- Understand the different types of reports
- Discuss the main parts of a formal report
- Examine how to use headings and lists
- Learn how to integrate graphics
Reports are documents designed to record and convey information to the reader. Reports are part of any business or organization; from credit reports to sales reports, they serve to document specific information for specific audiences, goals, or functions. Reports come in all sizes but are typically longer than a page and somewhat shorter than a book. The type of report depends on its function. The function of the report is its essential purpose, often indicated in the purpose statement. The function may also contribute to parameters like report length (page or word count) or word choice and readability. Reports vary by function, but they also vary by style and tradition. Within your organization, there may be employer-specific expectations that need to be addressed to meet audience expectations.
Informational or Analytical Report?
There are two main categories for reports, regardless of their specific function or type. An informational report informs or instructs and presents details of events, activities, individuals, or conditions without analysis. An example of this type of “just the facts” report is a summary report. The report will summarize the most pertinent information from a text based on the audience’s needs.
The second type of report is called an analytical report. An analytical report presents information with a comprehensive analysis to solve problems, demonstrate relationships, or make recommendations. An example of this report may be a field report by a physician from the Public Health Agency of Canada from the site of an outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, noting symptoms, disease progression, steps taken to arrest the spread of the disease, and recommendations on the treatment and quarantine of subjects.
Informal and Formal Reports
Reports can also be classified as informal and formal reports. Informal reports tend to be a few pages long and are normally written for someone within the organization. Informal reports are normally sent as memos, sometimes attached to an email, or as letters. Formal reports, on the other hand, are much longer and are usually, though not always, sent outside an organization. Whether you write an informal or formal report depends on the audience for the report and the information required.
Headings are the titles and subtitles you see within the actual text of much professional scientific, technical, and business writing. Headings are like the parts of an outline that have been pasted into the actual pages of the document. Headings are an important feature of professional writing. They alert readers to upcoming topics and subtopics, help readers find their way around in long reports and skip what they are not interested in, and break up long stretches of straight text.
Headings are also useful for writers. They keep you organized and focused on the topic. When you begin using headings, your impulse may be to include the headings after you’ve written the rough draft. Instead, visualize the headings before you start the rough draft, and plug them in as you write.
- Use headings to mark off the boundaries of the major sections and subsections of a report.
- Make the phrasing of headings parallel.
- Avoid “stacked” headings—any two consecutive headings without intervening text.
- When possible, omit articles from the beginning of headings. For example, “The Pressurized Water Reactor” can easily be changed to “Pressurized Water Reactor” or, better yet, “Pressurized Water Reactors.”
- Don’t use headings as lead-ins to lists or as figure titles.
- Avoid “widowed” headings; that’s where a heading occurs at the bottom of a page and the text it introduces starts at the top of the next page. Keep at least two lines of body text with the heading, or force it to start the new page.
Format and Style
The style and format for headings shown in this chapter is not the “right” or the “only” one; it is just one among many. As illustrated in Figure 11.5 headings function like outline elements inserted into the text at those points where they apply.
When formatting your headings and subheadings, pay close attention to details such as vertical and horizontal spacing; capitalization; use of bold, italics, or underlining; and punctuation. Headings occur within the body of a document. Don’t confuse headings with document titles. Although titles may look like first-level headings in smaller documents, think of them as separate things.
First-level headings are the highest level of headings in your document. Apply the same format or style to all first-level headings. This style should be different from that which is applied to second-level heading. All second-level headings should have the same style. Similarly, this style should be different from that which is applied to third-level headings (and all third-level headings should have the same style), and so on. There are different ways and styles you can use to differentiate various levels of headings. Use whatever styles are appropriate for the document and audience.
Lists are useful because they emphasize selected information in regular text. Lists can be horizontal, with the listed items included directly in the sentence/paragraph. Lists can be vertical, such as when you see a list of three or four items strung out vertically on the page rather than in normal paragraph format. Lists, particularly vertical lists, are noticeable and readers are likely to pay more attention to them. Certain types of lists also make for easier reading. For example, in instructions, it is a big help for each step to be numbered and separated from the preceding and following steps. Lists also create more white space and spread out the text so that pages don’t seem like solid walls of words.
Like headings, the various types of lists are an important feature of professional writing. They help readers understand, remember, and review key points. They help readers follow a sequence of actions or events. They also break up long stretches of straight text.
Follow these general guidelines when making lists:
- Use lists to highlight or emphasize text or to enumerate sequential items.
- Use a lead-in to introduce the list items and to indicate the meaning or purpose of the list.
- Make sure that each item in the list reads grammatically with the lead-in.
- Make list items parallel in phrasing.
- Avoid overusing lists because using too many lists destroys their effectiveness.
Bullet points are democratic, meaning each item in a bulleted list is of equal importance. This is in contrast to numbered lists where items may have different levels of importance, priority, or sequence. Use bulleted lists for items that are in no required order. Use numbered lists for items that are in a required order (such as step-by-step instructions) or for items that must be referred to by item number.
Emphasis, as the term is used here, is the use of typographical effects to call attention to text. These effects can include italics, bold, all-caps, quotation marks, colour, and so on. Emphasis attracts the attention of the reader—or “cues” them—to actions they must take or to information they must consider carefully. Practically any special textual effect that is different from regular body text can function as an emphasis technique. Things like italics, bold, underscores, caps, different size type, alternate fonts, colour, and more can act as emphasis techniques.
However, if emphasis techniques are used in excess, readers can become reluctant to read a text and may avoid it altogether because it is too busy or distracting. NOTICE how UNREADABLE this sentence IS BECAUSE TOO MUCH emphasis is used.
Analyzing The Audience
As with any type of writing, when writing formal business reports, it is necessary to know your audience. For example, if your audience is familiar with the background information related to your project, you don’t want to bombard them with details; instead, you will want to inform your audience about the aspects of your topic that they’re unfamiliar with or have limited knowledge of. In contrast, if your audience does not already know anything about your project, you will want to give them all of the necessary information for them to understand. Age and educational level are also important to consider when you write. In addition, you don’t want to use technical jargon when writing to an audience of non-specialists. These are just a couple of examples of different audience needs you will want to consider as you write your report.
Educational Level and Subject Knowledge
While age may not necessarily be an issue in the business world—your audience will almost all be adults—educational level and knowledge of your subject are important to consider when writing your report. If you are writing for someone outside of your specific field, you will either need to exclude technical jargon or provide in-text reminders or indications of what specific terms mean or items are. For example, if you work for an automotive company, and you are writing on behalf of mechanical engineers but for an audience of business professionals, you don’t want to assume that your audience knows the names of all of the parts that make up an engine; you will have to use terms they will recognize. In some cases, a glossary of terms may be appropriate.
Expectations and Research
What does your audience expect to get out of reading your report? What is its purpose? Make sure that you have specifically responded to the expectations of your boss, manager, or client. If your audience expects you to have research, make sure you know what type of research they expect. Do they want research from scholarly journal articles? Do they want you to conduct your own research? No matter what type of research you do, make sure that it is properly documented using whatever format the audience prefers (MLA, APA, and Chicago Manual of Style are some of the most commonly-used formats). You also want to establish a strong ethos in your report. Use confident language that shows that you have done your research and present them with the research.
For further information about what types of research you may want to include, see this article about research methods and methodologies.
Here are some questions to consider about your audience as you write:
- What does your audience expect to learn from your report?
- What type of ethos should you establish?
- How much research does your audience expect you to have?
- How current does your research need to be?
- What types of sources does your audience expect you to have?
- What is the age of your audience?
- What is the educational level of your audience?
- How much background information does your audience need?
- What technical terms will your audience need defined? What terms will they already be familiar with?
- What is the cultural background of your audience?
Sometimes, despite writing clearly and concisely, it can be helpful to your audience if you use supporting graphics–whether that be tables, illustrations, maps, photos, charts, or some other type of other visual aid.
Before getting into details on creating, formatting, and incorporating graphics, consider the types and their functions. You can use graphics to represent the following elements in your writing:
- Objects: If you’re describing a fuel-injection system, you’ll probably need a drawing or diagram of the object. If you are explaining how to graft a fruit tree, you’ll need some illustrations of how that task is done. Photographs, drawings, diagrams, and schematics are the types of graphics that show objects.
- Numbers: If you’re discussing the rising cost of housing in Vancouver, you could use a table with the columns being for five-year periods since 1970; the rows could be for different types of housing. You could show the same data in the form of bar charts, pie charts, or line graphs. Tables, bar charts, pie charts, and line graphs are some of the principal ways to show numerical data.
- Concepts: If you want to show how your company is organized, such as the relationships of the different departments and officials, you could set up an organization chart, which is boxes and circles connected with lines showing how everything is hierarchically arranged and related. This would be an example of a graphic for a concept; this type depicts nonphysical, conceptual things and their relationships.
- Words: Graphics can be used to depict words. You’ve probably noticed how some textbooks may put key definitions in a box, maybe with different colours in the background. The same can be done with key points or extended examples.
Just as you would cite and reference a paraphrase or a direct quote, so too must you cite and reference any graphics that you use that were created by someone else or that were based on someone else’s data. Indicate the source of any graphic or data you have borrowed. Whenever you borrow a graphic or data from some other source, document that fact in the figure title using an in-text citation. You should also include the reference information in the reference list.
Guidelines for Using Graphics
- Use graphics whenever they would normally be necessary.
- Make sure your graphics are appropriate to your audience, subject matter, and purpose. Don’t include advanced, highly technical graphics your audience may not understand.
- Intersperse graphics and text on the same page. Place graphics as near to the point in the text where they are relevant as is reasonable and don’t put them on pages by themselves or attach them to the end of documents. However, if a graphic does not fit properly on one page, put it at the top of the next, and continue with regular text on the preceding page. Don’t leave half a page blank just to keep a graphic near the text with which it is associated.
- Always discuss graphics in nearby text preceding the graphic. Don’t just include a graphic without an explanation. Orient readers to the graphic and explain its basic meaning. They need to have a purpose and be introduced before the reader encounters them on the page. The first mention of a graphic is called a lead-in statement, and your graphics must always be introduced by a lead-in. Similarly, it is typically recommended to also use a lead-out statement after the graphic. This is a statement that connects the figure to the material that follows.
- Use titles and labels for graphics.
- Include identifying detail such as illustration labels, axis labels, keys, and so on.
- Make sure graphics fit within normal margins—if they don’t, enlarge or reduce the copies. Leave at least 2 blank lines above and below graphics.
Computers have made it easier for professionals to create effective graphics. Most of the graphics in Figure 11.6 can be created in Microsoft Office Word and Excel. There may also be some occasions in which a formal report includes graphics from a particular print or online source. In these instances, it is critical to include a caption that presents the source of the graphic.
Figure 11.6 summarizes uses and audience benefits for the most frequently employed types of graphics.
Drawings, Diagrams, and Photos
To depict objects, place, people, and relationships between them, you can use photos, drawings, diagrams, and schematics. Just as you would cite and reference a paraphrase or a direct quote, so too must you cite and reference any illustrations, diagrams, and photos that you use that were created by someone else or that were based on someone else’s data. Indicate the source of any graphic or data you have borrowed. Whenever you borrow a graphic or data from some other source, document that fact in the figure title using an in-text citation. You should also include the reference information in the reference list.
Tables are rows and columns of numbers and words (though mostly numbers). They permit rapid access to and relatively easy comparison of information. If the data is arranged chronologically (for example, sales figures over a ten-year period), the table can show trends—patterns of rising or falling activity. However, tables are not necessarily the most vivid or dramatic means of showing such trends or relationships between data—for that, you’d want to use a line graph, which is discussed in the next section.
Guidelines for using tables
Follow these general guidelines when making tables:
- As with other types of graphics, you should refer to the table in the text just preceding the table.
- You should also explain the general significance of the data in the table; don’t expect readers to figure it out entirely for themselves.
- Don’t overwhelm readers with large tables! Simplify the table data down to just that amount of data that illustrates your point—without of course distorting that data.
- Just as you would cite and reference a paraphrase or a direct quote, so too must you cite and reference any tables that you use that were created by someone else or that were based on someone else’s data. Indicate the source of any graphic or data you have borrowed. Whenever you borrow a graphic or data from some other source, document that fact in the figure title using an in-text citation. You should also include the reference information in the reference list.
Charts and Graphs
Charts and graphs are just another way of presenting the same data that is presented in tables. At the same time, however, you get less detail or less precision in a chart or graph than you do in the table. Imagine the difference between a table of sales figures for a ten-year period and a line graph for that same data. You get a better sense of the overall trend in the graph but not the precise dollar amount. Other types of charts and graphs are horizontal bar charts, vertical bar charts, and pie charts.
Just as you would cite and reference a paraphrase or a direct quote, so too must you cite and reference any charts or graphs that you use that were created by someone else or that were based on someone else’s data. Indicate the source of any graphic or data you have borrowed. Whenever you borrow a graphic or data from some other source, document that fact in the figure title using an in-text citation. You should also include the reference information in the reference list.
Source: Statistics Canada (2019)
Source: Statistics Canada, Industry Accounts Division (2018)
Source: Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey and the Canadian Employer-Employee Dynamics Database (2019)
| A Bar Graph
Source: Statistics Canada, Demography Division (2018)
Checklist for Writing Reports
As you reread and revise your report, keep in mind the following:
- Report considers the audience’s needs
- Form follows function of report
- Format reflects institutional norms and expectations
- Information is accurate, complete, and documented
- Information is easy to read
- Terms are clearly defined
- Figures, tables, and art support written content
- Figures, tables, and art are clear and correctly labelled
- Figures, tables, and art are easily understood without text support
- Words are easy to read (font, arrangement, organization)
- Results are clear and concise
- Recommendations are reasonable and well-supported
Reports require organization and a clear purpose. Business reports can be informational, analytical, formal and informal. Though reports vary by size, format, and function, most include six key elements. As with any type of business writing, it is important to use audience analysis to determine the organization and content of reports.
End of Chapter Activities
11a. Thinking About the Content
What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?
11b. Discussion Questions
- Have you ever written a formal report?
- Do you feel confident converting data into tables, charts and graphs?
- Find an annual report for a business you would like to learn more about. Review it with the previous reading in mind and provide examples. Share and compare with classmates.
11c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation
Quick Meals is a food delivery service that delivers a variety of meal options to customers at an affordable cost. They provide customers with a new menu each week that they can use to choose items from for lunch or dinner. This service is used regularly by schools and businesses that do not have a cafeteria but would like to provide students and staff with convenient meal choices.
Farshad works as an Operations Manager at Quick Meals. He notices that their services are in high demand and decides to change the menus to offer healthier and more organic options. As a result, the meals cost more. Their regular customers are not pleased with this, and there is an increase in complaints and a decrease in sales.
Upon noticing the changes, Farshad calls a meeting with the supervisor of the customer service department, Susan. He asks her to reach out to the customers to find out their thoughts on the menu changes. Farshad intends to use this information to adjust the menus again. However, this time, it will be to suit the needs of the customers.
How should Susan go about getting this information to determine the issue?
11d. Writing Activity
Watch this video from TED.com on Txtng is killing language. JK!!!. We can think about texting as the opposite of what we would do in a formal report. Summarize the video. Do you think formal reports will change in the future as the way we communicate changes?
This chapter contains information from Business Communication for Success which is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative, Business Communication For Everyone (c) 2019 by Arley Cruthers and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, and Online Technical Writing by David McMurrey and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Government of Canada, S. (2017, September 29). Measuring the economy, region by region. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/blog/cs/economy
Government of Canada, S. (2018, September 27). Annual Demographic Estimates: Canada, Provinces and Territories, 2018 (Total Population only) Analysis: Total Population. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/91-215-x/2018001/sec1-eng.htm
Government of Canada. (2020, June 30). Canadian Business Counts, with employees, December 2019. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=3310022201
Guffey, M. E., & Almonte, R. (2019). Essentials of Business Communication. Toronto, Ontario: Nelson.
Jeon, S., Liu, H., & Ostrovsky, Y. (2019, December 16). Measuring the Gig Economy in Canada Using Administrative Data. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11f0019m/11f0019m2019025-eng.htm