Handbook on Report Formats
An overview of the how, what, and why of organizing different types of reports
How do you select a format and use it?
- Purposes and types of report formats
- Parts of a report
- Specific advice for writing reports
What is format?
- A plan of organization
- A means of structuring material
- A framework for arranging information
Why should you use a format?
- To present your report as clearly and as concisely as possible to one reader or to a variety of audiences
- To signal the type of information being presented
- To enhance the presentation
Before you write a report, you must consider your readers. How you format your report will depend on your readers’ goals and needs. Ask yourself the following:
- Who are my readers? Remember there may be more readers than you expect. For example, a feasibility report for your boss may be given to someone higher up in the company and a research report may be used by another researcher years later.
- Why do they need this report?
- What information do they need to get from this report?
General report format guidelines:
When you write a report, you will want to make it easy to read and understand. Here are some guidelines to apply to any report you write:
- Use lists: Whenever you can, help your reader by using lists. Give your lists visual emphasis by bullets.
- Use headings and subheadings: Use headings and subheadings to guide your reader through the organization of the report and list them in the table of contents. Each section should have a clear topic statement to let the reader know what will be included in the section.
- Use clear typefaces, such as Times New Roman or Arial: Avoid using more than one typeface in a document. Bold section headings for emphasis.
- Use white space to enhance your information: Dense blocks of text are difficult to read and will make it more difficult for your readers to find the information they need. For further information on this topic, see the OWL resource on document design, HATS.
Other guidelines for writing reports:
- Write the body of your report first—before you write the abstract: Most report writers prefer to save the mechanical elements, such as the title page and the table of contents, for the last step.
- Maintain consistent structure: once you determine the structure you will use, keep using it consistently throughout the report. This will make it easier for your readers to understand your report.
- Choose carefully the voice, mood, and tense: These depend on the rhetorical situation. Consider the expectations of your readers and the needs of your readers. For lab reports and long formal reports, most companies and most teachers prefer that you use the third person passive: "A test was run..." NOT "I ran the test..."
Past tense is used for explaining procedures, and present tense is used for generalizations and for stating what the results show.
For memos and letters, most companies prefer the first person active: "I have reviewed the program..." NOT "The program has been reviewed..."
Check out the Purdue YouTube Channel for vidcasts on writing engineering reports.
Purposes and Types of Report Formats
What kinds of reports are written?
- Informal lab reports
- Memo and letter reports
- Formal reports
How is the report organized?
This format should be flexible enough to adjust to your purpose and audience)
- WHAT was done (the problem being worked)
- HOW it was done (the procedures used)
- WHAT the results were
- WHAT conclusions can be drawn
- WHAT recommendations can be made
Where are reports written?
- In academic settings
- In industry and government
More recently, reports and proposals cross the lines between academia, industry, and government, especially in the area of engagement and not-for-profit organizations relying on grants and other types of support.
For whom are reports written? Who are your stakeholders?
- Who know the field
- Who know more than the writer
- Who can give a critical evaluation
For diverse audiences (decision makers: experts and technicians, executives, and laypeople)
- Some are known and some are unknown to the writer
- Some know something about the field, but less than the writer
- Some know very little about the field
Why is the report written?
- To transmit information to teachers: to show that the writer is thoroughly acquainted with the material, the information, and/or the procedures
- Therefore: be thorough and complete; be concise
- To transmit information to decision makers: experts and technicians, executives, and laypeople
- To help them make decisions and act on the results presented
- Therefore: be concise; be thorough and complete
Before you write, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who will read the report?
- In what context will they be reading?
- What do they want to know?
- How should the report be structured?
- What questions will your readers want your communication to answer?
- What additional information do your readers need?
- What information do you need to gather through research?
- There is no universally agreed upon format.
- You should follow the format for your course or your company.
- You may construct your own format. If you do, adapt the suggestions in this module to your needs, your audience, and your situation.
- You can follow the guidelines and examples provided on the OWL to help you.
Informal Lab Reports, Short Memo or Letter Reports
To report on tests and experiments in the lab
In Academic Settings
Short reports are written for teachers who want to evaluate the accuracy and completeness of your work. You may be asked to include some or all of these parts or others not included here:
- Introduction: the purpose, problem, and scope
- Apparatus: the equipment and/or tools used (This section is included only when needed because something beyond the usual apparatus is required.)
- Procedures: the methods (These are described in detail only if asked for or if unusual.)
- Body: the data obtained, discussed and evaluated
- Conclusions and recommendations
In Industry and Government
Short reports are written for readers who need to know the results of your work so that they can make a decision. Include your conclusions and recommendations only if they are specifically asked for. Be as brief as possible, preferably one page or less.
Short Memo or Letter Reports
Use either stationery with the company letterhead or printed forms with standard headings such as to, from, subject, date, and other information that a company may wish to include, for example, reference numbers, names of people who receive carbon copies (cc:), and so on. state the subject clearly and concisely, and put the most important words at the beginning of the subject line in the heading.
State the general problem first to give the reader a context or “big picture.” Then explain the specific question or task arising from that problem that you will be dealing with. Finally, explain why the report is being submitted or what it is intended to do. This brief, but crucially important overview should usually be no longer than two or three sentences.
Findings or results:
Present your findings clearly and concisely, in whatever method is most appropriate (a list, a table, and so on, with adequate explanation). Arrange your results so that the ones most important to the project or the reader are placed first. Present the rest of your results in descending order of importance. Since your findings are usually the major reason for the memo, this section may be the longest part of the report.
Conclusions and recommendations:
Determine and present the most significant implications or recommendations for action. You may need to put this section before the findings, or you may not need to include this section at all unless it is requested. Company policy dictates whether or not this section is included.
- Be brief.
- Use headings and mark your key points so that your readers can survey the contents and can quickly find what they want.
- Place your strongest arguments first when your purpose is to persuade.
Evaluating a short memo report
When evaluating a short memo, the writer should follow a very specific format to keep their document standard. This format includes questions that the writer should ask themselves, the different parts of the memo, headings that should be used as wells as arguments to add. These aspects allow the creation of a short memo to be easy as the formatting will eventually become second nature.
Listed below are the basic questions every report writer should ask himself or herself before writing the report:
- Who will read the report?
- What do they want to know?
- How should the report be structured?
Heading: Lists information such as To, From, Subject, Date, and so on, and states the subject clearly and concisely with the most important words at the beginning of the subject line.
- Is all the relevant information included?
- Is the subject stated clearly and concisely?
- Are the important words first?
Introductory Statement: States the general problem first, then explains the specific question or task being dealt with in the memo, and then explains why the report is being submitted or what it is intended to do.
- Are all three parts of the introductory statement included and stated clearly?
Findings or Results: Presents the findings clearly and concisely with the most important results first. Tables and other information not needed by all readers are, of course, attached separately.
- Are the findings or results clearly indicated and easy to locate on the page?
Conclusions and Recommendations: presents the significant implications and recommendations for action (if—and only if—conclusions and recommendations have been asked for).
- If the report contains conclusions and recommendations, are they clearly presented and easily located on the page?
Format Considerations: Make headings and to mark your key points so that your readers can quickly survey the contents and find what they want.
- Are the headings throughout the report adequate?
- Are key points marked?
- Are your strongest arguments first when writing a persuasive document?
Checklist for Reports
Questions to ask yourself before handing your reports to your readers
- Did you begin by asking yourself: Who will read the report?; What do they want to know?; How should the report be structured?
- Have you planned and prepared the report with the reader in mind?
- Did you follow the format specified in your course or by your company?
- Did you use enough headings and make them in a clear hierarchy?
- Is the important information easy to follow?
- Does the document use the most appropriate typefaces, sizes, styles or alignments?
- Does the document have enough white space?
- Would you be willing to have your competence in your field judged on the basis of how you presented this report?
Informal Lab Report
- Has the introduction explained the problem you worked on and the purpose of your work?
- Did you adequately describe your apparatus and procedures if you were asked to do so or had a reason to do so?
- Does the body clearly indicate the data obtained, and have you discussed and evaluated your data?
- If you were asked to do so, did you include useful, clear conclusions and recommendations?
Short Memo Report
- Does the heading contain all the relevant information such as to, from, date, subject, and so on?
- Is your subject stated clearly and concisely, with the most important words at the beginning of the subject line?
- Does your introductory statement include the general problem (the “big picture”), the specific question or task being dealt with in your memo, a clear explanation of why the report is being submitted or what it is intended to do, and how significant it is to the reader?
- Have you tried to persuade the reader of the reliability of your methods?
- Have you presented your findings or results clearly and concisely with the most important results first?
- Have you put less important matter separately in an attachment or appendix?
- Have you discussed the significance of the results from the reader’s viewpoint?
- If your report is supposed to include your conclusions and recommendations, are they emphasized and stated clearly (e.g. numbered list)?
- Have you suggested some specific steps the reader could take to act on your recommendations?
- Have you used headings to help your reader survey and locate information on the page?
- Have you marked key points?
- If your purpose was to persuade, have you placed your strongest argument first? Is the report as concise as you can possibly make it?
- Is the report organized so that the reader knows: What was done (the problem worked on)?; How it was done (the procedures)?; What results were found?; What conclusions and recommendations can be drawn, if requested?
- Does the body of the report move from general to specific?
- Are the results presented clearly and in the specific way you found out?
- Are there enough headings and subheadings to help readers find their way through the report, and are the headings in a clear hierarchy?
- Are all headings and subheadings listed in the table of contents?
- Is the important information easy to find?
- Does it summarize the main points and include specific results?
- Is it clear and concise?
- Is it self-sufficient? (Can it be read without having to refer to the body of the report?)
- Is there any recommendations you can supply here?
Figures and Tables
- Are the figures located wherever readers would find them easily helpful or persuasive?
- Do all the figures and tables have numbers and captions?
- If the figures and tables are referred to in the text, are page numbers included?
- Are the figures and tables correctly labeled?
- Are the figures and tables explained or interpreted adequately?
- Are the figures and tables listed in the table of contents or in separate lists following the table of contents?
- Do the figures look attractive and easy to read?
- Are all units in the figures and tables clearly indicated?
Sections of Reports
In different companies, in different schools, and in different courses, you will find that different formats are preferred for different kinds of reports. Who your audience is greatly affects how your report should be designed. Thinking about your readers, who they are, what they want to accomplish, and what you want to accomplish will help you determine how to write and format your report to best bring about your purposes.
Thus, the suggestions you will find here are for typical ways to proceed. Before using these suggestions, check first to see if there are specific requirements for your specific situation, and also consider for whom you are writing, their situation, and what you are trying to achieve. It is also important to consider the HATS methodology available on the Purdue OWL in report design: headings, access, typography, and space, which will help the design elements of your document. Also see the OWL resource, Effective Workplace Writing for suggestions on rhetorical strategies.
You will find that it is easier to write the body of your report first (the procedures, results, discussion, and so on). When that’s done, you will be able to write the abstract much more easily. As a final step, what then remains to be done are the mechanical elements, the cover page, table of contents, references, and so on.
Therefore, this section discusses the parts of a report in the order in which you will usually proceed: first, the body; second, the abstract; finally, the mechanical elements. When you assemble the parts, consider putting them in the following standard order, remembering always to adjust to your reader and situation:
- Title or cover page
- Letter of transmittal
- Table of contents
- Lists of figures and tables
- Summary or Background
- Discussion of results
Attachments or Appendices
The Report Body
The body of your report is a detailed discussion of your work for those readers who want to know in some depth and completeness what was done. The body of the report shows what was done, how it was done, what the results were, and what conclusions and recommendations can be drawn.
The introduction states the problem and its significance, states the technical goals of the work, and usually contains background information that the reader needs to know in order to understand the report. Consider, as you begin your introduction, who your reader is and what background knowledge they have. For example, the information needed by someone educated in medicine could be very different from someone working in your own field of engineering.
The introduction might include any or all of the following:
- Problems that gave rise to the investigation
- The purpose of the assignment (what the writer was asked to do)
- History or theory behind the investigation Literature on the subject
- Methods of investigation
While academic reports often include extensive literature reviews, reports written in industry often have the literature review in an appendix.
Summary or Background
This section gives the theory or previous work on which the experimental work is based if that information has not been included in the introduction.
This section describes the major pieces of equipment used and recaps the essential step of what was done. In scholarly articles, a complete account of the procedures is important. However, general readers of technical reports are not interested in a detailed methodology. This is another instance in which it is necessary to think about who will be using your document and tailor it according to their experience, needs, and situation.
A common mistake in reporting procedures is to use the present tense. This use of the present tense results in what is sometimes called “the cookbook approach” because the description sounds like a set of instructions. Avoid this and use the past tense in your “methods/procedures” sections.
This section presents the data or the end product of the study, test, or project and includes tables and/or graphs and a brief interpretation of what the data show. When interpreting your data, be sure to consider your reader, what their situation is and how the data you have collected will pertain to them.
Discussion of results
This section explains what the results show, analyzes uncertainties, notes significant trends, compares results with theory, evaluates limitations or the chance for faulty interpretation, or discusses assumptions. The discussion section sometimes is a very important section of the report, and sometimes it is not appropriate at all, depending on your reader, situation, and purpose.
It is important to remember that when you are discussing the results, you must be specific. Avoid vague statements such as “the results were very promising.”
This section interprets the results and is a product of thinking about the implications of the results. Conclusions are often confused with results. A conclusion is a generalization about the problem that can reasonably be deduced from the results.
Be sure to spend some time thinking carefully about your conclusions. Avoid such obvious statements as “X doesn’t work will under difficult conditions.” Be sure to also consider how your conclusions will be received by your readers, and as well as by your shadow readers—those to whom the report is not addressed, but will still read and be influenced by your report.
The recommendations are the direction or actions that you think must be taken or additional work that is need to expand the knowledge obtained in your report. In this part of your report, it is essential to understand your reader. At this point you are asking the reader to think or do something about the information you have presented. In order to achieve your purposes and have your reader do what you want, consider how they will react to your recommendations and phrase your words in a way to best achieve your purposes.
Conclusions and recommendations do the following:
- They answer the question, “So what?”
- They stress the significance of the work
- They take into account the ways others will be affected by your report
- They offer the only opportunity in your report for you to express your opinions
What are the Differences between Results, Conclusions, and Recommendations?
Assume that you were walking down the street, staring at the treetops, and stepped in a deep puddle while wearing expensive new shoes. What results, conclusions, and recommendations might you draw from this situation?
Some suggested answers:
- Results: The shoes got soaking wet, the leather cracked as it dried, and the soles separated from the tops.
- Conclusions: These shoes were not waterproof and not meant to be worn when walking in water. In addition, the high price of the shoes is not closely linked with durability.
- Recommendations: In the future, the wearer of this type of shoe should watch out for puddles, not just treetops. When buying shoes, the wearer should determine the extent of the shoes’ waterproofing and/or any warranties on durability.
The Report Abstract and Executive Summary
The abstract is a crucial part of your report as it may be the only section read by people at the executive or managerial level who must make decisions based on what they read in your abstract. When you include specific content, it is important to remember these readers are looking for the information they need to make decisions.
The abstract is an overview which provides the reader with the main points and results, though it is not merely a listing of that the report contains. It is a summary of the essence of a report. For this reason, it should be crafted to present the most complete and compelling information possible. It is not a detective story which builds suspense as the reader hunts for clues, and should not be vague or obtuse in its content.
The abstract should include
- Why the work was done (the basic problem), the specific purpose or objective, and the scope of the work if that is relevant. (College lab reports may not require this part of the abstract.)
- How the work was done, the test methods or means of investigation
- What was found-the results, conclusions, and recommendations
The abstract should
- Not make references to material in the text
- Not lose the message by burying the methods, results, conclusions, and recommendations in a sea of words
- Not be written before the rest of the report
Therefore, a good abstract is
Because the abstract is of major importance in a report, a summary of effective qualities of abstracts is offered here.
A well-written abstract
- Considers the readers it will encounter
- States what was done and what results were found
- Is concise
- Avoids vagueness by stating specific results
- Uses past tense to report what was done
- Is informative
- Is self-sufficient and does not refer to the body of the report
- Makes concrete, useful recommendations
Below are two abstracts. The first one, (A), was written by a student for a lab report, and the other one (B) was a revision written by someone with more experience in writing abstracts. Read both versions and try to figure out why the changes were made in B.
We studied the flow characteristics of meters, valves, and pipes that constitute a flow network. The meter coefficients for orifice and venture meters were determined. The orifice and venture coefficients were, on the average, 0.493 and 0.598, respectively. Fanning friction factors for pipes of different sizes and for gate and globe valves were also determined.
The accuracy with which the meter coefficients and friction factors were determined was affected by leaks in the piping network. In addition, air bubbles trapped in the pipes and manometers affected the accuracy with which pressure drops were measured. Hence, it is recommended that the piping system be checked to ensure the absence of any leaks. Furthermore, the fluid should be allowed to flow in the network for some time before taking any measurements, in order to get rid of the air trapped in the pipes and manometer.
In an orifice and a venturimeter in a flow network, we measured the meter coefficients to be 0.5 0.1 and 0.6 0.15. We measured the Fanning friction factors at steady state for several pipes and for gate and globe valves. The most important source of error was a leak in the piping network which has to be repaired in order to obtain more precise results.
The Executive Summary
The government and some companies have begun to request executive summaries at the beginning of a long report. An executive summary is a one-page statement of the problem, the purpose of the communication, and a summary of the results, conclusions, and recommendations. The same considerations of readers and situation should guide your executive summaries.
Mechanical Elements of Reports
The mechanical elements of your report are largely included to make sure your information was useful and accessible as possible for your readers. It is especially important to incorporate the HATS methodology (headings, access, typography, spacing) when designing your mechanical elements, as that will make your documents easier to read, and it will give your documents a professional appearance.
Title or Cover Page
The title or cover page includes the title, the name of the person authorizing the report, the name of the author(s), the name and address of the institution or company issuing the report, and the date.
Letter of transmittal
The letter of transmittal explains why the report was prepared and its purpose, mentions the title and the period of work, and states the results and recommendations. The letter of transmittal may be separate from the report, but it is usually bound into the report immediately before the table of contents.
Evaluating a letter of transmittal
- Does it achieve the purpose of a letter of transmittal?
- Does it offer enough specific information?
- Is it well written?
The acknowledgments section includes material which is irrelevant to the actual report but is required for the record or for acknowledgment purposes. The acknowledgments may include, for example, the names of people who made technical contributions, notices of permission to use copyrighted materials, and so on.
Table of Contents
The table of contents contains a guide to the contents of the whole report. It lists the preliminary pages such as the letter of transmittal and the acknowledgements, and it includes all headings and subheadings used in the report, exactly as they appear in the report.
The table of contents also includes the page numbers for all parts. Use lower case Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, etc.) for all preliminary pages and Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) for all pages in the body of the report, starting with page 1 for the introduction of the body.
Lists of Tables and Figures
In some situations, especially if the report contains only a few figures and tables, all of the figures and tables, with their complete titles, are listed in the table of contents. In that format, tables and figures are listed separately even though they are mixed together in the report.
In most situations, tables and figures are listed on separate pages, with the figures and their complete titles listed on one page and the tables and their complete titles listed on a separate page. If you follow this format, list the headings for each page in the table of contents.
Graphics are all the tables and figures used in a report as visual aids for the reader. They are useful, important parts of a report and must be accurate. They should also be clear so the reader can interpret them easily. Tables are all lists of data presented in rows and columns. Place the numbers and titles above the tables. Figures are any other visual presentations. Place the numbers and titles below the figures.
When tables or figures are discussed in the text, cite their numbers and the pages on which they appear. Either number them consecutively through the report or number them according to the section in which they appear (2.1, 2.2, 2.3, etc.). Put all units in the tables, and don’t make the tables too long. If necessary, break them up into several short tabulations. This will help your tables be more visually appealing and will encourage your readers to look at them.
Types of illustrations:
- Line graphs—for representing continuous processes
- Bar graphs—for representing absolutes
- Pie graphs—for showing percentages
- Flow charts—for illustrating stages in a process
- Schematics—the same as flow charts, but usually used for illustrating more abstract concepts
References are used to cite your sources and give credit to the written work of others that you have read and used. When you refer to these published works in the text of your report, you can choose one of several formats. See the following handouts on the Purdue OWL for more information on references.
Attachments or Appendices
An appendix is a storage warehouse, the place to put material that needs to be included in the report, but is not essential. Putting material (such as raw data, processed data, analytical procedures, details of equipment, etc.) at the end keeps the report from being buried in a mass of detail, but keeps all that detail available if needed by any of your various readers. Each appendix is numbered or lettered consecutively and given a title.