Learning Development Unit. A Little Guide to REPORT WRITING

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1 Learning Development Unit A Little Guide to REPORT WRITING 2009

2 What is a report? Reports originate from the business environment. They are formal documents used to convey an idea, message or analysis effectively and clearly. Typically, they are produced in response to a request for information. There is no standard format for reports but they will be structured in a similar way and contain standard sections so that readers can find information which is of particular interest quickly. Unlike essays, reports will be divided into headed and numbered sections; they may include an abstract (summary) at the very beginning of the report which sums up, in one paragraph, the entire contents of the report. Longer reports will also contain a contents section to enable readers to locate key information. What are the benefits of reports? For the readers: Reports offer readers the opportunity to consider material at their leisure; to have access to critical information; and to be aware of relevant issues. This can result in a constructive and effective decision making process. Reports will present information in a logical sequence and will generally be written in an established house style which helps readers to locate key information and data. For the writer: Producing a report can aid the problem solving process and can enable the writer to reach a definite conclusion. Why are reports written? There is always a purpose to a report. Generally, reports are written: - to inform (provide individuals with information, establish the current situation) - to explain (investigate an occurrence /problem) - to persuade (suggest a particular course of action) The style and content of your report must be appropriate to its purpose and its audience: if your report is largely informative it may not be appropriate to make recommendations; if it is a scientific report you should describe the experiment and the conditions under which it took place; if you have been given a work-based scenario you should write your report for the stated audience. Reports can be internal to an organisation and used to assess management issues or written for an external audience. Tip: Scrutinize your assignment brief for clues on what to include and how to pitch your report in accordance with its intended audience. 1

3 Exercise Identify at least 3 types of internal reports and 3 types of external reports which may be produced by organisations in the leisure, tourism or music industries. So why are you asked to submit s work in a report format when at university? - because it is a writing style which you will be asked to adopt if you work in a business environment - because many of the skills needed to write a report are similar to those required when producing other forms of academic work, particularly the requirement for working independently; collecting, selecting and organising information; and using appropriate academic conventions when researching and writing What are the differences /similarities / between a report and an essay? Like essays, reports use formal language and standard academic conventions: sources of information must be acknowledged; a full reference list must be provided; the writing will have a logical structure; and ideas will be linked together. However, the language used in reports is generally more concise, and precise details are given to support claims. The differences and similarities between reports and essays can be summarised according to the following table: Reports 1 Reports are largely used in a business context; they are typical of the writing required for the world of work 2 Reports will often (but not always) require you to present primary research data, i.e. data that you have collected yourself through an experiment, a survey, an observation, a questionnaire, an interview or by applying theory to practice 3 Essays and reports have different structures. A report comprises numbered and headed sections which are used to address specific requirements. Ideas can be separated according to the use of headed sections Essays 1 Essays originate from academia; they are rarely used anywhere else 2 Essays focus on analysing or evaluating secondary research material, i.e. existing research, theory, and ideas. They seldom present the findings of new research. 3 An essay is a continuous piece of writing: it will not include section headings. It will follow a central argument which will be introduced at the beginning; developed within the main body; and summarised in a conclusion. Ideas will be separated according to the use of paragraphs 2

4 4 A report may contain tables and charts. Original data, referred to within the report, may be submitted, in an appendix 5 Reports include a description of the methods used to collect data and to arrive at a conclusion 6 Reports often include recommendations for action 4 Essays do not include tables, charts or appendices 5 Essays will not refer to the method used in arriving at conclusions 6 Essays will not include recommendations Adapted from: Cottrell, S. (2003) The study skills handbook. 2 nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. What makes a good report? Good reports are: Clear You can ensure clarity by presenting the information in a defined structure. Express yourself in short sentences. Follow a logical progression of ideas. Avoid ambiguity. Put yourself in your readers shoes. Will they understand what you mean? Concise If you are concise you will reinforce the clarity of your report. Use short words rather than long ones. Never use two words when one will do. When reading through the report, cut where you can. This should improve the sense of the text. Precise Avoid sweeping statements or generalisations. Be exact. What percentage increase in turnover is expected? How many customers will the new product attract? What is the anticipated increase in spectators / tourist arrivals / CD sales? Comprehensive Ensure you include all information relevant to the report. For business reports include details of costs, losses and potential profits. For a report based on an experiment, describe the experiment and the conditions under which it took place. Focused Keep all points relevant to the purpose of the report. Follow the brief and avoid superfluous information. Reports at work Reports are distributed to people who read a lot of other reports; they are often very busy people. The following comments offer some interesting messages to help you when compiling a report. 3

5 As often as not, I read reports in the lift or in the car park on the way to the meeting. I ought to be able to get the main points in that time. All our reports are in a standard house style the layout, fonts, headings it means you can concentrate on the content. The technical data needs to be there, even if you don t read it at the time I only look for what I need to know the recommendations and sometimes the summary. In effect we wrote two reports one for internal consumption with a full analysis of the problem and one for external consumption You ve got to think about how your report will be used. It will be used as ammunition by someone for something You want plain language, not pompous, roundabout stuff. You ve still got to plough through it, but it puts you right off. One consultancy gets most of our business. Their work is good and their reports short. No surprises tucked away at the end, please Adapted from: Williams, K. (1995) Developing writing - writing reports. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Development. Exercise What are the key messages about reports which emerge from these comments? Consider the relevance of the comments in relation to: Audience Purpose Content Format Exercise It is clear from the comments that reports are not read from cover to cover. Different readers need different information from a report. Below are elements of a report. Tick the five most likely to be helpful to: 1 a decision-maker 2 the person responsible for taking the investigation further 4

6 a simple language and short sentences throughout b complex technical language c an abstract (summary) at the beginning d a detailed contents list e the background to the request for the report f an account of research methods g headings, subheadings and numbered sections in the body of the report h illustrations (diagrams, charts, graphs) in the body of the report i tables, diagrams, charts, graphs in the appendix j the conclusions drawn from the evidence k recommendations for action l background papers and studies in the appendix m bibliography of all sources used to compile the report 1 2 Adapted from: Williams, K. (1995) Developing writing writing reports. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Development So how do you go about putting together a report? Before you start to write a report you need to be clear about what you need to produce at the end. In report writing, this means that you must understand your brief, or terms of reference. Consider asking yourself the following questions: What is the report about? Why am I writing it? Who is it for? The answers to these questions will help you to focus on the task. You can then develop an appropriate plan, which will take into account the answers to the following questions: How do I do it? (How do I find out the information?) When should I do each stage and when do I need to complete it by? Where will I do the work? 5

7 Structuring reports Your Faculty s house style is outlined in Appendix D of the student handbook. You should follow this guide unless your assignment brief suggests otherwise. The following sections are standard sections for a report. You should check your assignment brief to see which sections you are expected to include. Sections are usually presented in the following order. Title page Include report title, author s name/student ID, date, and module title/code. Acknowledgements List people you wish to thank for their help. Abstract Give a brief summary or overview of the report. Write it as a précis of the entire report including the conclusion and recommendations. It should be the last section you write. Ensure that it makes sense on its own, and gives a brief account of the key elements of the report. It is usually no longer than one paragraph so it can be read quickly. Contents List the different sections of the report, in the order in which they appear Show numbered section headings/sub-headings and page numbers The words Introduction, Conclusion, Recommendations, Appendix, can all be used as section headings. Main Body cannot. Instead, be specific about what is in the main body of the text by giving an appropriate title to each section. Long sections need to be sub-divided for clarity Specify what the appendices are and list them separately Specify what the illustrations/figures are (if any) and list them. The numbering system starts with the introduction and finishes with the appendices (if used) Example Section Contents Page 1.0 Introduction Section heading Section sub-heading Section sub-heading Section sub-heading Section heading Section sub-heading 5 6

8 3.2 Section sub-heading Conclusion Recommendations References Appendices appendix title appendix title appendix title 12 Introduction The introduction to a report should set the scene for the reader. It should familiarise the reader with the contents of the report and explain why the report has been produced. You could include: Terms of reference: the purpose of the report, who it was commissioned by and why? Aims and objectives Methods used in the investigation. NB Faculty guidelines suggest that this is addressed as a separate section Relevant background information Definitions of terms / abbreviations used throughout the report An outline of the report sections, e.g. The report looks firstly at x, it then outlines y and considers z... (Keep this section brief usually one paragraph is enough.) Method This section explains how you collected information for the report and identifies key sources. If undertaking a primary research study it will identify the research method applied and justify the reason for choosing this method. Main body / Findings This is the substance of the report. Content of this section is normally organised into separate sections. This makes it easier to locate information. Organise your material logically into sections, sub-dividing as much as possible The sections should be large enough to contain an idea or theme, but small enough to be manageable Make section headings explicit to describe the contents The section numbers should appear next to the headings throughout Use figures/diagrams/charts as much as possible. This makes good use of space and ensures information is easily accessible keep to the point avoid deviating from the brief Present information concisely. If you have useful background information, include as an appendix but make sure you make reference to the material in text 7

9 Conclusion The conclusion is a summing up and analysis of your main body /findings. It offers a brief overview of what has been discussed. You should avoid introducing any new material or references. Recommendations The recommendations will offer possible solutions to any problems which have been outlined in the main body /findings. They suggest ways forward. The style of writing in this part of the report should be persuasive and positive and should instil confidence. Recommendations should be realistic and practical. Consider what recommendations arise from what you have written in the previous sections of the report: their relevance needs to be clear Present them as a numbered list for easier reading and to enable them to be clearly understood References Follow the Harvard conventions. List all references cited in text, in alphabetical order by author surname Refer to the Little Guide to Referencing for further information Appendices Appendices usually contain supporting material which may be referred to throughout the report, e.g. leaflets, copies of questionnaires and statistical information, etc. This section provides back-up material to your findings and recommendations without clogging up the main body of the report. However, it is important that the report can be understood WITHOUT reference to the information contained in the appendices. You should not include items unless you refer to them in the report and direct the reader to the relevant appendix e.g. refer appendix 1. If in doubt as to whether to include, apply the simple test: is the documentation important enough to discuss in the text? If so, discuss it, refer to it, and include the detail as an appendix. If not, don t! Language and style All writing in a report is: formal avoid slang, abbreviations and pseudo words e.g. constructability focused make sure you stick to the assignment brief concise avoid superfluous words jargon-free objective avoid emotive or judgemental words e.g. ridiculous, crazy 8

10 When writing a report you should: write in the 3 rd person adopt the passive voice avoid DECORATIVE FONTS 9

11 Acknowledgements Much of the material in this Little Guide to Report Writing has been adapted from the following sources: Cottrell, S. (2003) The study skills handbook. 2 nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Irwin, D (ed.) (1999) Effective business communications. London: Thorogood Limited. MacTavish, C. (2001) Focus on report writing. De Montfort University. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 3 April 2006]. Williams, K. (1995) Developing writing - writing reports. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Development. 10

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