Reports are professional documents so need to be written in a formal and concise style. The audience does not want to search through irrelevant or rambling writing to find the information they need. Keep returning to your report criteria or brief to ensure you are fulfilling the aims, and to test whether the information you want to include is relevant.
The advice on this page will help you write reports that are to the point and professional, and will suggest an effective order for writing the different sections of your report.
When you write a report you are communicating your knowledge about a set of actions to a reader. The key here is communication. A good piece of advice is to 'write to express, not to impress'. Here are some tips for achieving this:
Writing academically means writing in such a way that your information sounds credible and authoritative. It does not mean:
Some suggestions to help you write academically...
Be objective – report what the evidence tells you even if it isn't what you hoped to find. Don't present unsupported or personal opinions: for instance, 'Unsurprisingly, participants who recycled their refuse more regularly were also nicer people'. Take a balanced view.
Be accurate – give clear non-subjective descriptions ('light blue' is better than 'sky blue') and definite figures ('after twenty five minutes', '80% of the participants'). Avoid vague or ambiguous terms like 'a long period of time', or 'most of the participants'.
Be direct – don't leave it to your reader to work out what you are saying! Putting the emphasis on a strong verb can help the reader to see the important points: for instance, 'an analysis was performed on the results' is not as direct as 'the results were analysed'.
Be critical – evaluate your own work as well as that of others. Have the confidence to say if something could have been done better if it had been done differently.
Be appropriate – identify the purpose of your communication and the audience you are communicating to. Give them the information they need to understand your work.
It always used to be recommended in academic writing that you used the passive voice - 'the experiment was conducted' rather than 'we conducted the experiment'. Many people recognise now that this can make writing pompous and overly complicated. It's worth considering whether using the active voice (i.e. I did, we did) will make the actions you are reporting easier to understand. Check any instructions you have for guidelines on this - if in doubt, use the passive voice.
Reports are written to describe work completed in response to a particular brief, either one that has been given to you, or one you have set up yourself. So:
An important difference between essays and reports to bear in mind:
So, for instance:
A suggested order for writing the main sections...
If you're going to go to the trouble of writing an excellent report, it's a shame to spoil it with careless finishing. If you give yourself time to check details you can make your presentation as good as your content.
Referencing – Your course handbook should explain the style of referencing preferred by your department. Check that you have all the necessary details in the right places. If you've lost the details of a source, don't include it – unacknowledged sources could be read as plagiarism. See our Citing references guide for more support.
Proof reading – Print your work off to proof read – you are more likely to spot errors. It can help to read aloud. Use spell and grammar checkers wisely – make sure changes won't affect what you wanted to say.
Title page, contents, list of illustrations – Not all reports will need all of these sections. If yours does, they will probably be the last sections to write, once you are certain that the page order will not change.
A well presented report looks professional and gives the impression that its author cared about getting things right – you can lose marks by not doing this properly! Check whether your department has advice on the exact format. Much of the information you will need will be accessible online, on Blackboard or your School's website. If you can't find information about deadlines, referencing etc, ask someone. Don't guess – guessing wrong could cost you marks.