Report Writing

by Clare Forrest

Step four – structuring your report

A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end... but not necessarily in that order

Jean Luc Godard, film maker

Structure is the way you build the report – tell your story. If you think of a report as a house, then each element of structure is a brick. If you’re building a house, each brick needs to be laid correctly to ensure that the house stands up. If a brick is out of place, the whole structure can come crashing down. In a report you’re building a case or an argument, so it’s important to do it properly. This means knowing what each brick (element of structure) does, which bricks are essential and which are optional, and where each brick should be placed.

In step three you planned the middle of your report – the brick known as the main body. As a minimum, you need to top and tail this with a title, an introduction and a conclusion. These four elements of structure are essential. You can’t have a report without each one of these being present, though they may be called different things.

Four essential bricks

There are only four bricks, discussed in greater depth below, which must be included in your report. These should appear in the following order.

  1. Title page – this tells the reader what the report is about. It must state when the report was written and who it was written by – name, job title and department. It should also include any other necessary dates – for example, the time period being reported on, the date of an accident and so on.
  2. Introduction – sometimes known as a background or an opening statement, this sets the scene for your reader.
  3. Main body – this is your data, logically organised into headings and subheadings, as explained in Step three. Sometimes known as findings (see note below) or information, this is neutral. You simply present the facts – you don’t make a judgement or express an opinion about them.
  4. Conclusion – this is sometimes known as interpretation or opinion.
Note

Findings is a term often used to indicate the data (main body) of a report. Occasionally, though, it is used to mean the conclusions. It can be very confusing in a report, for both its readers and its writer, unless everyone is clear on the meaning.

Our advice is that you avoid the term entirely.

Before you write...

Everything else is an optional extra. There is more about these extras on the following page. Essentially, you must make a decision, before you write your report, whether you need to include all or any of the following:

  • Contents page
  • Summary
  • Recommendations
  • Appendices
  • Acknowledgements
  • Sources
  • Glossary.

The introduction

Your introduction creates the same effect as when you open a meeting or introduce a new person to the rest of the team. Do it well and it sets the scene so that people know what is happening and why and are interested in reading on. You need to explain

  1. Whom the report has been written for and why (your objectives and reader statement set out in step one will be useful here)
  2. Any background necessary for the reader to understand the data
  3. What will be covered in the report
  4. Any methodologies used – for example, how you did your research.
Quick tip

A common error made in the introduction is to assume that the reader already knows the background to the report. In reality this is often not the case. Make sure you provide enough information for every reader to understand what’s coming next.

Main body

You have already organised the data that you will present in the main body of your report in Step three under headings and subheadings. It’s a good idea, before you write and again after it, just to check that these follow a logical order and encapsulate what follows. In particular, check that subheadings relate to the topic of their respective main heading and follow one another in the best possible order. Headings are like signposts: unless they follow a rigorous logic and lead the reader in the direction they expect to go, the result is annoyance and confusion.

It’s useful to think of the main body as the ‘evidence’ for your conclusions. Facts can be difficult to identify; have a go at the following exercise and see how you do.

What is a fact?

Story

Sam, a Team Leader, stopped a team member who was coming into the office fifteen minutes after starting time.

Sam asked the team member to come into the office and said, ‘I’m glad to see that you were able to make it in today despite the snow. I want to discuss your lateness. There is a policy which says that staff must call in if they expect to be more than ten minutes late. I have to take action when someone is late more than twice in one month. I know that waiting for your mother’s carer to arrive can make it difficult for you to be punctual but you must make sure this doesn’t happen again. Company policy allows you to have a written warning and then suspension before dismissal. If you continue to be late, I will have to follow the policy.’

 

Look at these statements and decide whether or not you would classify each statement as fact (F), inference (I), or neither (N). You may refer to the story as often as you wish. Try to finish within three minutes.

When you’ve finished, click here for the answers.

1. The team member referred to in the story was late that day
F
I
N
2. The employee is a woman
F
I
N
3. Sam is a man
F
I
N
4. Snow affected the colleague’s journey to work that day
F
I
N
5. The employee has been late many times
F
I
N
6. Company policy says a warning must be given if someone is late more than twice in one month
F
I
N
7. Corrective steps must be taken when an employee is more than ten minutes late
F
I
N
8. Sam should give a written warning if the colleague is late again if company policy is to be followed
F
I
N
9. The colleague has an elderly mother
F
I
N
10. The colleague’s mother has a carer
F
I
N

The conclusion

The conclusion is placed after the main body and is the element of structure that writers seem to get most confused about. This is a shame, because the conclusion is your opportunity as a report writer to get across to your reader what you want them to ‘hear’. It’s when you get to make your argument or case. It’s the critical part of your report – and the one to which many readers will turn first.

 

A conclusion implies the action that a reader should take but does not make it explicit.

The data you prepared in step three is neutral: it’s just the presentation of the facts or the evidence to back up what you’re about to conclude.

A conclusion draws logical judgements from the data presented in the main body to help the reader to decide what to do. Every conclusion must have data to back it up.

Quick tip

Be very careful that you do not conclude something that the data doesn’t support – always double check that the evidence is there for every conclusion you make.

The following example shows how different conclusions can come from the same fact.

Example

Your data says: ‘Meetings frequently over-run the allotted time and staff return to work later than expected.’ The conclusions could be that

  • Meeting leaders do not plan their meetings carefully
  • Not enough time is allowed for each meeting
  • Staff enjoy meetings more than their ‘real’ work
  • Meetings are very important... and so on.

The point is that the ‘evidence’ (your data) can be interpreted in many different ways to reach many different conclusions. It’s your job as the report writer to consider the evidence and make that judgement for your reader.

From data to a conclusion

Below are a couple of pieces of information. Try to draw at least three conclusions from each before you check your answers with mine.

 
  1. The data says that customers consistently complain about the catering at the hotel.
  2. The data says that there are no windows in the room.