Report writing

Of course there is no right or wrong way to write a report, and your report should be written in your own style. However it is useful to consider some points when planning, and actually writing a report.

Remember that when you are assessed on a project, the assessor will learn everything from the report. He/she will only get their information, and their impressions from what you write. You can have an excellent project that receives a poor mark because the report was not written well. On the other hand, a very well written report can get you more marks than you might deserve.

Always try and think, as you write your report, what the reader will be thinking at this point - how to keep him interested, and how best to describe your work to him in a clear manner. When you write a report, you are bringing the reader along a path, from a starting position where he knows almost nothing, to an end position where he should understand your whole project, and where your contributions to the work should be clearly fixed in his mind.

  1. Plan the report

    Reports usually consist of introduction, middle and conclusion. Don't think that everyone will read it in this order though. Many people start with the introduction, then read the conclusion and then read the middle. Some people start with the conclusion!

    So it is very important that the introduction and the conclusion are written together. When you introduce your project and write its aims and objectives in the introduction, make sure that the conclusion matches these (i.e. You did what you planned to do).

  2. The size of a chapter

    Length is also important. The conclusion should be short and factual, the introduction should not assume too much prior knowledge but should 'set the scene' for the project (what is the reason for this project, how will it help the world?).

    In the middle chapters, you usually write one chapter on work done by other authors (from a literature survey that was supposed to happen at the beginning of the project - but often only starts properly when you write the report).

    Another chapter (or chapters) is dedicated to the work that you did. This chapter is very important. It should be short and concise and should not be diluted by describing other peoples work. You should always focus on what you did, so the reader finishes that chapter thinking "yes you did a lot of work here".

  3. Writing style

    When you write a formal report, you should not personalise your work (but it's usually acceptable for informal reports or progress reports). You should write "a suggested scheme would be to .....", instead of "I decided to ....." or "We decided to .....". Similarly, you would refer to this as "the new technique ...." instead of "my technique ....".

    Short sentences are good when you describe your own work (as these deliver more weight to the reader). Slightly longer sentences can be used when discussing the literature survey because these help to show that you understand more.

    Avoid long sentences, and avoid long paragraphs.

    Always ask yourself "do I really need this sentence here - does it add anything useful to the report?" If not, then remove it.

  4. Formatting

    Try and leave white space between headings and text, and between diagrams and text. A reader confronted by a page full of writing will be bored even before he starts. Try and think of places where a diagram would make the text easier to understand ('a picture is worth a thousand words').

    Don't make diagrams too big, and ensure that they are balanced (as symmetrical as possible). To make diagrams look better, make use of the 'golden ratio'. This is the value 1.62 (the ratio of one Fibonnachi number to the next, where the Fibonnachi series is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 ....). So make the diagram 1.62 times as wide as it is high.

    If you use Word - do not use the microsoft drawing package because this severely reduces the quality of a report (you can always tell when this has been used - lines don't meet, they aren't straight and text is not centred correctly). Use something better, that won't spoil all your hard work.

  5. References

    At the end of the report you usually have a reference list. This should be long, it shouldn't contain too many books - papers are usually better. There are 3 main methods of referencing (citing) other authors:

    [1], [2], [3]: the reference list is arranged in the order in which you refer to them. There is a problem if you want to add a reference as all the numbers will change.

    [15], [1], [27]: the reference list is arranged in alphabetical order. There is also a possible problem if you add a reference, but searching through the list becomes easier for you or a reader.

    [Jones, 1995]: the 'Harvard' system, where the references are arranged alphabetically but you just refer to the principle author and the year of the publication. If he published more than once in that year, you use an A, B, C etc.. as in [Jones, 1995A]. If you add another reference, there is no problem. An added advantage is that this style can make your report longer.

    Which style you use depends on your preference and on the word processor you use. A good word processor will handle all 3 systems for you, and will reorder all the references automatically, if necessary, when you add a new one.

    Many reviewers will look at the length and the scope of the references you have included. You must never forget to list an author whose work you have used. This is automatically called plagiarism and you will be in serious trouble.

  6. Referencing

    When you refer to a paper in your list of references, use a consistent format, such as:

    Jones A, Giles B, "A stochastic computer mouse cleaner", Journal of Mice, vol. 2, no. 23, pp. 15-27, 1994

    When you refer to a conference paper, use the form:

    Jones A, Giles B, "A novel mouse rejuvenator", 1st Int. Conf. Mice, Toronto, vol. 3, pp. 23-31, March 1993

    When you refer to a book use the form:

    Jones A, A book on mouse technology, Prentice Hall Pte. Ltd., 9th edition, 1998.

    When you refer to a figure in your report, use "fig.1" instead of "figure 1". Refer to tables as "table 2", and equations as "eqn. 4". Equations should be numbered with a right justified number in round brackets like;


    The numbers can be sequential through the document, or can be [chapter number].[no. of equation in this chapter] as in eqn.6.1 being the first equation in chapter 6. Make sure that the number font and style are consistent.

  7. Style

    Write down on a piece of paper the styles you want to use in the report., such as;

    Chapter heading: sassoon.primary, 16 point, bold, underlined

    heading style: [chapter number][tab][heading text]

    Section heading: homerton.medium, 14 point, bold

    heading style: {chapter number].[section number][tab][heading text]

    other important styles include;

    Figure caption: arial.medium.italic, 10 point, centred

    Table headings, table cell text, table cell alognment.

    Again, if you have a good word processor, this can all be taken care of automatically, but check it anyway.

    Choose either half or full justification, and use it consistently. If you use Word, you might need to correct some places where it gets full justification wrong (check the ends of paragraphs, and sentences with many long words).

    If you have text in your diagrams, do not scale the diagrams otherwise the text in different diagrams will be different sizes - redraw the diagram instead.

  8. Word processor

    If your word processor is from the USA, set your spelling checker to English instead of American English, and don't believe that the spell checker is always right. Check that if you really wanted to type "RLaB" it didn't change it to "RlaB" through auto-formatting.

    Don't believe grammar checkers are always correct. If you want to write a story, they might be, but they just don't work properly for technical reports.

To conclude, your report is probably the single most important part of your project. For someone with a technical degree, report-writing skills are very important in the workplace, so start now to develop those skills. They will help you throughout your career.

© Dr Ian McLoughlin, 1998