Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Logo for the SkillsCentre

Report Writing

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

Other Types of Reports

Reports for business, management, or creative subjects

This section of the report writing guide focuses on reports for business, management, or creative subjects, for example providing a position statement, design commentary, or evaluation of options, or a report on problem solving.

See also our other section on scientific reports, such as research reports or lab reports

Purpose and principles

Purpose and principles

Purpose

Reports may be written for various purposes, such as a defining a position statement, providing a design commentary, setting out options, undertaking an evaluation, or reporting on research or problem-solving projects.  You may be free to decide on your purpose in your report, but often this will be decided for you in your assignment brief or working context. Identify the purpose of the report as you begin your research process and begin to structure your report.

Role and Audience

A reader examining a report with questions and a microscope.   Image by mohamed_hassan. Source:: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1452813Envisaging your role and your relationship with your audience follows on from clarity about your purpose. You may or may not have been nominated a specific role and audience; if not it can be helpful to have a specific job role or persona in mind, and to think about the audience(s) or stakeholders who may view your report. Consider whether you are setting out to inform, explain, or persuade your audience about something in the report. This will inform your structure and language use, as discussed in our section on Language Style.

Professionality

All report writing requires a professional and authoritative approach which distinguishes report writing from creative writing or more reflective discussive essays. This professionality is supported by the following three principles of integrity:

  • Evidence based
    Reports are evidence based, whether they are explaining existing evidence from your reading or data collection, or using evidence to back up recommendations for future actions.
  • Objectivity
    Relevant evidence must be presented neutrally, and without bias. If bias is present, this should be openly acknowledged as a limitation; Both evidence and conclusions arrived at should be critically evaluated, acknowledging alternative options or perspectives.
  • Ethics
    A key aspects of ethics is to avoid harming participants - you may need to keep respondent';s identities confidentially anonymous and their data secure, and also to avoid openly identifying organisations for which criticisms are included in your report. Use non-judgemental language if criticisms cannot be completely avoided.

A woman thinking and pointing her pencil in the air Source https://pixabay.com/users/wallusy-7300500/Criticality

Develop and demonstrate criticality in your report by undertaking the following processes:

  • Test your ideas by undertaking wide reading; don’t rely on ‘common sense’
  • Examine the evidence base for both suggestions and criticisms
  • Synthesise information from various sources to draw conclusions
  • Consider the limitations or relevance of recommendations for specific contexts
  • Present a reasoned argument and logical recommendations to your reader.

For more on developing your criticality, see our Critical Writing Guide.

The Process

The Process

You will need to undertake all the following tasks, although the process may not be entirely linear. 

Get clarity

Begin by checking the assignment brief and assessment criteria, to check you are clear about your expected purpose, role, and audience, and what you will be assessed for.  See more about purpose and principles in the next section. 

Research and notetaking

Journal articles and handwritten notes on a desk.  Image by Raul Pacheco-Vega on Flickr - source https://www.flickr.com/photos/rolexpv/8596957225Then start to undertake your research. Use the relevant subject guide for your topic area to find recommended academic journals and database sources in which to search.  

However, for a report you might also use data sources which are less typical. For example, you may collect sector statistics or industry information using grey literature - material which may not have been published academically, such as annual reports, marketing plans, policy documents, implementation guidance, consumer research, and product information.

Make sure that you take a systematic approach to notetaking, keeping a careful note of sources for your referencing, and adding your critical evaluation of the material.

Evaluate your evidence

Depending on the type of report you are creating, it is often appropriate to justify your choices of evidence.  For a more creative report, you might explain why you were inspired by other examples. 
You can then continue by analysing what the evidence tells you about the topic you are researching, and evaluating the robustness and relevance of the evidence itself.

Plan your structure

Plan a structure out using any guidance in the assignment brief. Keep your audience in mind as you consider appropriate sections.

For example, if your project is titled ‘An investigation into the fast fashion economy – including ethical and climate change considerations’, then you could map your ideas out visually:

Mindmap to show initial ideas about fast fashion industry essay.

Then you can turn your ideas into a structured outline - see some examples in the Structures section below. 

Clarify conclusions

Consider the conclusions you intend to present:  These should include: 

  • A summary of your findings or what you’ve achieved.  
  • The limitations of your work, such as any issues, caveats, or restrictions in scope, and any risks you may anticipate, such as any problems foreseeable with implementation.
  • Any implications, solutions to problems, or recommendations arising for you, or your specific audience, or within the wider sector.  

Professional design

Don’t go overboard on design if that’s not a big component of the assessment criteria but do allow some time for this aspect if you are wanting to learn some new skills.  There is further information on this in our section on Design and Formatting 

Final polishing

Make sure you allow enough time for any final proof reading and polishing!

Structures and content

Structures

Cover sheet

Your report will need a cover sheet. Check your assessment criteria to check if a specific cover is provided and what information is required. You may have scope to have a creative design or border.

Title

The title should capture the reader's interest and the verbs should convey the report’s purpose. Try not to be too vague or general.  Compare the following two example headings:

Fast fashion 
r  This is too general.

An investigation into the fast fashion economy – ethical and climate change considerations.
ü  This is better; it is more specific, and it highlights the key themes that will be explored.

Headings

In a report, it is helpful to create headings and sections to clearly lead your reader through your evidence and advice. See the Design and Formatting section for practical help with formatting headings consistently.

Introduction

Explain your report title and use verbs that convey the purpose of your report, for example: ‘analyse’, ‘explore’, ‘investigate’, or ‘examine’. (See Understanding essay questions for more verb examples.) Provide a brief overview of the report's structure and mention the potential outcomes of the report. You could also include how your topic was investigated, and the theoretical approach which was used - perhaps referring to key theories or frameworks which are relevant.

Explore the following example of an introduction to see what it covers:

Main sections

You are in charge of deciding how the report is to be structured. Think of the reader and the sequence of ideas presented: what would best help their understanding? It’s worth noting that the report sections you identify will be linked to your wide reading and research and evidence found.  Your sections should flow and be coherent and be strongly aligned to your report’s purpose. In the main section the headings will link to the themes you identify in answer to the question or title.

Reports usually involve an element of applied thinking, so ensure you address key issues where possible in your conclusions.  Can you offer solutions, highlight considerations which need further research, or suggest possible actions that could contribute to solving problems? Even when considering considerable problems such as climate change, it is possible to suggest some actions or recommendations. Consider the different levels in a ‘system’ from local players to governments.


If we consider our report title above (‘An investigation into the fast fashion economy – ethical and climate change considerations’) we could identify the type of headings that might sit under the topics ‘ethical and climate change considerations’.

The Fast Fashion Industry - Ethical and Climate Change Concerns

  1. 1.00................ Background and context
  2. 1.1.................. Fast fashion ethical issues
  3. 1.2.................. Production locations
  4. 1.3.................. Globalisation and location of production
  5.      1.3.1........... Location drivers
  6.      1.3.2........... Low wage economies
  7.      1.3.3........... Raw materials and low-level environmental controls

The report above would also contain a section on climate change. Possible headings for sub-sections could be:

  1.   Global climate change- local consequences
  2.   River pollution
  3.   Air quality
  4.   Weather impacts and poverty
  5.   Long term outlook for production locations- the scientific evidence

Notice how in this example the numbering is different to the above example. Whichever numbering system you use, do keep it consistent throughout the whole report.

So, create sections structured by theme, and ensure that there’s a logical flow towards your conclusions, presenting all the evidence needed before drawing your argument to a close.

Conclusion

The conclusion should summarise for the reader the take home messages your report has produced, and explain the implications or recommendations. What are the key findings? You might address a particular audience such as government, policy makers, business leaders, or perhaps mention themes which might be addressed by different stakeholders; some problems are so complex it would take a concerted effort from a number of bodies to bring about improvements. If you have mentioned multiple recommendations earlier, you can emphasise urgent priorities in the conclusion.

Optional items

Table of Contents

A table of contents is optional, is especially useful in a long report and enables the reader to find subjects of interest. Check out our Design and Formatting section for advice on how Word can assist in quickly generating a table of contents through the application of styles.

Appendices

Appendices are additional sections are added after the end of the report to provide additional information. For example, you could include statistics, raw data, interview scripts, product information, or part of a competitor’s annual report. Appendices are useful where the information would interrupt the flow if added to the main report; the reader can make sense of the report without the appendices, but the additional information enriches understanding.

The singular term for one additional section is: ‘Appendix’; for more than one: ‘Appendices’.               

Number them sequentially: Appendix 1, Appendix 2, and so on. You can include as many as are needed. In your report refer to each Appendix as follows:

Please see Appendix 1 for further information on WHO’s climate change statement.

This text above might be in brackets within a paragraph where you mention the relevant topic, or you can simply add a brief citation such as (Appendix 1) within your text.

References

As in all academic writing, include references in the text of your report, and produce your reference list at the end. For help, see the Library's Referencing Guide

Language Style

Language style

The language style probably needs to be quite formal; to some extent you are placed in the role of an informed expert; therefore, it would be expected you might have researched ideas, summarised ideas found recent cases, read recent articles and you pull together and interpret with a professional advisory voice. The tone is professional and polite - offering suggestions and offering advice and options. Keep in mind your ideas may be rejected and the reader has options to gauge adopting an informative yet respectful tone.

Communication with the audience.

Consider whether you are writing for the general public or for a particular audience; gauge how expert they may or may not be. Are there key concepts they would understand, or do you need to give full explanations? Are they likely to have particular concerns because of their professional knowledge base?  Imagine the above report on fast fashion written for human rights lawyers, employees, or international human resources managers. The context and emphasis would be different in each case.

First person or third person

Check the assessment criteria and task guidance to determine if you are to write in the third or third person.  Here’s the difference:

First person (subjective view): ‘I, in my opinion...’
Third person (objective view): ‘It could be suggested...’

In some reports you may combine both. For example, if you are writing a report on your personal development, there may be sections where you use the ‘I’ voice. If you are in any doubt, use the third person.

Authoritative and professional tone

Your report’s voice needs to have an authoritative tone; often you will gain distance by writing in the third person:

‘It is clear that European fashion markets…’

If you do use the first person ‘I’ voice to include your experience and the impact this has had on your thinking,  You can add authority  and professional knowledge by linking it to theory or your evidence base:

‘My experience gained in European markets suggests young fashion consumers are willing to retain clothing for longer; this is supported by Denninger and Schwarz (2021) who found 2.5 years was the average length of time consumers hold onto fashion items between the ages of 18-24.’

When you arrive at offering recommendations, suggestions, or solutions, aim for a consultative, professional tone which gives a strong direction, but which enables the reader to accept or reject your solutions.

Click through the examples below to find out more about the differences between telling and advising, using first and third person and use of subtle formal language compared to informal language:

 

An informed, advisory voice can also be quite subtle and measured in delivering ideas that build through your paragraphs into evidence that informs the recommendations.

You can also strengthen the points with adverbs which help communicate your stance:

ostensibly            arguably              admittedly           obviously             regrettably

You might also include more reasoning to back up suggestions in your advisory voice:

‘Whilst customers currently are willing to tolerate outsourced fashion, the tide is turning and according to Shah and Petersen (2022) some consumers are basing purchasing decisions on ethical concerns. Business agility would help companies to future proof their profit base.’

Paragraph structure for voice and criticality.

Even when writing reports, you still need to ensure that your writing is critical. Use a three-stage model such as Point + Evidence + Discussion to structure your paragraphs, allowing you to critique the evidence with your authoritative voice. See more on paragraph structure in our Introduction to Academic Writing Guide.

Signposting for clarity

Use signposting language such as ‘however’, ‘conversely’, ‘to summarise’ or ‘in section 3’ to ensure that readers follow the flow of your argument. See more on signposting in our Introduction to Academic Writing Guide.

Referring to figures and tables

Informative visual content needs to be numbered, and a relevant statement added in your text.

Whilst decorative illustrations, for example on the cover page, may be exempt, other material will be numbered consecutively as either Tables or Figures, starting at Fig. 1, or Table 1 as appropriate.  Note that in software such as Microsoft Word you can use the Insert Caption and Cross Reference features to keep track of the numbering automatically. See Insert a Cross-Reference (using Microsoft Word 2016).

Graph showing percentage of consumers with ethical objections to fast fashion, by age range

Fig 1. Percentage of fashion consumers with ethical objections to fast fashion, by age range.

It’s also good practice to add some commentary. Imagine a non-expert reading the report and offer some interpretation of figures and graphs. Briefly explain what they show and link it to your argument.  For example: here’s some text commentary with the relevant figure and its caption:

Figure 1 indicates that those in younger age ranges have fewer concerns about fast fashion; it is likely they would not be opposed to purchasing fast fashions on ethical grounds.

 

Design and formatting

Design and formatting

Check the criteria

For academic assignments, check the marking criteria before investing too much time in designing and formatting your report.  If elements such as: ‘Effective design and formatting’ are not allocated to assessment criteria, then don’t be too carried away by design aspects.

Make sure that your design doesn’t negatively impact on readability or accessibility. However, a report can seem more authoritative if formatted appropriately, and this may therefore contribute to its overall impact. 

Help with formatting

For quick and easy design implementation, it can be simplest to pick an existing template from software.  For example, when creating a new document in Microsoft Word, you can search for templates for reports. 

Also see Digital Skills | Word for useful courses on formatting documents such as how to:

  • Tidy up the fonts and formats throughout a document
  • Create formatting styles for headings and titles
  • Lay out with columns, page breaks and section breaks
  • Add landscape pages for example to include large tables
  • Add headers, footers and page numbers
  • Create a ‘Table of Contents’ using headings in the style picker

Design examples

In addition, for some inspiration you can view the examples below, and consider aspects such as use of images, fonts, and white space.  See if you can also find some more relevant examples which are similar to the one you intend to create.

Report design - example 1

Report design - example 2

Report design - example 3

Report design - example 4