Writing a Report

30 Formatting the Report

We’ve spent a lot of time on how to generate the content of your formal written report. However, we need to take a step back and look at how you will format the report.

Like any kind of project, reports have specifications. These specifications can be for a number of different features, such as the report’s layout, organization, and content. How should you format the headings and lists? How should you label graphics and tables?

Good formatting helps the reader. If someone hands you a report and you want to read the introduction first, you will know exactly where to look. Reports are usually read in a hurry because readers want to quickly get the information they need and a predictable report format helps them achieve that.

Think of a formal written report as having three distinct parts: the front matter, the report body and the back matter. Within those three parts are elements you may choose to include in your report. Some may not be necessary, depending on how you produce your work.

In order, these are the typical elements of reports:

  1. The Front Matter:
    • Title page
    • Transmittal document (may not be needed, depending on length and audience)
    • Executive summary (may not be needed, depending on length)
    • Table of contents (may not be needed, depending on length)
    • List of tables and figures (may not be needed)
  2. The Report Body:
    • Introduction (sometimes a “background” section is added or used instead)
    • Discussion (possibly including recommendations)
    • Recommendations (could be omitted if included elsewhere)
    • Conclusion (possibly including recommendations)
  3. The Back Matter:
    • References
    • Appendix (may not be needed)

Ensure you have the necessary elements in your report—and that you write and format them correctly.  Make the format work for your content and your audience; don’t feel that somebody else’s document design is “the right way” to do it. There are functional designs and dysfunctional designs; construct a design that is functional for your unique content and your specific audience.

We will now go into each element in detail. At the very bottom of this page, you will be able to see an example of a formal research report that includes most of these elements.

Front matter

The first part of your report is the front matter. This combination of elements, such as the title page and table of contents, will be the first section your reader sees. These elements are relatively easy to make, but if they are completed sloppily, these elements can negatively impact the reader’s view of the credibility of your work before they even read it.

Transmittal document

A transmittal document can either be a letter or memo, depending if you have an external (letter) or internal (memo) audience. The format you choose will depend on the audience who is receiving the report, but ultimately the goal of this element is to maintain goodwill by adding a personal component to the report. It is not strictly necessary, but it is often a feature of longer documents.

If including one, your letter/memo should do the following:

  • Describe the topic.
  • Make a brief statement of the report’s major findings, while also acknowledging who helped form the report.
  • Express appreciation to the client/audience and offer to provide follow-up with the report.

Note that the transmittal letter/memo can sometimes be included after the title page, especially in digital documents. Historically, it was paperclipped to the front page of the report, but those days are mostly gone.

Title page

Your title page should have four points of protocol information:

  1. The title of the report
  2. The name and title of the author(s)
  3. The date of submission
  4. The identity of the audience

In certain circumstances, a title page can also include the name and title of the person who commissioned the report.

Executive summary

The executive summary gives the reader an overview of the report. It allows them to quickly see what the content of your document is without having to read the entire report.

In a professional context, you might have to search through dozens, if not hundreds of reports to find information for your own research. You obviously wouldn’t have time to read all of them, so looking at just the report’s executive summary section would help you quickly sort through your potential research materials.

In a long report, the executive summary should be about 10% of the length of the entire report, but would almost never exceed three or four pages, even if the report is 40+ pages. It should condense the information that is already in the main document. This includes information such as the report’s recommendations, justifications, limitations, and conclusions.

Table of contents

A table of contents (TOC) lists out the sections of a report. This means that the primary headings for each section are included, along with the page numbers where they appear. If your report has secondary or lower headings, those could be included, too.

Make sure your organization is consistent. A TOC must properly reflect the organization of your report. For example, you wouldn’t put the executive summary (which comes at the top of your report) as the last entry of your TOC. Additionally, you must proofread to ensure that the headings are worded and capitalized the same in the body of the report and the TOC.

List of tables and figures

The list of tables and figures operates similarly to the TOC. It presents an organized list of all the graphics that you created for your report with the page numbers where they are found. This list will be a separate page that comes after your TOC, which means that it needs to be in the TOC.

Report body

The second part of your formal research report is the report body. This is the main portion of the report that you have already been working on with your research.

You are probably familiar with the traditional five-paragraph essay, which has an introduction, body, and conclusion. For those kinds of essays, the introduction and conclusion are only one paragraph long. That is not the case for written reports, where both of those elements can have multiple paragraphs or even multiple pages. Similarly, the discussion can be broken up into multiple sub-sections, each with their own specific focus and multiple paragraphs. The number of paragraphs for all three parts will ultimately depend on the information you are trying to convey.


Your introduction sets the tone and expectations for your report.

First and foremost, your introduction sets the stage for the content to follow.

To accomplish this, you must provide your reader with an understanding of the purpose and scope of your report. Additionally, you must illustrate why your topic is important by describing the size and impact of the problem that you are analyzing. You may want to include background information of how the issue(s) you’re exploring came to the present day and the current situation. You may also discuss your research methods here or you could break that into a separate section.

By the end of the introduction, the reader should clearly understand the purpose, audience, and context for your report.

Executive summary versus introduction

Many students confuse the purpose of a report’s executive summary and introduction. The main difference is that a summary provides an overview of the report as a whole. This means that it include the results and conclusions of the report. The introduction does not do this. Instead, its purpose is to prepare the reader by providing background information to help ease the reader into the topic.

Below is a representation of the differences in a table format:

Executive Summary Introduction
  • condenses information that is already present in the main document
  • introduces the report and explains its purpose
  • can exist separately from the main document
  • prepares reader for report that follows
  • written for a general audience
  • written for the specific audience who would be most interested in the detailed contents of the report
  • usually includes report’s recommendations, justification, limitations, and conclusions
  • clearly shows the writer’s aims and objectives, but does not mention or foreshadow conclusions or recommendations
  • sources not needed (but cited if used)
  • sources more likely to be needed (and cited)


The discussion is the main part of your report. This is where you are defining the problem that you want to resolve. You do this by laying out your argument(s) and presenting the information needed to support your conclusion(s). As a result, the discussion section will have the most detailed information. It it typically divided into multiple sections, each labeled with a heading that establishes the structure of the argument(s).

Your discussion area may not be labelled “discussion.” Instead, you may find that you want to break your content areas up topically, such as by recommendations, arguments, or issues. How you arrange this is up to you, but it should make the document more accessible to the reader and organize your content in a logical way.


This is where you will tell the reader how they should act based on the conclusion(s) you have come to in your report.

Pay close attention to your tone here. Don’t make the text sound like you are commanding or ordering the reader to do something. Instead, try to recognize that the choice is up to the reader to decide whether to take the recommended action.

This section might stand alone in the report or it might not. The content could work better with the recommendations integrated into the discussion or it might work better if it’s integrated into the conclusion. The choice is yours, but, once again, make it work for your content and your audience.


By the end of the discussion section, your reader should have a clear understanding of the problem you are addressing. The conclusion explains why it’s significant to the reader. It answers the “so what?” question that a reader will ultimately have by this stage of your report. Put another way, after reading your report, the reader will have all this new information you provided them; “so what” are they supposed to do with it? What should the next steps be? What is their role moving forward? What is your role, if any, moving forward? What comes next?

Back matter

Congratulations! You are now done with the report body! Just one more part to go.

The third and final part of the report is made up of the back matter. This is where the reader can find information that helps them learn more about your topic. Specifically, this is where you will put your references page and appendices (if any).

References page

We’ve already talked a bit about the references page in the chapter on APA Style, so we will just review here. A references page includes a full reference entry for each work you cite in your report. These entries allow your reader to find the original sources for the information you are using if they want them.

Keep in mind that every source in your reference list must be represented in the body of your report by at least one in-text citation.


The appendix section is for anything that needs to be attached to a report.

In general, a piece of content goes into the appendix if it is too long or complex to include in the discussion. However, don’t just put anything in the appendix. The information should help the reader more fully understand your topic by supplementing the material in the body of the report.

Each appendix item should contain only one type of material. For example, all images should be under one heading, all tables should be under a different heading, and so on. If using an appendix, include the appendix in the table of contents.

Sample report

A Passage to UFV India: A Primer for Canadian Faculty Interested in Teaching at UFV’s Chandigarh Campus

Take note that this sample report misses some of the above elements. For example, it has no executive summary and does not use APA format for the few sources being cited, instead using hyperlinks; there is no references page. There is no list of tables or figures and the recommendations are spread throughout the document, rather than confined to a single section. The reasons for these differences is that this was the functional format that worked for this unique content and this specific audience. That’s the way professional reports go.


This chapter was adapted from Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach by Rebekah Bennetch, Corey Owen, and Zachary Keesey, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.



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Professional Writing Today Copyright © 2022 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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