Writing a report

What is a report?

A report is a well-structured and researched document that informs a specific audience on a particular problem or topic. The purpose of a report is to inform, guide or influence decision making and/or the outcome of a course of action.

Writing reports is common in many workplaces. Thus, you often find this form of writing set as an assessment task at university. It can be either an individual- or team-based assignment.

The purpose and structure of reports can differ between disciplines and audiences. For example, a business report written for a manager will have an introduction which is separate from a literature review, whereas a lab report for your lecturer will often combine the introduction and literature review into one section. What is important is that you pay careful attention to your assessment task instructions and make sure that your key message is clear, well-reasoned and well-supported by relevant research.

Audience and purpose

You need to continually consider the target audience of your report. For example, ask yourself such questions as - are you writing for a client? a healthcare professional? your manager? do you have more than one audience (e.g. an imaginary client and your lecturer)?

The answers to these questions will guide your decisions about how the report is structured, the amount of background information you include, what type of information is required, and how best to present the report, including the level of technical language you use.

Differences between a report and an essay

Reports typically follow a clear structure and have common elements, each with a specific purpose. These features differentiate reports from another common form of writing at university - the essay.

You can learn about the key differences from the table below.

  • Often problem- and action-oriented
  • Based on readings, field work or practical work
  • Responds to a question or a proposition, and usually requires the writer to ‘take a position’ on a contentious topic
  • Is based on credible evidence
  • To investigate, analyse and present information that will inform and influence decision making, or summarise the outcome of a course of action
  • To articulate a well-argued response to a question or proposition
  • Established in the topic and is often a ‘client’ or ‘manager’ or other relevant stakeholder
  • An academic audience
  • Includes an executive summary or abstract or synopsis
  • Comprises sections with headings
  • May use bullet points, tables, graphs to convey information
  • Does not typically include sections or headings
  • Does not typically include the use of bullet points, tables, graphs or other visual information
  • Written in third person or first person
  • Uses direct, formal language
  • Written in short, concise paragraphs
  • Written in third or first person
  • Uses formal language
  • Written in longer paragraphs to fully develop and support one main idea


The target audience will not always read the sections of a report in the order in which they are presented. For example, a reader may firstly read the abstract, then the conclusion, and then the discussion for more details. This is a reading technique often used in critical reading. This is why features like a title page, table of contents, bolded headings, numbering, lettering, and bullet points are important in a report.

Research reports

Some assignment tasks at university involve writing a research report to explain a research project or investigation that you have undertaken. The structure of a typical research report includes the following sections:

Title of the ReportTo clearly indicate the problem or topic addressed in the report.
Abstract/Executive SummaryTo summarise the aim, methods, findings and conclusions (usually in 250 words or less).
Table of ContentsTo act as a guide for easy access to relevant sections and information.
IntroductionTo show what you researched and why.
Literature Review

To provide an overview of current, published knowledge on the topic.

This may be part of the introduction in some disciplines.

MethodologyTo show how you conducted your investigation.
ResultsTo show your findings.
DiscussionTo provide an analysis of the relevance of your findings, e.g. how they contribute to current knowledge.
Conclusion(s)To summarise and outline your main conclusions.

To propose actions that should be taken.

This may be part of the conclusion in some disciplines.

SupplementariesTo provide supporting materials such as your reference list, appendices of raw data, surveys and detailed data processing.

Take it further - approaching discipline-specific reports

Take a look at the following resources for information about reports in your faculty or discipline.