Merriam-Websterdefines a report as, “an usually detailed account or statement,” “an account or statement of a judicial opinion or decision,” or “a usually formal record of the proceedings of a meeting or session.” The instructions for writing a report differ, depending on the type of detailed account you need to create. In school, when a teacher assigns a report, he or she generally means that students should write a research report or a book report. As you can imagine, the formatting for a book report doesn’t have much in common with the requirements for an annual financial report or a law report in the professional world.
To understand how to write a report about a specific topic, you’ll need to ask some important questions:
What type of report am I writing?
What subsections does this report need to include?
Who is the intended audience for my report?
Answer these questions during the prewriting phase, and you’ll be much more likely to write a successful report.
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In order to better answer the first question on the list, you should familiarize yourself with some different reporting formats. We’ve included a number of popular categories below, but there are many other types of reports in existence. For example, under the umbrella of business reports, industries and specialties have unique reporting conventions. A social media report looks different than an annual financial report, even though both could be considered subcategories of business reporting.
A book report is similar to a book review, except that it normally contains an objective summary of a book rather than an evaluation of the book’s merits. Also, book reviews tend to cover new book releases, whereas book reports can describe older books and classics. Purdue University’s Online Writing Labexplains, “Most often, book reports are a K-12 assignment and range from 250 to 500 words.” When a K-12 teacher assigns a book report, he or she often asks for specific formatting. For instance, the teacher might request that students include a title page and a five paragraph report, written with Times New Roman font. In most cases, you can ask a teacher for clarification on the instructions before handing in an assignment.
Business reports refer to a wide range of documents, usually reflecting the outcome of a particular business initiative. A report can focus on financial outcomes, marketing outcomes, production outcomes, or any other aspect of the business. Unlike a proposal, which suggests a new initiative or course of action, a report typically updates the audience on a completed project or an ongoing initiative. Reports vary in scope, depending on the timeline and topics covered. As an example, a quarterly report on company-wide sales would likely be longer and more extensive than a daily report on digital sales, which only account for one vertical within the company.
In school, from middle school to the postgraduate level, teachers frequently assign research reports about topics ranging from psychology to history. The requirements for such reports vary, depending on the intended audience. Many teachers have unique requirements, such as a preferred stylebook or word count, that they explain to students when communicating the assignment.
Outside of the academic environment, professionals write research reports for publication in academic journals. For example, a scientific research report may compile data from empirical scientific studies, questionnaires, government data, and other sources. A research report typically summarizes and evaluates existing information to further understanding of a particular topic. Research reports normally do not introduce new findings; instead, they analyze the existing body of knowledge for new insights. Most academic journals have formatting requirements for publication, and they outline these specifications on their websites.
Unlike a research report, a scientific report is a broad term that may also include the presentation of new empirical research and case studies. Scientific reports often involve the collection and analysis of primary data, which is gathered through field work or direct observation. Although there can be overlap between scientific reports and research reports, many scientific reports focus primarily on presenting new scientific findings. Scientific journals and magazines provide formatting instructions and have very specific processes for peer review.
Meeting reports, also called meeting notes or meeting minutes, summarize the important information from a meeting or government session. Although many templates and style guides for meeting reports exist, they all serve the same purpose. These reports record the essential data—date, time, attendees, decisions made, topics covered, projects assigned, etc.—for posterity. One of the most popular meeting guidebooks is Robert’s Rules of Order, which provides detailed recommendations for formatting meeting minutes.
Government agencies, academics, and politicians can all publish policy reports. These reports, also called policy briefs, cover topics related to the public good, such as public health, environmental science, education, and social work. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Writing Centernotes, “A policy brief presents a concise summary of information that can help readers understand, and likely make decisions about, government policies.” The same article goes on to say that, “Policy briefs may give objective summaries of relevant research, suggest possible policy options, or go even further and argue for particular courses of action.” A politician should be able to rely on a policy report to provide easy-to-digest background information about a topic, allowing him or her to make more informed decisions. Compared to other types of reports, policy reports often contain a larger number of short sections.
Law reports refer to particular types of documents used in common law legal systems throughout the world. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a law report as a “published record of a judicial decision that is cited by lawyers and judges for their use as precedent in subsequent cases.” The report contains important pieces of information, including the title of the case, facts about the case, and a summary of its history in the courts.
Sections in a Report
Many reports contain a title page and a table of contents page. Within the main body of the report, you’ll often find labeled subsections. A few common subheadings include:
Scope of Problem or Background
Discussion of results
Most reports conclude with a reference list or works cited page referencing all of the materials quoted or paraphrased in the work. You may also want to include an acknowledgements section as part of your report.
As for other formatting requirements, keep your intended audience in mind. Some reports, especially those geared towards sales or persuasion, commonly feature slick graphics. Other reports, designed for an academic audience, may be more text-heavy. Longer, printed reports should always be marked with page numbers to avoid confusion.
Good report writing almost always follows the general rules of academic writing. The author should use the third person perspective, writing with an active voice in plain English. The goal of your writing should be to communicate information in an effective and straightforward manner. To this end, careful proofreading will give you the best chance of crafting a clear report.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.