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We interviewed academics who regularly set and mark reports and asked what they felt were the most common problems in poor reports. They said:
So how can you make sure your report does what it’s meant to do, and does it well? Below are some tips for writing better reports.
A frequent complaint of markers is that the report ‘does not answer the brief’. The brief for a report is what you have been asked to investigate and who it is for. Both of these variables will affect what you need to do and the way you report your findings. Check that what you are doing is relevant both when you are planning how to conduct your research and when you write it up.
The most important thing you can do is read the brief (or the title of your assignment or your research question) carefully. Then read it again even more carefully! If you’re still not completely clear about what to do, don’t guess. Discuss it with your tutor or someone else who can help. A Study Adviser or postgraduate student in your department are probably better than a friend.
For example, you may have been asked to investigate the rat population on your campus. Consider how your investigation might differ if you were writing the report for:
Reports for different disciplines and briefs will require different sections: for instance, a business report may need a separate Recommendations section but no Methods section. Check your brief carefully to make sure you have the correct sections and be clear about which piece of information goes in which section.
Reports tell the reader what was done, what was discovered as a consequence and how this relates to the reasons the report was undertaken. Include only relevant material in your background and discussion.
A report is an act of communication between you and your reader. So pay special attention to who your projected reader is and what they want from the report. Sometimes you will be asked to write for an imaginary reader (e.g. a business client). In this case it’s vital to think about why they want the report to be produced (e.g. to decide on the viability of a project) and to make sure you respond to that. If it’s your tutor, they will want to know that you can communicate the processes and results of your research clearly and accurately, and can discuss your findings in the context of the overall purpose.
Keep your expression clear and simple. If the purpose of a report is to inform, it won’t be achieving that purpose if the reader is confused by complicated phrases and jargon. Your method and findings, for instance, should be described accurately and in non-ambiguous terms so that it is possible for someone else to replicate your research process and achieve the same results.
This is the bit that pulls the whole piece together by showing how your findings relate to the purpose of the report and to any previous research. So read your introduction and literature survey over again and make sure that all the issues raised there are referred to and linked up with your own research in your discussion. This is also a good place to reflect on the methods you chose to use – if something didn’t go as planned, discuss why this happened, any changes you had to make and what you might do differently another time.
Every idea, diagram and piece of information you use that comes from someone else’s work must be acknowledged with a reference. Check your brief or department handbook for the form of referencing required (usually a short reference in the body of the text and a full reference in the Reference List or Bibliography at the end).
See the LearnHigher pages on referencing for more advice.
The word count and submission date will help you to work out the scope of the report. A 5000 word report will be expected to include a lot more background and discussion than a 1000 word report which will be looking for more conciseness in the way you convey your information. Likewise, a piece of work completed over a term is expected to have more depth than one completed in two weeks. It won’t help if you’re trying to achieve more than is possible within the limits set.
Make sure you allow enough time to write up your work properly. If you find that your research is taking longer than you expected, remember that you can get a first draft of some of your sections (like the method) written up before you’ve finished your research – it’s always quicker to amend than to write from scratch. It may help to set your own deadline earlier than the handing-in date.
More advice from LearnHigher on managing your time.
When it feels like you’ve been working on a project forever, it’s tempting to hand it in the minute the last word is written. But it’s easy to overlook small mistakes that could lose you marks.
Read aloud. (Lock yourself in the bathroom if necessary.) We all skip words when we read silently, and even more so when it’s your own work and you think you know what you’ve written. Reading aloud forces you to pay attention to each word. If you pay attention to the pauses and stops created by punctuation as you’re reading, you’ll also be able to see if your sentences need breaking up or if there are fragments that need revising.
Use the spell checker and grammar checker. But look at each proposed change individually before agreeing. Electronic spell checkers aren’t terribly clever. They don’t know, for instance, that when you accidentally type ‘definantly’, you meant to type ‘definitely’ and not ‘defiantly’. When using the grammar checker, right-click on the marked phrase, click on ‘Grammar’ and then ‘Explain’. This will explain why the checker has picked up a particular phrase so you can decide whether you need to change it.
Give yourself some distance. If possible, leave a day between finishing your writing and your final proof reading. Then print off your work – it’s always easier to read on paper than on screen and you won’t be so tempted to do major rewrites at the last minute.
Research on how managers read reports discovered that they were most likely to read in this order:
This is not to suggest that you should spend less time on writing up your discussion or your findings but it does show that the sections you may think of as less important (like the abstract or introduction) are actually often the places a reader gets their first impressions. So it’s worth getting them right.
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