A. What are Reports?
Reports are documents which both give a reader information and ask the reader to
do something with that information. Reports can be used:
to suggest new ideas and options;
to ask people to accept a point of view;
to influence decisions;
to ask people to make choices between alternative recommendations
Therefore a well structured and well written report can be a very influential document.
A report will usually follow a simple format which can be identified over and over
again as you look through the reports written by academics, agencies or individuals.
One of the key issues is to carefully provide signposts’ for the reader throughout the
report. Use headings, sub headings, bullet points (but remember to use full
sentences rather than notes here) and new paragraphs for new topics.
The format may be influenced by the purpose and length of the report. There are
nine identifiable sections in most reports, although a contents list and abstract are
usually only used with a long report.
1 Title or title page
2 Contents list
9 Appendices (and don’t forget the reference list when writing an academic
B. The Format of a Report
1. Title or title page
It helps the reader to know what the report is about to have a title and
sometimes a brief explanation of the purpose of the report. In a longer report
you can have a short title and a long, more descriptive title. You should also
identify the audience for the report, who has written it (the authors) and when
it was written (the date).
2. Contents List
Used in long reports rather than short ones. A contents list helps the reader
find their way around the report. Keep the chapter titles simple and clearly
worded so you don’t confuse the reader. Ensure the pages are numbered so
it is easy to move straight to the relevant section. Be consistent if numbering
chapters – don’t start with Chapter 1 and next have Chapter B and next have
Chapter iii! Don’t get too complex with a numbering scheme. If your reader
has to find Chapter 18.104.22.168.iii they might give up – not to mention you
losing your way.
Normally only used in long and formal reports or if your work is being
published. It is the whole report summarised in 80-200 words. It tells the
reader what you examined and why; what you discovered; how you did it and
what conclusions you were led to. It is really a file note for a reader to see if
the whole document is worth reading. Sometimes you will be asked to
provide an abstract and the key words which give the reader an idea of what
is covered/relevant. For example, the key words in a handout on report
writing could be: reports; purpose; content; structuring; styles; learning;
building an argument…………………..
Should be quite brief. It can be a paragraph or a whole chapter but it should
tell the reader:
Who commissioned (asked for) it and when;
The reason for the report;
The terms of reference and limitations;
A brief outline of the background to the report;
The method of working (if this is very detailed it might form one of the
What sources have been used in researching the report (and again, if
these are numerous the detail should be in the appendices and
The key issues which will be addressed (another way of ‘signposting’).
The main body of the report and the longest part. It goes into more detail
about the subject. See Section C on ‘building your argument’. It should be
arranged logically in one or a series of chapters. You should use headings
and sub-headings to help the reader find their way around it. Writing a report
is not like writing a detective novel so you don’t leave the best bits until last!
The Plain English Campaign recommends the use of the ‘inverted triangle’
way of writing in reports.
Most important information
Next most important
Next most important
Next most important
Figure 1. Plain English Course Leaflet 14 ‘Organising and planning ‘reader centred’ reports’ 1990
This ensures that even if the reader only wants to read part of the report they
will still have read the most important information. It might be worth
mentioning here that staff will always read the whole report if it is an
These are the main findings from the research that went into the report:
What you set out to find out – the purpose of the report
What you found out;
What was significant about what you discovered;
How it answers the question set by the person who commissioned the
Conclusions arise logically from the work you have already done. You
shouldn’t present any new information here. Just use the information you
have collected to inform the options, indicators, lessons or advice you wish to
give the readers.
The key information from the report, often presented in bullet points or short
paragraphs. It mainly summarises the high points – the findings and
conclusions, rather than discussing what, when and how again. A summary
can often be separated from and read instead of the whole report, so a brief
introduction to the summary could be used. Summaries are often placed at
the front of long reports in recognition that the long report will be too much for
many busy readers to take in. You could liken a summary to the trailer for a
film, tempting you to go along for the whole thing, even when you have been
given a fair idea of the plot and outcomes!
When a report is being used to present options or make some
recommendations for action you have to give the reader some clues about
what these might be. Again, don’t leave the preferred option or course of
action until last. Use that ‘inverted triangle’ approach here too. So you
should present your most favoured ideas, options or recommendations first.
These are likely to be debated more thoroughly by the readers and they will
ideally come to a more informed decision (the one you prefer!).
NOTE: You refer to one appendix or several appendices. However you can
refer to the whole collection of appendices as ‘the Appendix’.
You use the Appendix to ‘dock’ informative and helpful information here. You
shouldn’t use too many appendices – they should never overwhelm the report
itself. If you have done some research, put the (blank) questionnaire or
interview questions here. You can insert (short) documents from other
sources (for example, a brief summary of another report which would be
helpful to the reader). Tables, photographs, drawings or maps which will help
the reader make sense of the report can be inserted into the appendices. Be
selective and don’t forget to provide the ‘signpost’ to the relevant appendix in
the body of your report – put the relevant appendix you want the reader to
look at in brackets, for example, (Appendix 1) or (see Appendix 1).
As you may well be writing your report as an assignment, you must reference
all the sources you use in the body of the report and always have a reference
list whenever you are asked to write a report at university. This is not always
required in a report in the workplace, although crediting the sources you have
used is a courtesy.
C. Building an Argument
Whenever you write, you will have to build and support an argument. What do we
mean by this and how do you do it?
Let’s look at a situation where you are asked to provide a report to answer a question
in an assignment. The first stage in preparing to write is to look at the key words in
the question/task/assignment brief – what is it asking you to do? For a brief
explanation of key words and what they mean, see Section G.
Building an argument is like building a wall. You need a strong foundation (your
preparation; your reading and research; your skills to question or interrogate the
information to find out what is relevant for you) to hold up the wall. You need bricks
(facts, arguments and discussions; contradictions and similarities) and you need the
mortar to hold it together (logical structure, signposting; supporting evidence). These
will lead you towards the goal of answering the question in an informed and well
Decide what information you need to include to fully answer the question. Use a
‘mind map’ or a list of topics so you can ensure you cover everything you want to
cover and can plan a logical order for your writing.
For each area under discussion consider what reading you have done on the topic.
Make notes and ask:
Who said what about it?
Where did they say it?
What was the context in which they did this?
How does it compare or contrast; support or challenge your thinking on the topic?
Use general texts on the issue; relevant and reliable web sites; source documents
such as previous reports from the workplace (if possible); good practice guidance
from professional bodies where relevant, journal articles from academic and trade
press; newspaper cuttings, class handouts, etc. Use as wide a range as possible.
Don’t just keep to the class handouts. We don’t want to see you repeat what we
have told you, but to find out more for yourself. The classroom is the starting point,
going back to our analogy of building the wall, it is a bit like digging the trench to hold
Use the most up to date textbooks. Out of date or older books do have their uses to
provide a historical context, but ensure that you know what the latest thinking or best
Don’t fall into a common trap for students: looking at the topic and telling us all you
have ever found out about it, in the hopes that something, somewhere in your report,
might answer the question. You will run out of time, space (particularly if you are
given a word or page limit) and irritate or confuse the reader who doesn’t instantly
see the purpose or relevance of your answer.
Lets go back to that brick wall. If you just pile up bits of information
eventually the pile will fall over. If you just tumble all the information you possess in
no order into the report it will just be as if it is a pile of rubble. Either way it won’t be
‘fit for purpose’ as your reader will become confused rather than enlightened.
So keep your writing focused on its purpose and carefully select what information is
required to answer the question. This does require skill to judge what is required.
Some of this comes from ensuring you read the whole brief and from checking those
key words and look at the criteria by which the work will be marked (evaluated;
judged). If still in doubt, clarify what is required with your tutor (or any other person
asking for the report).
You will need to use references to let the reader know where they can find what you
have read and researched. Remember that no more than 10% of your work should
be directly quoted from someone else’s work. Always, always, ALWAYS reference
where you found the work, and for the direct quotations, add a page number. Keep a
note of all your sources using the Harvard system (you will be given a Referencing
Guide or can find assistance in referencing in the university library). Make sure you
note down the page numbers for any quotable quotes you might use. If using webbased resources make a note of the URL (the web address: www.anywebsite.co.uk/)
and the dates you accessed the material.
Why do we ask you to do all this? So we can see where your ideas originate and
how you have researched and used the materials. We don’t want you to solely use
the ideas of others, as we will want to see how creative you can be with your
thinking. However, we will want to see where the ideas which inform your thinking
If you want to give examples or case studies, show how they relate to the topic
question. Tell your reader why they should bother to read the case study or example
and make a link back to the question (more ‘signposts’).
In order to give your report (that brick wall) strength you need to link topic areas and
see where there are overlaps between the ideas of others and your own points of
view. Look for gaps between what is said and your experiences. Debate why the
gaps might be there. Consider how the information you have found and any
similarities or differences affect your answer to the question.
Check the question or task again:
Have you answered the question?
Have you completed all the elements in the brief?
Have you discovered an answer which supports the argument or contradicts or
Have you supported your assertions from your reading and wider research?
If you have answered all these questions you will have ‘built your argument’.
E. The Order of Writing
If you don’t have a title for the report already (sometimes you will be given the title in
an assignment briefing) devise a working title, which can be modified or changed
later, but which gives you a focus for the report.
A suggested way of working is to make some notes about your purpose and
approach. This will form the basis of your introduction. Write the discussion next
and then consider the conclusions. Check that every conclusion you draw has been
raised and debated in the body of the report. From these you should be able to
come up with any recommendations.
Don’t forget to keep a note of any references you use as you go along. It can be
helpful to set up a new file or new page and every time you use a reference, insert
the full reference in alphabetical order by author as you go along.
Write your formal introduction, your summary and title page. Number the document
and (if required) prepare the contents page. If required you might also produce your
F. Writing a Brief or Briefing Paper
A brief or briefing paper is a short report used to inform someone you are asking to
prepare something on your behalf. It doesn’t follow quite the same format as a report
but some of the principles are the same. It could be a development brief, asking a
developer or architect or builder to plan what would be produced on a given site or a
research brief asking a team of researchers to find out something for you or asking a
consultant to present a scoping document (a review and forecast with
implications/impact assessment) or asking a financial adviser to prepare some
models of interest rate changes, etc. You might want consultants to compete to
provide a service. You might ask for a range of options to inform decision-making.
What the brief should do is provide the guidance for those who must complete it to
produce the work you want, when you want it and in an accessible format.
What goes into the brief?
You will have an introduction to the topic and set out your aims for what is to be
developed or researched or provided.
You will set the parameters (boundaries). These could include timescales, budget,
access to site, personnel, client groups, maps, other considerations. For example:
On a development brief you may want:
Proposals for density, car parking, play, traffic, access, environmental factors,
energy efficiency, etc.)
On a research brief you may want:
Specific client groups/areas/property types targeted, balance or mix of
methods, range of other organisations benchmarked
On a consultants brief in a competitive environment you may want:
What kind of presentation you want, how long, when it will be judged, who will
judge it, the criteria by which it will be judged, when you would want the work
completed, an idea about budgetary constraints (maximums?)
You will advise on the reporting timescale and destination of the report (committee,
Board, Chief Executive, tenants, etc). You might say something about the format
(including design criteria such as binding, font sizes, use of maps, charts and
diagrams, conclusions and summaries, types of recommendations). You might
advise about how the report should be delivered (courier, mail, email) and where it
should be delivered.
The clearer you are about what you want to find out and articulate this in the brief,
the clearer will be the resulting report from whoever prepares it and the easier it will
be to make informed decisions.