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Report Writing

An overview of the key features and structures used in report writing at university.

Welcome

Report writing header. Black text on blue background.

 

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Identifying your purpose

It is important that you have a clear understanding of the nature and purpose of your report as there will be slightly different expectations depending on the type of report that you are writing. The most common types of report are:

  • Technical/Business Reports - are often written as a response to a problem or case study. They are commonly found in disciplines such as engineering and business and are formatted as they would be in an industry setting.
  • Field Reports - compare observations of phenomena or events to established academic theory. These reports are often conducted by those working in areas such as healthcare and education, and may be used to inform recommendations for professional practice.
  • Lab Reports - are often associated with the natural and social sciences. These reports are based in empirical investigation and dry to draw conclusions that help to advance our understanding of the natural and social world.
     
NOTE! - This study guide is intended as a broad overview of the common features of academic report writing; therefore, it is likely that your report may have some requirements that are specific to your subject/discipline. As such, it is always advisable that you check your module handbook, or speak to your subject tutor/lecturer, for guidance about departmental requirements for reports.

Structuring your report

Structure is very important to report and scientific writing. Where essays may allow authors to choose their own structure, reports tend to be more standardised. Though the structure of reports may vary slightly between disciplines there are some common features detailed below:

  • Title - the aim of the title is to capture the reader's attention and tell them something about the aims/conclusions of the report. When formulating a title you should think about the following:
     
    • Indicate the subject area of study
    • Identify key variables
    • Phrasing it as either a statement or a question
    • Keep it concise - around 10 - 15 substantive words
    • You may make reference to the methods that have been used and/or conclusions

To illustrate these points in an example:

Sleep deprivation leads to impaired memory performance in recall matching task.


This title tells us the key variables (sleep deprivation and memory performance), is concise (11 words total) and indicates the methods used in the experiment (recall matching task).

  • Abstract - this acts as a summary of your report. It will include details about the theoretical motivation for your research, as well as details about the methods, results and a brief conclusion. A typical length for an abstracts is around 200 - 250 words.

The example abstract shown in the table below is taken from a piece of visual psychology research:

Trypophobia is characterised by an aversion to particular configurations of holes. Cole and Wilkins (2013) investigated the spectral characteristics of trypophobia inducing images; they found that these images possess an excess of contrast energy at mid-range spatial frequencies. Furthermore, it was found that this spectral characteristic was also shared by ten of the world’s most poisonous animals. The authors concluded that any stimulus possessing this spectral characteristic might induce aversion because the human visual system has been selected for its ability to recognise these objects as potentially dangerous. The experiment presented here tested this notion by observing whether participants showed any activation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), when viewing trypophobic stimuli. Participants viewed two slideshows whilst their heart rate was monitored throughout (one slideshow contained ten trypophobic images whilst the other contained ten non-trypophobic images). It was found that regardless of participants' self-reported level of aversion to inducing stimuli, all showed a significant increase in ANS activity when viewing trypophobic stimuli. These results are interpreted as support for the adaptive visual detection mechanism suggested by Cole and Wilkins (2013). Potential brain regions involved in this mechanism and future directions for research are discussed.

The opening sentences provide the reader with the context for the research by introducing the topic and key academic literature.

This sentence highlights the motivation for conducting the experiment - in this case wanting to test one of the conclusions from Cole and Wilkins (2013).
Next, the reader is given a brief overview of the method used to collect the data - try to keep this as short as possible!  
The primary results of the research are then summarised in a single sentence. 
Finally, the reader is provided with an indication of how the results have been interpreted. 

When you come to write your own abstract, it is important to remember that it will be the first part of your report that anyone reads. As such, it is important that it is well structured, contains all of the essential information and conveys it an efficient way

  • Introduction - the purpose of the introduction is to guide your reader from the general background of the topic to the specific focus of your research. It should follow a logical sequence and explain everything that is relevant to understanding the report. The following should be included in your introduction:

- Background and context that the reader needs to understand the contents of the report

- Why it was important to study this topic

- How your research addresses a gap in the pre-existing literature/addresses a problem in the world

- The research methodology that you will be using

- The aims and objectives of your research

- Hypotheses/expected outcomes

This approach to writing an introduction shares some overlap with writing literature reviews. For more guidance on writing literature reviews, see our online study guide.
 

  • Methods - this section should be a detailed account of how your data were collected. This means including comprehensive details about your research design, participants and experimental instruments/procedures.  Ultimately, your methods section must provide enough information that another researcher could replicate your study. 

 

  • Results - in this section you should report the findings of your study. Crucially, the results section should be a statement of your findings without interpretation or discussion. Figures and tables are usually the clearest way to present information. It is important to remember to title and label any titles/diagrams to communicate their meaning to the reader and so that you can refer to them again later in the report (e.g. Table 1). Likewise, avoid repeating any information - if something appears in a table it does not need to appear again in the main body of the text.

 

  • Discussion - in this section you will describe and interpret your results. It is crucial that you discuss your findings in relation to pre-existing literature and the potential implications of your work. This is also your opportunity to offer explanations for unexpected findings, as well as alternative interpretations of your results. Finally, you must include a discussion of the potential limitations/shortcomings of your research and how this may affect the validity/reliability of your findings. If possible, you should try to convince the reader of why these confounds do not change your interpretation of the data, or acknowledge that future research is needed to address any potential weakness.

 

  • Conclusion/Recommendations - this is where you provide the reader with your 'take-home' message. It is your opportunity to demonstrate the importance of your research and how it affects the understanding of a particular phenomenon or how it raises implications for professional practice. Where your introduction was about moving from the general to the specific, your discussion should look to do the opposite: try to situate your research within a larger context and be clear about what your research/report contributes to the field. This is also an opportunity for you to include recommendations for future research. It is important that you avoid making non-specific statements such as 'further work is needed' - instead, be precise and clear. Why is further work needed? What needs to be done? How would this further research build upon and illuminate your own research/report.  

 

  • References - you need to provide a list for the research you have cited in your research/report. This should be formatted according to APA guidelines and more information and support with this can be found on the online APA referencing guide from Hallam Library.

 

  • Appendices - contain supplementary information that may support a more comprehensive understanding of your research. Crucially however, your research/report must be complete without your appendices - if someone were to read your work they should not need to read the appendices to understand its content. Appendices may typically include items such as:
    • Raw Data
    • Detailed descriptions of data collection instruments
    • Examples of data collection instruments (such as questionnaires or interview schedules)
    • Interview transcripts
    • Maps/Photographs/Drawings/Examples of student work
       

This isn't an exhaustive list but is intended as a guide to the type of information you might include in your appendices.

Language for report writing

The purpose of scientific and report writing is to communicate ideas in a way that is efficient and simple to understand. Though your report will include some specialist vocabulary, you do not need present your ideas in a complicated way or use unnecessarily complex language. Here are some key points to help develop your scientific/report writing:

1. ​Personal vs Impersonal Voice

Report writing should be written in a formal, impersonal way; this means avoiding the inclusion of personal expressions or statements to ensure that your work is impartial and objective. Consider the following example:

"The participants had big, purple bags under their eyes"
vs. "The participants showed clear sign of sleep deprivation"

The first example uses subjective language ("big") and fails to covey the information in an impartial way. By contrast, the second example tells the reader the relevant information but does so in a way that is objective and clear, rather than being vague or open to interpretation.
 

2. Tenses

Reports are usually largely written in the past tense as they often describe events, such as experiments/observations that happened before the time of writing. It is important to note however, that you will not write your whole report exclusively in the past tense. For example:

The past tense will be used when writing your literature review and describing methods:

"Grayson and Drake (2017) found that…"
"The data were analysed using a…"

The present tense will be used when detailing your interpretation of your results and conclusions:

"These results seem to suggest that…"
"This provides a clear demonstration of…"

The future tense will be used when describing your recommendations for future research/recommendations for professional practice:

"Though these results represent a promising first step, future research must seek to…"
"It will be necessary for future researchers to address…"

Appropriately using a combination of these tenses in your writing will help to improve the clarity of your writing.


3. Technical Terms

As mentioned before, you will be required to use some specialist language but you should try and keep this to a minimum - don't try and show off by overloading your writing with unnecessarily technical language! Relatedly, whilst abbreviations can be helpful when used appropriately, too many abbreviations can actually make your report harder to understand. As a guide, if an abbreviation is in common use, feel free to use it in your report (remembering to write the name out in full the first time you use it), if not, don't start creating abbreviations just to save words or avoid repetition! For example, "Magnetic Resonance Imaging" is commonly referred to as "MRI" so this would be appropriate to use in your report, whereas "sleep deprivation" is not generally abbreviated, so substituting this for "SD" in your writing would not be appropriate.


Good scientific and report writing requires the same level of planning and attention to detail that you put into designing experiments, and collecting/analysing data.

 

For more tips on scientific writing, take a look at this handy guide from Hallam Library.

Top tips

Here are our three top tips for writing top-notch reports:

  1. Know your audience and purpose. Always think about why you are writing your report and who is it for. For example, is it for dissemination to the public? Is it for a business? Will it only be read by academics? Understanding the answers to these questions will help to tailor your writing and ensure that you communicate your findings in the most effective way possible.
     
  2. Structure is key. Whilst the exact structure of reports may differ slightly between subjects, most will follow the same broad structure outlined in this guide. Each section has an important and specific function within the report. It is essential that you provide your reader with the appropriate information in each section to demonstrate your knowledge, rationale and findings/conclusions in a way that ensures maximum clarity.
     
  3. Language matters! Reports should have a formal style and be easy to understand. Remember to keep your writing precise and objective.