Report writingAn overview and comparison

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There are many forms of writing which you may have to undertake at university, from reflective journals to extended researched assignments. The two most common forms of writing are reports and essays. This page describes what a report is, outlines the main types of report you may need to write, and summarises the differences between reports and essays.


What is a report?

A report is a clearly structured form of writing which presents and analyses information clearly and briefly for a particular audience. The information is usually the result of an experiment, investigation, or some other form of primary research such as a questionnaire or survey. It will contain headings and sub-headings, as well as graphics such as graphs, charts and tables. Reports often use the information they contain to present recommendations for future action. They are common not only at university, but also in industry and government. For more information on what a report is, see the section below which compares reports to essays.

Types of report

There are many different types of reports which can be written, though the type you will write at university depends very much on your course of study. Each report will have a different format and writing conventions, though the structure and language used are broadly similar for all reports. Some of the main reports written at university are:

  • laboratory report - this type of report explains and analyses the results of an experiment; may also be called lab report, experimental report, or science report;
  • business report - this analyses a situation and uses business theory to provide solutions or recommendations; includes many types, e.g. market research report, marketing report, and financial report;
  • case study report - this examines a real-world situation (the 'case') and analyses it using appropriate theory (the 'study');
  • project report - this reports on project work which has been conducted;
  • research report - this gives the results of research which has been conducted, for example through surveys (via questionnaires or interviews);
  • progress report - this informs a supervisor about progress on a project over a certain period of time;
  • design report - this report describes and evaluates a design used to solve a particular problem;
  • field report - this combines theory and practice by describing an observed person, place or event and analysing the observation.

Other types of report are possible, such as a systems analysis report, a maths report, a feasibility study and a client case work report. Some disciplines, especially business, may require you to write an essay with headings. This is not a report, since all the other features, aside from the headings, are the same as a conventional essay.

Reports vs. essays

Although many of the writing skills required for essays also apply to reports, such as use of topic sentences, cohesion and citations, reports are quite unlike essays in several regards. The table below summarises the main differences. These are divided into three categories: general areas, structure, and content.


General: Purpose

Report: Provides specific information (description and explanation) to the reader

Essay: Presents an argument

General: Readability

Report: Allows information to be found quickly in specific sections (and the abstract)

Essay: Requires careful reading to follow the argument

General: Writing skills

Report: Demonstrates research skills and ability to analyse information

Essay: Demonstrates ability to support an argument (thesis) through knowledge and understanding of the topic

General: Length

Report: Will always be a long assignment

Essay: May be relatively short (e.g. for an exam answer) or a long assignment

Structure: Sections

Report: Has clearly defined sections, each with a different function

Essay: Uses well ordered paragraphs, not sections

Structure: Headings

Report: Uses headings and sub-headings for the different sections (often numbered)

Essay: Does not usually use headings, sub-headings or numbering

Structure: Contents page

Report: Will often include a Contents page to show the sections of the report

Essay: Will not usually include a Contents page

Content: Graphics

Report: Usually uses graphics such as tables, graphs, chart

Essay: Does not usually include graphics

Content: Research

Report: Usually includes primary research (e.g. experiment, survey) in addition to secondary research

Essay: Generally only includes secondary research (e.g. citations from text books/journals)

Content: Recommend-ations

Report: Often has recommendations

Essay: Only certain essay types (e.g. discussion) include recommendations

Content: Appendices

Report: May include appendices with additional information

Essay: Unlikely to include appendices

    Report

Essay

General Purpose
  • Provides specific information (description and explanation) to the reader
  • Presents an argument
Readability
  • Allows information to be found quickly in specific sections (and the abstract)
  • Requires careful reading to follow the argument
Writing skills
  • Demonstrates research skills and ability to analyse information
  • Demonstrates ability to support an argument (thesis) through knowledge and understanding of the topic
Length
  • Will always be a long assignment
  • May be relatively short (e.g. for an exam answer) or a long assignment
Structure Sections
  • Has clearly defined sections, each with a different function
  • Uses well ordered paragraphs, not sections
Headings
  • Uses headings and sub-headings for the different sections (often numbered)
  • Does not usually use headings, sub-headings or numbering
Contents page
  • Will often include a Contents page to show the sections of the report
  • Will not usually include a Contents page
Content Graphics
  • Usually uses graphics such as tables, graphs, chart
  • Does not usually include graphics
Research
  • Usually includes primary research (e.g. experiment, survey) in addition to secondary research
  • Generally only includes secondary research (e.g. citations from text books/journals)
Recommend-ations
  • Only certain essay types (e.g. discussion) include recommendations
Appendices
  • May include appendices with additional information
  • Unlikely to include appendices


References

Charles Darwin University (2013) Report. Available from http://learnline.cdu.edu.au/studyskills/studyskills/reports.html (Access date 19 July, 2015).


Massey University (2012) Business Report. Available from http://owll.massey.ac.nz/assignment-types/business-report.php (Access date 20 July, 2015).


Monash University (2015) Report Writing. Available from http://www.monash.edu.au/lls/llonline/writing/general/report/index.xml (Access date 20 July, 2015).


Purdue University (2015) Purposes and Types of Report Format. Available from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/726/02/ (Access date 20 July, 2015).


Queensland University of Technology (2014) Writing a report Available from http://www.citewrite.qut.edu.au/write/report.jsp (Access date 19 July, 2015).


RMIT University (2007) Differences between Essays, Reports and Journals. Available from https://www.dlsweb.rmit.edu.au/lsu/content/2_assessmenttasks/assess_pdf/diffbet_reportsessays.pdf (Access date 19 July, 2015).


Unilearning (2000) Comparison: reports and essays. Available from http://unilearning.uow.edu.au/report/1b.html (Access date 19 July, 2015).


University of Queensland (2015) Types of assignment. Available from http://www.uq.edu.au/student-services/learning/types-of-assignments (Access date 20 July, 2015).




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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 28 April 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com. He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.



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