6.2 Formal reports
Formal reports tend to be official reports about a specific subject. They tend to be factual and contain detailed information, research and data.
They are often written by people who are expert in their subject area, so the language may be more specialist and difficult to understand for non-experts. The language may sound more complicated. A good formal report usually contains a number of signposts, such as:
- bullet points.
Formal reports are divided into sections, with signposts to what is contained within each section.
Formal reports usually have the following sections:
- a Contents page
- Terms of reference
A definition of each of these is given below. (If you have already completed Session 3 on Writing, you may want to skip this part and go on to section 6.3.)
This is a list of the topics covered and their page numbers, sometimes with a short summary of each topic.
Terms of reference
These explain why the report was written, its background and the audience it is aimed at.
This gives a short explanation of what the report is about. It is useful if all you need is a quick overview. You can read the introduction and conclusion if time is short and you do not need to challenge or build on the report’s findings.
This is a very important part of more academic reports, as the writer explains how they arrived at their findings, i.e. what methods they used. If you are reading a report that you disagree with, it is important to read this section. Without this information it is difficult to put forward opposing arguments.
In this section the writer presents their findings and arguments. Findings may also include recommendations, but normally these appear after the conclusion (see below).
The findings often use signposts to direct you to what the author feels is important. These may include headings, underlining, capitals, italics and bold font.
The headings are like chapter headings in a book and you can scan these before you start to read the full report. Headings normally have subheadings that are a further guide.
This is a brief summary of the main points and any conclusions the writer has come to.
These are the suggestions for action that arise from the findings of the report. This section needs to be read carefully by anyone who has asked for the report to be written or has a direct interest in the matter, as it will form the basis for future actions. Recommendations should be written in a way that is easy to read, with bullet points and other signposts.
This is where additional information relating to the report is placed. For example, graphs, charts, tables and figures may be placed here rather than in the main body of the report.
In more academic reports, references to other sources are listed in a bibliography. Reading a bibliography is not necessary unless you are thinking of researching the topic yourself and writing your own report.