Students often ask, "What's the difference between an essay and a report?" It can be confusing because university assignments can mix the features of both (e.g. an essay that allows sub-headings) and some assignments may not officially be called a report, but seem very "report-like" in their structure and criteria.
The guidance on this page will explain some of the key differences between essays and reports, and how the main features of reports make them economical to read. Understanding how reports are read and the features that make them effective will help you in any report-style assignment.
A report is a piece of informative writing that describes a set of actions and analyses any results in response to a specific brief. A quick definition might be: "This is what I did and this is what it means." You may be given an assignment which is not called a report but shares many of the same features; if so, aspects of this guide will be helpful.
It may help to know some of the key differences between reports and essays:
|Argumentative and idea-based||Informative and fact-based|
|Not written with a specific reader in mind (except the marker)||Usually written with a specific purpose and reader in mind|
|Written in single narrative style throughout||Written in style appropriate to each section|
|Usually do not include sub-headings||Always include section headings|
|Usually do not include bullet points||Often use bullet points|
|Usually no tables or graphs||Often includes tables or graphs|
|Offer conclusions about question||Offer recommendations for action|
Here are some of the most common complaints about reports:
The most important thing to do is read the brief (or the title of your assignment, or your research question) carefully. Then read it again even more carefully! If you're still not completely clear about what to do, speak to your tutor or a Study Adviser – don't guess.
How can you make sure your report does what it's meant to do, and does it well?
Make sure you know which sections your report should have and what should go in each. Reports for different disciplines and briefs will require different sections: for instance, a business report may need a separate Recommendations section but no Methods section. Check your brief carefully to make sure you have the correct sections. See the page on 'Structuring your report' in this guide to learn more about what goes where.
Remember that reports are meant to be informative: to tell the reader what was done, what was discovered as a consequence and how this relates to the reasons the report was undertaken. Include only relevant material in your background and discussion.
A report is an act of communication between you and your reader. So pay special attention to your projected reader, and what they want from the report. Sometimes you will be asked to write for an imaginary reader (e.g. a business client). In this case it's vital to think about why they want the report to be produced (e.g. to decide on the viability of a project) and to make sure you respond to that. If it's your tutor, they will want to know that you can communicate the processes and results of your research clearly and accurately, and can discuss your findings in the context of the overall purpose.
Write simply and appropriately. Your method and findings should be described accurately and in non-ambiguous terms. A perfectly described method section would make it possible for someone else to replicate your research process and achieve the same results. See the page in this guide on 'Writing up your report' for more on this.
Spend time on your discussion section. This is the bit that pulls the whole piece together by showing how your findings relate to the purpose of the report, and to any previous research.
Every idea and piece of information you use that comes from someone else's work must be acknowledged with a reference. Check your brief, or department handbook for the form of referencing required (usually a short reference in the body of the text, and a full reference in the Reference List at the end).
Be clear about the scope of the report. The word count will help you to understand this. For instance, a 5000 word report will be expected to include a lot more background and discussion than a 1000 word report - this will be looking for more conciseness in the way you convey your information.
Research on how managers read reports discovered that they were most likely to read (in order): the abstract or summary; then the introduction; then the conclusions; then the findings; then the appendices.
This is not to suggest that you should spend less time on writing up your findings. But it does show that the sections you may think of as less important (like the abstract or introduction) are actually often the places a reader gets their first impressions. So it's worth getting them right.