reasons for writing the report. You may include your terms of reference
and procedure/research methods if not covered elsewhere.
Your introduction will often give an indication of the conclusion to
See Guide 1.22.
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 (unlike an essay). A
"situation>problem>solution>evaluation" approach may be appropriate.
It is not sufficient to simply describe a situation. Your tutor will
be looking for analysis and for a critical approach, when appropriate.
Charts, diagrams and tables can be used to reinforce your arguments,
although 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.
(possibly included in scientific/engineering reports)
This section records your observations (in the past tense) and would
normally include statistics, tables or graphs.
Your conclusion should draw out the implications of your findings, with
deductions based on the facts described in your main body. Don’t include
any new material here.
See Guide 1.23
These should follow on logically from your conclusion and be specific,
measurable and achievable. They should propose how the situation/problem
could be improved by suggesting action to be taken. A “statement of
cost” should be included if you are recommending changes that have financial
Recommendations can be numbered if you wish.
Appendices (sometimes included)
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 etc. 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.
References (always included)
This is a list giving the full details of all the sources to which you
have made reference within your text. By far the most common method
in use at Birmingham City University is the Harvard method.
See Guide 1.13.
This is either a separate list of sources which you have used during
your research, but have not actually made reference to in your writing,
or this list together with your list of references.
Check in your department what you
are expected to use.
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Include a glossary if the report includes a lot of specialised vocabulary
or acronyms which may not be familiar to the reader.
clear and concise English, avoiding jargon and colloquial language.
Write in fairly
you develop each paragraph sufficiently (usually a minimum of 5/6 sentences).
Most of your
report should be impersonal, although it may be appropriate in your
conclusion or recommendations to include more personal language.
Be extra careful
with verb tenses.
See Guide 1.20
Check everything carefully
Careful checking of your report before you print off the final version
can make a big difference.
Grammar, spelling and
And finally overall, does the report fulfil its purpose? Does it do
what you’re being asked to do and what you say you’re going to do in
your introduction? Are you pleased with it? If you can’t confidently
answer “yes” to these questions, then you may need to do some major
editing and rewriting.
See Guide 1.36