Writing a report
The purpose of report writing
What is a report, and how is it relevant to you?
The term 'report' is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of documentation that has specific purposes. Some common types of reports and their specific purposes are:
- Proposal: This type of report usually suggests a project or an initiative, and thus typically outlines background, details, expected outcomes of and recommendations or a plan for the proposed project/initiative.
- Lab/analysis report: This type of report usually discusses the results from an experiment or an analysis, and thus typically outlines how the experiment/analysis was conducted as well as its results and a discussion of their implications.
- Progress report: This type of report typically provides a summary of progress of a project or initiative, and thus usually includes a description of the original plan, progress to date and plans for completion.
- Technical report: This type of report usually describes the specific technical features of a product (such as software) for potential users, and thus typically includes contexts, purposes, requirements and descriptions of the features/product.
As an FIT student, you may be asked to produce a report as part of your assessment tasks. A report is a common form of documentation, used not only at university but also in industry and research communities.
How is a report different to an essay?
Generally, essays present a position on a topic and defend that position with an argument. Essays usually contain an uninterrupted flow of prose. Reports, on the other hand, provide a discussion of a project, an experiment or analysis, or technical features of a product. Reports are structured into a series of sections, with each section having a particular purpose and incorporating headings and subheadings.
Understanding the context and purpose of the report
Understanding your readership will provide a focus for considering what kind of information you should include in your report. In other words, you need to understand the reader's expectations (i.e. what they need to know) in order to produce an effective report. If your report has been set as an assignment, you can usually assume your tutor/lecturer/demonstrator to be the reader unless otherwise specified.
A report as storytelling: content of your report
Once you understand what the reader expects to find in your report, you can then start planning how to present the information. There is a common structure used in reports (see below), but first it is important for you to understand what kind of story you are going to tell.
Many ineffective reports tend to look as though they are merely a juxtaposition of information, without the information being linked, or presented as a coherent narrative. You may decide to present the information in a sequential manner, for example, when you are describing a process. Or you might decide to present the information in a more descriptive manner if you are describing a program you wrote. Such decisions will affect the way in which you structure the report.
How can you tell the story?: context of your report
Another point to consider is the amount of contextual information the reader requires to make sense of the content of your report. For example, if you are preparing a formal business report, it would be useful to outline the context and audience of the report. You would not, however, include the same information if you are to write a 1,000 word report on descriptive statistics using Excel, because your reader (i.e. the tutor) already understands the context of the report very well.
The type and amount of information you will include thus varies depending on what you are documenting. For this reason, it is a little risky to simply use a template available on the Internet (or elsewhere), though it may give you an initial idea on how to structure your report.
Planning and the structure of your report
It is always a good idea to plan before you start writing. You should understand:
- the context and purpose of the report
- the basic story to be told in your report
- what kind of information you need to include in your report.
Once you have these, you can start creating a table of contents, which you can further expand to produce a report. It is important to understand what you are writing before you start writing, and this process will help you achieve that.
The type of information you include in your report will vary depending on its purpose. For this reason, it is important to explain to the reader:
- what you are trying to do in your report (i.e. the purpose of the report)
- how you will tell the story (i.e. the structure of the report).
This can be done at the beginning of the report, often as part of the Introduction.
It is also worthwhile concluding your report by responding to the above points, namely by reiterating the way you told the story (i.e. summarising the report), and articulating the main point/outcomes/findings. This can be done at the end of the report, often as part of the Conclusion.
Styles and language
Sections and headings
Sections will give the reader both visual and logical signposts in reading your report, and good section headings will themselves communicate to the reader what the report is about and how the story is being told. Note the accuracy and precision of wording used in your section headings. They do not always need to describe what the section is about; often it is more useful to indicate how the section relates to the report as a whole (e.g. Introduction, Discussion).
Finally, it is important to be aware of the hierarchy of sections (and subsections if used) within the document. Use a consistent style throughout the document to highlight the order of information and its level within the document, so that your report is both logically and visually well-structured. You may like to familiarise yourself with various style options in the word processing software you use.
Paragraphs and dot-points
Your writing should not only convince your reader logically but also visually, and paragraphs are a useful tool to achieve this. Each paragraph should carry a single complete argument/idea, so that the reader can see the paragraphs as a series of ideas linked together. Avoid paragraphs that consist of only one sentence, or paragraphs that are too long. They are likely to contain either too little or too much information.
You may also use lists of dot-points in your report if you consider this appropriate, but you also need to explain in writing what the list is about. You also need to be consistent in your writing. This applies to the use of paragraphs and dot-points, as well as how you introduce dot-points and how you word them (e.g. whether as a phrase or sentences).
It is also worthwhile noting that some readers prefer either dot-points or paragraphs. This is usually a matter of preference, not a rule, but you may like to consult your assignment instructions or your tutor for further clarification.
Language and your originality
A formal and precise style of writing is required in your report. In IT, it is also important to be mindful of the use of technical terms, as you are often asked to demonstrate your ability to communicate your technical knowledge.
It is important to distinguish in your report between the facts, your observations and your interpretations/inferences as this clarifies your original contribution. There are some resources available on this topic.
Overall design and format
The context and purpose of the report will influence how elaborate the overall design should be. A full formal report submitted in a business context often comes with a visually appealing cover page, a table of contents, lists of tables and figures, an abstract/executive summary, and acknowledgements, and such a report often also contains an extensive list of appendices and glossary of terms.
However, in many university assignments, you are not asked to produce such a substantial report. If you require further clarification on what you should include in your report, consult your assignment instructions and/or your tutor.
Even though you may only need to submit a report with a very plain format, be mindful that you will still need to include some basic information to maintain the integrity of your report as a document. You would still add, for example, the author's name, submission date, a descriptive title, and any other information that your reader might appreciate in reading your report.
As noted above, many word processing programs offer style and formatting templates, which helps you manage visual consistency within the document. You might take some time first to learn how to use them, but it will save time in long term.
Figures and tables
Figures and tables are useful additions to your report only if they are relevant. You need to describe and discuss the figures and tables in writing. Figures and tables should supplement, not complement, your writing. There are many formats suggested for incorporating figures and tables as part of a report. Consult the assignment instructions for details. If these are not specified, the following guidelines may be useful.
Citing and referencing
You need to cite and reference any sources used in writing your report.
Language and Learning Online: Writing an IT report
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