When you get your first assignment to write a report, it’s not uncommon to wonder how to stand out from the crowd! Unlike articles or blogs, the informative, formal nature of reports can make them feel stiff and boring. And whether you want a top grade or to make an impact on your audience, another dull report probably won’t help.
In my career in positive impact organizations across the finance and education sectors, I’ve written a range of reports for both internal and external audiences—and regularly read reports from industry leaders, too. Top reports are informative and educational, summarizing key information quickly so it’s easy to digest. But the best examples also use high-quality research and concise but compelling language to bring the subject matter to life.
In this article, I’ll focus on general thematic reports, the kind you may be asked to write at college or work. I’ll give you the lowdown on how to write an effective report that still packs in the facts.
Types of reports
The term “report” comprises a wide genre of documents. If you’re used to other kinds of academic writing, it will help to understand the key qualities that reports share.
What sets reports apart
Reports are similar to other kinds of academic writing in many ways: you’ll still need strong research in the background, clear citations, and a formal language style, for example.
But several details set reports apart from other forms. Reports:
- Stick to the facts rather than veering into personal opinion or argument
- Save interpretation and recommendations for the end of the piece
- Use clear organizational techniques like bullet points, heading and subheadings, and charts or graphics
- Use concise, clear language that can be easily skimmed
Common types of reports
Reports are used in a wide range of contexts, so make sure you’re writing the right kind of report for your purposes. Here’s an overview of some common types.
Before you set pen to paper, it’s important to do your research and plan your report carefully. Giving yourself plenty of time for this stage will make the actual writing quicker and less rambling.
1. Define the audience and purpose of the report
If you haven’t already been given a purpose for the report, be sure to define this before you begin. This can help you decide on the type of research you need to do and check if your report is fulfilling its goals while you draft.
Examples of common report aims:
- To demonstrate your understanding of an academic topic or text
- To improve understanding of the work your department is doing, so other departments in the same organization can build on your success
- To raise awareness of a particular problem that your organization can solve
On top of this, ask yourself who your audience is and what is their level of prior knowledge relative to yours. Within a hierarchy, such as a company or school, the audience may be more senior than you (vertical reporting), or at the same level as you (lateral reporting). This can affect what information is relevant to include.
Additionally, note whether it’s an internal or external publication and what your audience might do with the information they learn from your report.
2. Establish goals and objectives
If you are writing your report for school or university, check the assessment guidelines for the report before you begin. You’ll need to include all the required elements.
If you are writing for professional purposes, however, the goals and objectives may be up to you or your department to define. An objective for your report should ideally be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound).
For example, a lead-generating report can be used for the aim of securing meetings with interested buyers by highlighting a problem that your company can solve, and the impact of your report can be measured by the number of downloads and subsequent meetings within a certain time period.
An internal report could be used to inform a strategy meeting, and the impact could be measured in how many strategic recommendations are made as a result.
3. Research and gather information
A report needs to be based on factual evidence, so the research stage is absolutely key to producing an informative piece. Firstly, you should review the major literature on the topic to make sure you can define and explain key terms and set out any needed context.
For academic reports, your professor or institution may be able to provide a recommended reading list. Use your college library and make sure you find out which academic journals your institution subscribes to. You can often access these online using sites like JSTOR and Google Scholar.
You may also want to include primary sources to add originality to your report and make it more appealing to your audience. These could include:
- Original research such as interviews
- Statistics you’ve compiled
- Details of experiments, tests, or observations you’ve made
It’s really helpful to keep organized notes during your research. Note any key quotations with page numbers, plus publication and author details for each text you reference or read. This will make it much easier to create your citations and bibliography later on.
You could do this on paper or using flexible software like Notion or Evernote or specialist software like Mendeley or Zotero.
4. Outline your report structure
Creating an outline before you begin writing is key to successfully drafting a report.
Start by noting down a skeleton framework, i.e. the main points you want to cover, which you will then develop as you write. In some cases, if you’re clear on what you might include in your report, this step might come before you start researching; alternatively, your main points might change during your research phase.
Although the exact layout of your report will depend on your objectives, a report should include the following sections:
- Title page
- Table of contents
- Summary of context
- Summary of your main topic or text
Additional sections that you may want to include, depending on context:
- An abstract — used in academic contexts.
- A summary of your findings — useful if you include your own original research (such as interviews or statistics)
- Recommendations for further action or research
How to draft a report
Your first draft is your chance to develop the ideas you noted down during outlining. You might need to continue researching as you go, especially if you find that certain areas need more evidence or explanation.
Write your title and abstract
The title of your report should clearly and concisely state what it is about. Your audience may need to quickly select it from a list of other publications, so make sure to use keywords to make your work easy to identify. Remember that this is also your audience’s first impression of your writing!
You may also need to create an abstract for your work: a short summary of your research and findings, giving a quick statement about the problem and/or potential solution, a concise explanation of what you did to investigate it, and your findings in brief. You will probably want to write your abstract after finishing the rest of the report.
Create a table of contents
The table of contents should direct readers to each section of the report with page numbers. You may want to include hyperlinks to relevant sections if you are presenting your document electronically.
Prepare your sections
Developing each section in full will form the bulk of your drafting work. Make sure each section is adding value to your report.
Balance analysis with facts
Report writing should be factual. There will be times when you need to draw conclusions and make recommendations. However, this analysis should not overwhelm the factual content of your report. Remember, this is not a persuasive opinion piece. Make sure your analysis is grounded in evidence, and keep your recommendations concise.
Use clear language
A report should clearly inform the audience about the topic at hand. Keep your language precise and easy to understand. Keep sentences and paragraphs at a sensible length. If you use technical terms your audience might not know, include definitions. Try to avoid emotive language that can make the report sound like a persuasive essay.
Sometimes it can be difficult to achieve all this while writing the first draft, so feel free to come back to improve on it in later drafts.
Use visuals to keep it interesting
Many reports use visuals like graphs, charts, photographs, or infographics. These can convey information quickly and engage your audience by breaking up the text.
Simple graphs and charts can usually be made in spreadsheet software, but you may want to call on the skills of a graphic designer if your organization has the resources. Make sure to caption and number your graphics.
Cite your sources
Your institution or organization may stipulate a citation model, so double-check what is required before you begin. In general, quotations or anything else taken from another source should be properly cited, including the author’s name, title, and page number, plus other information, depending on format. Citations may be in-text or footnotes.
It’s a good idea to add citations as you write, because going back and putting them in afterwards can be very fiddly and time-consuming.
At the end of your report you will also need to provide a bibliography, which lists the texts you have cited. Citation software like Zotero or a bibliography generator like MyBib can make this easier.
Follow an appropriate format
Make sure to check the style guidelines provided by your academic institution or work organization. These might determine the page formatting you need to use (e.g. page numbering, page size, use of images, etc.). If no such guidelines exist, look at other reports from your field to determine what will be clear and useful for your audience.
Review and revise
Reviewing and revising your work is one of the most important parts of the writing process, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time for this part and avoid rushing to meet a deadline. Review your content first, checking that each section has enough evidence and development, before moving on to editing for clarity and technical accuracy.
Using a reading and writing assistant like Wordtune can make editing at the phrase, sentence, or word level quicker and easier. Wordtune not only finds spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors, but it can also suggest changes to your vocabulary and sentence structure that make your work clearer and more compelling. You can even specify whether you want a more formal or casual tone — most reports should be formal in nature.
Whether your report is for academic or business purposes, you need to make sure it is well-researched, clearly expressed, and conveys the main points quickly and concisely to your audience. Careful planning and organization can make this process much easier, as well as leaving time to review and revise your work, either manually or with the help of software like Wordtune. Following these tips, your first report is sure to make an impact — and the more you write, the easier it will get.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.