Writing a Report
Professional reports perform a number of important functions in organizations, whether that be large corporations, small non-profit groups, government agencies, or any other type of organization.
In some cases, organizations must produce reports as a matter of law, such as a publicly traded corporation that must present and an annual report for shareholders every year. Such reports are also used by government agencies to ensure the companies are complying with all laws and regulations.
Some reports are standard documents with known traits that are routinely used in the business world, such as a “” that a government might use to invite construction companies to propose how to build a new bridge, with recommendations about how it should be done and how much it should cost.
Other reports are short, internal documents to fulfill specific, in-house purposes, such as a performance review for employees who are nearing the end of their probationary period.
There is a huge range of types of reports and the purposes they fulfill, but there are some basic parameters that always need to be considered, starting with rule number one: know your audience and put them first.
Internal or external?
If a report is for an audience that is internal to the organization (such as a budget report going between departments), that changes how it will be produced compared to an external report (such as the official community plan for a local government, which explains the intended direction for the community for years or even decades to come). Internal documents tend to be shorter and simpler; external documents tend to be longer and have a more polished look, including detailed formatting, photographs, and more charts/graphs.
This table indicates some of the typical differences between documents for internal and external audiences. Remember, these aren’t rules; some organizations will have their own in-house styles that deviate from this table and there is some variability in how these traits are treated.
|Traits||Internal audience||External audience|
|Lists names of authors||Yes, including their job title(s)||May list the individual author(s), may list their job title(s), may only list the organization as the author|
|Date||The full date is provided||May list entire date, only month and year, or only year|
|Indicates audience||Yes, including their job title(s)||May indicate audience or, for public documents, may omit mention of audience|
|Subject line||Yes||Placed on title page as the document title|
|Length||Usually shorter||Usually longer|
|Photographs||Only if essential||Yes, used to enhance visual appeal|
|Charts/graphs||Only if essential||Yes, used to enhance visual appeal and information accessibility|
|Design features||Lean, minimal decoration||Aesthetic appeal is more important|
|Template use||May use simple memo templates or other in-house designs||May have a standard template for some documents, but more likely to have unique designs for each report|
|Table of contents||Rarely||Often|
|Reference list||Rarely, but if needed||Often, especially as needed|
|Print/digital||Usually designed to remain a digital document||Often designed for both print and digital use|
Template or original design?
Some reports are developed from an in-house template. For example, a company with travelling salespeople may have a standard trip report that needs to be completed when sales staff travel as part of their work. This report would likely indicate information about who the sales staff met with, how much they were able to sell, whether they developed any new promising leads, and how much of the company’s money was spent on hotels, car rentals, plane tickets, and other expenses.
Other reports need to be produced as entirely original documents every time they are produced, such as a review of an unprecedented event (such as if a government agency wanted to review its response and operation through the pandemic).
Although all of these types of reports vary in terms of content and format, the process for creating them is similar.
Step one: understand the task. In order to produce a report, you need to know the purpose of the report and that’s usually included in the first paragraph of the introduction and/or executive summary. You need to understand what the report is, why it’s being written, and why it’s being sent to the intended audience. That understanding will focus the content of the rest of the document and explain its relevance. Also understand the of the document, that is, what is included in the work and, by implication, what is not.
Step two: gather information. This process is sometimes called “research” and the next few chapters deal with how to conduct research. In short, there are two types: primary and secondary. Most or all of the research you’ll do as an undergraduate student will be secondary research. That means you’re finding documents that other people have published and relying on that information to provide the evidence you need for your report. In primary research, you actually go out and gather data firsthand, whether that is by interviewing people about their feelings, conducting surveys about what people do in their companies, counting the cars that pass through an intersection, or conducting a scientific experiment in a laboratory (among many other ways to gather data). Once the data has been gathered, it needs to be interpreted and made sense of; once done, the product is called “information.”
Step three: organize. Once you have the information you need to write your report, you need to organize it into a structure that will make sense to your reader. (See Using Outlines to Strengthen Writing for ideas about how to organize your work using an outline.) Organization is key to producing a quality document.
Step four: write and cite. Many people will tell you they write their documents and then add the citations and references after they’ve finished writing; this invites potential disaster, as you can too easily lose track of where citations are needed and which citations belong where. Include your citations as you write your report. With a strong outline, writing the report should come fairly naturally. The introduction will indicate the purpose of the document. There may be a background section that explains how the discussion arrived at the present moment. Content-driven sections will follow, each with a clear argument, supported by reasoning and evidence. There may be a separate section for recommendations or those may be worked into the content-driven sections or the conclusion, which is the next section that would be included. After that, the document has its references and, if necessary, appendices.
Step five: design and illustrate. For an internal document, this might be a very short step. There may be no design work to be done because an in-house template is being used. There may be no illustrations if no charts/graphs are needed. However, for an external document, you’ll need to carefully decide on a wide variety of design choices, such as fonts, font sizes, font colours, borders, shading, and other such matters. You’ll also need to decide which information is best presented graphically, such as with a broken line graph, bar charts, or pie charts. (See Graphics, Tables, and Images for more on this topic.) The final document should be easy to skim, easy to search, and look good.
Step six: proofread, edit, and revise. Professional Writing Today: A Functional Approach provides a lot of guidance about punctuation, grammar, and editing skills. Make use of this knowledge! Your final report should be perfect in its spelling, capitalization, grammar, punctuation, use of numbers, and all other written respects. If the reader spots errors, they may begin to question the quality of the report in all ways, even if that’s unfair. (See Proofreading and Editing Skills for more on this topic.) Also, feel no loyalty to your work; a good editor cuts the unnecessary and adds new content where necessary. Treat your work the same way. If, on inspection, you find content that doesn’t help your reader, be merciless and cut it out.
Step seven: polish and publish. This step is really an extension of the previous. Set your document aside for a couple of days and then come back to it with a critical eye. Have you been consistent with how you capitalize headings? Are your fonts treated the same way everywhere (or is there a slight change in the font colour where you have copied text for a quote)? Are you sure about whether you want to spell that word “defence” or “defense”? Do all hyperlinks work? These are the sort of questions you should be asking yourself as you meticulously work through your document one final time. Once you have done that, do it again. Then, when you’re sure, send it to the reader. Remember, you can’t “un-send” the file. Once your file has been sent, that’s what you’ll be judged on (so don’t do your last proofread after you send the file, like so many of my students).
Internal municipal government report, based on a template: https://council.vancouver.ca/20110906/documents/spec1.pdf.
Major government report for an external audience: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/environment/climate-change/action/cleanbc/cleanbc_2018-bc-climate-strategy.pdf.
Corporate accountability report for an external audience: https://www.morneaushepell.com/sites/default/files/assets/permafiles/93046/corporate-social-responsibility-report-2020.pdf.
Non-profit annual report for an external audience: https://www.canuckplace.org/drive/uploads/2022/07/2022-Annual-Report-Print.pdf.
Advocacy report for an external audience: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/bcfs/pages/258/attachments/original/1607561694/Rsch-International_Students-2019-web.pdf?1607561694.
Internal program review, based on a template: https://www.douglascollege.ca/sites/default/files/docs/vpac/CYC%20Degree%20CPR%20Recommendations%20(2020)%20–%20for%20posting.pdf.
Audited financial statements are documents that review the financial position and operation of an organization. The documents record the value of the organization's assets, liabilities, and equity. They also show annual revenues and expenses. For most organizations, these documents must be produced annually.
A request for proposal, or RFP, is a document that invites other organizations to create a proposal to achieve a particular aim. For example, if a municipal government wants to build a bridge, it will publish an RFP so that construction companies can produce proposals about how to build the bridge and how much it should cost.
elements you must consider that can impact the message you create and how it will be received. For example, the audience, the purpose of your message, and constraints you must work within