Understanding Report Basics

Reports are used very often in today’s business world. When we are seeking support for a project, for instance. Business reports always solve problems and answer questions. In the following paragraph we will explain what are the different functions, patterns, formats, and writing styles that can be used when writing a report.

First of all, you need to know what the function of your report is.

Your report can be informational or analytical.

An informational report only aims to inform the reader about the subject matters. You simply need to collect and present the data without analysis, interpretations, or recommendations. An example of informational report is the financial statement of a company. Whereas an analytical report is generally made to persuade, convince someone. In an analytical report the writer provides data, analyses, conclusion and, if needed, recommendations.

There are also two possibilities of patterns. You have to know if you are going to organize your report directly or indirectly.

The Direct pattern is, as its name suggest, direct; this means that the report starts with the introduction, show the facts and finishes with a summary. When a direct pattern is used the conclusion and recommendations are placed near the beginning of the report. Informational reports generally use direct pattern. But direct patterns are also used for analytical reports, when the reader do not want to waste time reading the facts, finding, discussion, and analysis, in other words, when only the conclusion and recommendations matters for the reader. But if the reader is not familiar with the problem, the report can easily become confusing. Using an indirect pattern means explaining, justifying, and analyzing before giving the conclusion recommendations at the end. This type of pattern is useful when the reader is not familiar with the topic, or when you need to persuade people that may not appreciate the conclusion.

 You will also need to choose among four types of possible format. The format chosen depends on the length, topic, audience, and purpose.

The Letter format is used when writing a short informal report addressed outside an organization. This kind of report is presented almost the same way as a letter with the date, inside address, salutation, and complimentary close. But letter reports are longer, it contains more information, and are better organized than any random letter. The memo format is approximately the same as the letter format, in a sense that it is useful when writing a short informal report. Only, memo reports stays within the organization. They are longer, include headings, and are better organized than regular memo. Memo reports begin with “Date”, “To”, “From” and “Subject”.

If you are writing a long formal report an adapted format is manuscript format. These reports begin with a title and use headings and subheadings. Most of the time they are printed on plain paper as opposed to the memo format and letter format reports. Finally, for reports made on a regular basis such as sales report or financial report, the corresponding format is printed form (prepared or preprinted forms). These reports are useful because they help saving time, and remembering all the information needed.

Finally you the writing style depends on the purpose and audience, they can be formal or informal. The Figure below shows and compares the characteristics of each of the two possible writing styles.

Determine the Purpose of the Business Report
Applying Guffey's 3x3 Writing Process to Reports

A Business report has to be developed methodically in order to be consistent, interesting, and to meet the expectations. Thus, Guffey’s 3-x-3 writing process is adaptable and useful when writing a report.

Mary Ellen Guffey states in order to write a good business message, the easiest way is to make have systematic plan to follow. The 3-x-3 writing process, which was introduced by Guffey is composed of 3 phases that are divided into 3 main points. The three phases are prewriting, writing, and revising.

When writing a business report it is smart to adapt Guffey’s technique. Obviously, since you are writing a business report some steps will be more important than others and you will have to spend more time on them. Thus we can divide the writing process into seven steps:

1-Analyze the problem and purpose

2-Anticipate the audience and issues

3-Prepare a work plan

4-Implement your research strategy

5-Organize, analyze, interpret, and illustrate the data

6-Compose the final draft

7-Revise proofread, and evaluate. 

The 3 first steps are the most important, and the ones we will discuss here.

Before beginning the report you need to “analyze the problem and purpose” this means that you have to identify and understand perfectly why you are writing this report and what for. The best way to do this is to prepare a written problem statement, i.e., to write the exact question that you should try to answer in your report, this question will define the focus of your report so that you keep the project on target. In order to do this, you also need to know what your boss exactly wants (analyze, choose, investigate, compare, justify, evaluate, recommend and so on). You will also have to consider three other factors: 1-The scope that tells you what issue or element will be investigated (usually told by you boss).

2-The significance of the project, which simply tells you why you are doing what you are doing and may actually help you realize that the topic doesn’t worth investigating.

3-The limitations, which can be time, geography, culture etc… 

Now you can write a relevant statement of purpose.

The next step is “Anticipate the audience and issues”. In this step you have to take into account every people that might read your report, and ask yourself some key questions about them. For instance, “What do my readers need to know about this topic”, “what is their education level”, “how will they react to this information”. Thanks to these question you will know who your report is addressed to, but they also help the writer determine what to talk about in the report, how much detail to add, the kind of language, what presentation to use and so on. Once you have answered all these questions, you can start breaking the major problem into subproblems, which will mainly be the different alternatives that you found to the problem, and develop these subparts of your report.

The last major part of the writing process is “Preparing a work plan” the work plan should give an overview of the project: resources, priorities, course of action, and schedule.

Now that we understand the function of a report and how to apply Guffey’s writing process, the most fundamental aspect of the report writing process begins: Research and the collection of data. It is the most important aspect of the preparation process since the report will be measured primarily on how good the data is. Below are five forms of data that can be used to stimulate the right questions to get the most accurate and pertinent information for the report.

Form Of Data

Background or historical
Expert opinion
Individual or group opinion

Suggested Questions

Are the sources pertinent?
Are figures accurate, verifiable?
Who are the experts and are they available?
Can we do a survey or interview?
What do we need in order to get data? Special authorizations?

Collect Information From Secondary Sources

There are two sources from which data can be gathered, primary and secondary. Data from a primary source results from direct hands on experience such as a survey, experiment or interview. Data from a secondary source results from obtaining information that someone else has already written about. The majority of information we find for reports today is from a secondary source that can be found electronically via the internet although, printed data continues to be widely available.

The FAO Corporate Document Repository explains the benefits and limitations of secondary sources to help you choose the most pertinent data for your topic.

  Print Resources

Print resources provide an excellent alternative to the internet for historical information and in depth studies about specific subjects. A couple of print resources that can be used in conducting research from secondary sources are books and periodicals.   

Books can be ordered online, bought from bookstores and found in libraries. A useful book that can be bought online, Research for Marketing Decisions by Paul E. Green Donald S. Tull Gerald Albaum,(Prentice Hall International Series in Management) talks in depth about research design data collection techniques and measurements.

Periodicals such as magazines, pamphlets and articles are useful secondary sources as they provide current information that is easily accessible both online and in magazine stores.

Electronic Databases and World Wide Web
Online access to secondary data sources usually refers to the use of the Internet to access electronic databases or the World Wide Web. Electronic databases are most commonly found online, like web-based database Infotrac, but there are still some that are stored on CD-ROMs.  The World Wide Web is host to over 7 million pages of information that can be used for gathering secondary data, but without the correct search tools and tips on how to conduct searches effectively, the web can potentially become a hindrance more than a help. (Guffey, Rhodes, Rogin 2006) You can find a list of Search Engines broken down by category at Wikipedia This link will provide useful web navigation tools to help in the search for secondary data sources. Since Google is the most used www search engine they’ve provided some tips on how to do an effective search.

It’s imperative to keep in mind that while the web has a wealth of information, ultimately you are responsible for the validity of the information. Ask a few questions; be critical about the data you are collecting. Some questions to consider are:

·         Is the web page current?

·         Who created the page and what is their authority?

·         Is the information cited authentic?

·         What is the purpose of the page? To provide data? To sell?

·         Are there sponsors or advertisers?

·         Is the information accurate? Are the sources reliable?

Collect Information From Primary Sources

While preparing to write the business report it is often necessary to support your argument by providing current information directly related to your topic. This is when primary sources are used to collect data.  Primary data is obtained by conducting surveys, interviews, experiments or observations about the topic yourself. (Guffey et al 2006)

Surveysprovide an economical and quantifiable way in which to obtain data from a large number of people although surveys have their limitations. People are not always honest in their responses.

Interviews can yield very detailed and accurate information especially when speaking with an expert on the subject matter

Experiments are useful when preparing to write about a potential outcome of a situation in a report. ‘If this… then that’ is determined and the data derived from the experiment becomes a key element in the report.

Observations can prove to be useful primary data when the observation is made over a period of time and on a consistent basis.


Dell I. Hawkins, Gerald Albaum  and Roger Best[1] wrote an article Stapel Scale or Semantic Differential  in Market Research, from the Journal of Marketing Research, Vol 11, no. 3 (Aug 1974) pp. 318 – 322,  a peer reviewed journal which explains the different types of telephone surveys and their effectiveness on students.


Gerald Albaum, also wrote another article Do source and anonymity affect mail survey results? in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science Volume 15, Number 3 / September, 1987 found online at  (October 18, 2007) pp 74-81, which will help in determining whether a mail survey would make sense as a primary data source when preparing to write the business report.

[1] Dell I. Hawkins is Associate Professor of Marketing and Director of the Consumer Research Center; Gerald Albaum is Professor of Marketing and Roger Best is an NDEA fellow in Marketing all at the University of Oregon. The authors gratefully acknowledge research support provided by the Research and Publication Committee of the College of Business Administration and by the Office of Scientific and Scholarly Research of the University of Oregon.

Illustrate Information

Once all secondary and primary data is collected you are left with the decision on how to best present it. Appropriately used graphics can be an excellent way to make key points stand out and to allow large amounts of information to be understood in a clear and concise manner. In order to do this effectively, the objectives of the report much be reflected in the types of graphics you chose. You can choose from the following graphics:

Bar Chart
Pie Graph
Flow Chart
Organization Chart
Photograph or map illustration

Illustration of pie chart, table, bar chart, photograph

When graphics are incorporated correctly into reports they can help the reader understand the data more clearly as well as leave a lasting impression. Make sure to consider the following points when using graphics:

Know your audience and how many graphics to use
Be careful not to use too much colour
Honest representation of facts and figures
Describe the significance of the graphic & explain the conclusion you are drawing
Make sure it is well positioned near main point in report
Label the graphic accurately
(Guffey et al. 2006)

Documenting Data

The final step in preparing to write a Business Report is making sure that the data collected is well documented as it is important to give credit to where credit is due. Documentation is what we call the process in which we give credit to those who supply the secondary source data.

The purpose of documentation

When secondary source information is found on the Internet, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the information is fact. This is one of the reasons it is important to show that the source of your data is credible and your sources are reliable.

Academic Documentation vs. Business Documentation

In schools and universities it is extremely important to document the sources of data when doing research papers, thesis and assignments since plagiarism is grounds for expulsion and/or serious charges. In business, taking such caution with documentation when communicating in day-to-day business activities is very difficult to do, but is still expected when making formal presentations, proposals and reports.

The rule is simple, if you are using another person’s words, ideas, graphs, opinions, research or if quoting another person, you must give credit to that person.

Using Citation Formats

The most popular citation formats are the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA). (Guffey et al 2006).  More information on these particular citation formats can be found on their websites.

Modern Language Association website:

American Psychological Association website: