Please note: The type of report described in this leaflet is a business report, and the guidelines provided are not intended to be regarded as firm ‘rules’. Reports can be structured in many different ways and can take many different forms; however, there are many report writing templates available on most word processing programmes such as Microsoft Word which you can use if you want to.
This leaflet provides a model for how a report could be structured and laid out. However, this is only a rough guide. For more detailed instructions please refer to the assignment guidelines you have been given, or contact your lecturer.
This is a guide to writing a report which takes the form of a report. It gives information about what reports are designed to do and the different sections that a report usually contains. It provides details on what should be included in each section and specifically about what is included in the Executive Summary. It also lists some of the main differences between reports and essays. It goes on to explain how to lay out a report and about what a report should look like. It gives advice on: how to use headings; how to number the pages; how to use bullet points correctly; and how to use and refer to appendices. In addition it makes recommendations on what to check before submitting a report.
1.1 What do reports do? 1
1.2 Appearance 1
2 THE SECTIONS OF THE REPORT
2.1 What goes into the Executive Summary/Abstract? 2
2.2 What does the Contents List look like? 2
2.3 Introduction 2
2.4 The body
2.4.1 Using bullet points 3
2.4.2 Bullet points and grammar 4
2.5 Concluding and making recommendations 5
3 GUIDANCE ON NUMBERING, PAGE NUMBERS, HEADINGS AND USING BOLD
3.1 Numbering 5
3.2 Page numbers 5
3.3 Headings 5
3.4 Using bold 6
4 MAKING A REPORT LOOK GOOD
4.1 Layout of individual sections 6
4.2 Appendices and visual content
4.2.1 Referring to the appendices 6
4.2.2 Using tables, figures, diagrams, etc. 7
5 GOOD SCHOLARSHIP IN REPORT WRITING
5.1 Citation and the reference list 7
6 RECOMMENDATIONS 8
1.1 What do reports do?
Reports inform. Their purpose is to convey information, and not to construct a debate. This is different to an essay. Some of the main differences between reports and essays can be seen in Table 1 below:
Table 1. The main differences between reports and essays
|A report...||An essay...|
is used to take decisions or accounts for actions
is meant to be scanned quickly by the reader
presents an argument and is idea-based
is used to demonstrate knowledge, understanding and critical analysis
is meant to be read carefully
uses numbered headings and sub-headings
uses short, concise paragraphs and bullet points
uses tables and/or graphs and bullet points
may need an abstract (also known as an executive summary)
may need to be followed by recommendations and/or appendices
does not usually contain sub-headings or bullet points
does not use many graphs or tables
offers conclusions about a question
will only need an abstract if very long
(adapted from: Burns and Sinfield 2010, p.291)
Reports are intended to be read quickly and for a specific reason, so it is essential to make the information as easy to find as possible and as easy to understand as possible.
All reports have a similar appearance because of the fairly standard way the information they contain is arranged. They usually follow this pattern:
- Executive Summary
- Contents List
- Reference List
A report should have headings, sub-headings, numbered sections, bullet points, and diagrams, but not many lengthy ‘blocks’ of uninterrupted prose.
2. Sections of a report
2.1 What goes into the Executive Summary/ Abstract?
An executive summary gives the reader a general overview/summary of the whole report. It usually includes:
- the background to the report
- the purpose of the report
- the scope and limits of the report, including brief details of the methods used
- the important findings/results of the investigation and any conclusions drawn from these results
- recommendations for action, if required
(Charles Darwin University 2012)
All this is done in continuous prose; the Executive Summary is the only part of the report where bullet points are not used; instead descriptive or discursive language is used.
After reading this section, the readers will have a good idea of what the report is about. If they need more background information, the Introduction will provide this.
2.2 What does the Contents List look like?
There is an example of a Contents List after the Executive Summary above. Note that ‘Recommendations’ may not be required in a university assignment; the assignment guidelines should make this clear.
2.3 The Introduction
This should orientate the reader to the whole document, and give the report a
context. It should help to answer these questions:
- why this topic is being investigated
- why the report was requested and by whom
- what issues are covered in it, what issues are not covered and why
- how the topic was investigated
It may sometimes be useful to include the ‘Terms of Reference’ (ToRs), which set out the scope of the report. The Introduction may also contain a definition of any key terms or terminology which is used. The Executive Summary and the Introduction often contain some similar information; this is not a problem.
2.4 The Body
As in an essay, the body is the largest part of the report. However, in a report the information should be presented as economically as possible, often through the use of bullet points.
2.4.1 Using bullet points
Bullet points must be carefully ‘designed’.
Bullet points have a specific purpose, depending on the context in which they are used. The following sentence (about using bullet points) shows how they work:
Bullet points perform a range of functions, including:
- giving examples
- providing focus
There must be an explanation given between the heading and the bullet
points, for example:
Using bullet points
There is general agreement that amongst the main advantages of bullet points is their ability to:
- save words
- improve ease of comprehension
- improve visual appeal
Bullet points cannot stand alone; they must be introduced, so their use in the following example is quite wrong:
Using bullet points
- to save words
- to make the report look better
2.4.2 Bullet points and grammar
Bullet points should be grammatically consistent. This means that they should all grammatically follow the introduction, and they should all have the same format. In fact, as the following examples demonstrate the same information can be given in many different ways.
The programme is divided into four stages:
- raising awareness through in-house training
- auditing suppliers
- applying corrective actions to improve conditions
- monitoring programmes through surprise visits to check the improvements
There are four stages in the programme. These are:
- to raise awareness through in-house training
- to audit suppliers
- to apply corrective actions to improve conditions
- to monitor programmes through surprise visits to check the improvements
There are four stages in the programme, namely:
- the use of in-house training to raise awareness
- an audit of suppliers
- the application of corrective actions to improve conditions
- the monitoring of programmes through surprise visits to check the improvements
The important thing to note here is consistency, all the bullet points must have the same grammatical form; that is they must all start the same way.
2.5 Concluding and making recommendations
The really important parts of ‘real world’ reports, the parts which most readers will look at, are the Conclusion (which summarises what the research has shown), and the Recommendations, which demonstrate how what has been learnt can be applied. Some reports do not require recommendations: the Terms of Reference or the assignment guidelines will make clear whether any practical outcome, and so ‘recommendation’, is expected. If the ToRs do this, then the recommendations section is the most important part of the report for those who commissioned it.
The recommendations must be both relevant and feasible and cover:
• what needs to be done
• who needs to do it
• how, when and where it needs to be done
(University of Melbourne 2010)
3. Guidance on numbering, page numbers, headings and using bold
Note that the Executive Summary, Contents List, Reference List and Appendices are not numbered. With these exceptions, all parts of a report should be numbered. Numbering is essential in reports as it allows the reader to find information quickly.
Each numbered section must have a title, and this heading or sub-heading should give the reader a good idea of what is contained in that section.
3.2 Page numbers
The Executive Summary and the Contents List do not have page numbers. The pages of a report are numbered from the page which contains the Introduction, so ‘Introduction’ always begins on page 1. Page-numbering stops at the end of the last main section (‘Conclusions’ or ‘Recommendations’), so the Reference List and Appendices do not have page numbers either.
The main headings are not allocated a page number when these sections are divided into sub-sections. Therefore, of the main section headings in the Contents List above, only ‘6 Recommendations’ has a page number because only this section is not subdivided. Similarly, subheadings are not given a page number where they are themselves subdivided.
3.4 Using bold
Only certain elements are usually printed in bold. These are:
- all main section headings and their numbers (‘6 RECOMMENDATIONS’)
- all sub-section headings and their numbers (‘3.4 Using bold’)
- sub-headings which themselves are further subdivided (‘4.2.1 Referring to the Appendices’)
4. Making a report look good
4.1 Layout of individual sections
Each heading and subheading, and the accompanying numbering, should be printed in bold, and BLOCK CAPITALS are often used for section headings. In addition, a system of ‘tabbing’, consistent with that used on the Contents Page above is often used in the report itself. This means that a section heading (e.g. ‘1 INTRODUCTION’) would be on the left margin; ‘1.1 What do reports do?’ would start immediately under the start of the word INTRODUCTION, as would the written content of that sub-section.
Note that the contents of any section with no subdivision (e.g. ‘6 RECOMMENDATIONS’) will stay on the left margin throughout the section. The proper and consistent use of 1.5 line-spacing and double-spacing between sections, further improves the appearance of the report, and makes the individual sections easier to find and to follow. Every number must have a title. This is important not only for consistency, but also for clarity.
4.2 Appendices and ‘visual’ content
4.2.1 Referring to the Appendices
There may be diagrams or tables that are too large to fit on one page; in this case they may be placed at the end of the report, as an Appendix. It is normal for a report to have appendices. Any information or material given in an appendix must be referred to in the text as follows: For a full break down of the market share and the annual sales of the four leading brands in 2013 please refer to appendix A.
4.2.2 Using tables, figures, diagrams, etc.
It is normal to use tables, graphs and diagrams in the body of a report. They can usually express information economically (important when there is a word-limit), and in an easier to understand way than prose. They can also improve the appearance of a report. All such items should be properly ‘labelled’ (i.e. have a title) and the source of the information in them should be acknowledged, as in this example:
Table 1. Students registered at QMU in 2011 to 2012:
STUDENT DISTRIBUTION BY AGE AND GENDER 2011 - 2012 (excludes overseas collaborations)
The source, ‘QMU 2013’, would then appear in the Reference List. If the
contents of the table or diagram are completely the student’s own work
then there is no need for an acknowledgement or reference; an example
of this is given in appendix A.
5. Good scholarship in report writing
As the report is a piece of academic work this means that the same rules which apply to
essays also apply here; namely:
- word limits must be respected
- a formal style must be used
- the language should be of a good, intelligible, standard
- all sources must be cited and referenced (unless instructed otherwise)
5.1 Citation and the Reference Page
Unless there is a specific instruction otherwise all reports at QMU must contain appropriate citation and referencing in the Harvard Style For all details of referencing, please refer to the University’s guide, Write and Cite, which is available on the library website or can be bought at the LRC front desk.
The reference page for a report will look exactly the same as one produced for an essay. However, when referencing in the text of a report it is better to use ‘information-prominent’ citation, where the source is simply mentioned at the end of the phrase or sentence, as in this example:
Online events are:
- globally accessible and greener (Biba 2007)
- low-cost and convenient (Woolard 2010) This is in contrast to the author prominent citation often found in essays: According to Biba (2007), online events are globally accessible and greener, while Woolard (2010) adds that they are also low-cost and convenient.
Before submitting any report there are a number of areas that should be checked, and a
number of questions that need to be answered:
- Is there enough ‘white space’?
- Is it in Times New Roman, size 12 or Arial size 11, and 1.5 line-spaced, with a
‘starter’ margin (i.e. before any indentations are made) of 2.5 cm?
- Is it written in formal language?
- Is the numbering effectively done?
- Is indentation in the numbered sections consistent throughout?
- Is the use of block capitals, bold, etc. consistent?
- Are headings and sub-headings used appropriately?
- Is each page numbered? (except, of course, for those excluded from numbering)
- Is there a new page for the Executive Summary, the Reference Page and the
- Are large diagrams properly placed on one page? (They must never be divided
over two pages)
A fuller checklist to go through before submitting a report is provided in Appendix B.
BIBA, E., 2007. Virtual events’ success grows. B to B, October, 92 (13), p.14.
BURNS, T. and SINFIELD, S., 2012. Essential study skills: the complete guide to success at university. 3rd ed. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
VICTORIA UNIVERSITY OF WELLINGTON., 2013. How to write a business report.[online] [viewed 6 February 2014].
WOOLARD, C., 2009. Economy drives interest in more complex virtual events. B to B, March, 94 (3), p.22.