Engineers and scientists write formal reports for many reasons, including the documentation of experiments and designs. As an engineer or scientist working on the design of an airplane seat, you might write several formal reports. One formal report might propose a new design for the seat. A second formal report might update the progress on the construction of a test seat. Yet another formal report might document tests performed on the design. Still another formal report would assess whether the new design should replace the existing design. In this last report, you would combine elements from all the previous reports. Note that this last report might appear as a research article, which is a special kind of formal report for a research audience.
For reference, this discussion includes a sample report [Bassett, 1998]. Also available is a short discussion of laboratory reports, design reports, progress reports, and theses and dissertations. Note that there will most likely be differences in format between the sample reports included here and the reports you are expected to write for your own classes. Nonetheless, these samples should provide you general guidelines for crafting the assignments in your own courses. Another aid to help you is a report checklist that you can use during the revision stage of your report writing.
What distinguishes a formal report from an informal reporting of information? The answer lies not in the topics of formal reports, but in the expectations of the audiences for formal reports. In a formal report, the audience expects a methodical presentation of the subject that includes summaries of important points as well as appendices on tangential and secondary points. Note that the readers for a formal report are often two or more distinct audiences. These distinct audiences include professionals specializing in the report's subject matter, professionals not specializing in the report's subject matter, and managers overseeing the report's subject matter.
Format distinguishes formal reports from an informal reporting of information. A well-crafted formal report is formatted such that the report's information is readily accessible to all the audiences. For that reason, formal reports are split into different sections. One way to group these sections is in terms of the front matter, main text, and back matter. The front matter, which presents preliminary information for the report, serves to orient all intended audiences to what the report contains. The text portion of the formal report is the report's "story" and contains the introduction, discussion, and conclusion of the report. The text delivers a methodical explanation of the report's work to the report's primary audience. The report's back matter portion, which contains the appendices, glossary, and references, serves to provide secondary information to all readers as well as primary information to secondary readers.
Front Cover. The front cover of a formal report is important. The front cover is what people see first. When the report sits flat on a desk, the front cover is in view. Therefore, the front cover should contain the report's title and the author's name. Because reports are often revised and republished, the front cover should also contain the date of publication. The front cover has no page number. Space the title, name, and date to achieve a nice balance on the page. If possible, type the title in a larger font size than the name and date. Use initial capitals for the title.
Title Page. The title page for a formal report often contains the same information as is on the cover. In some formats, there is a summary included. Most often, because of space restrictions, that summary is descriptive (more like a table of contents in paragraph form). Sometimes, though, this initial summary is informative and geared toward the technical audience of the report. In such situations, that summary is often named an "Abstract." Consult with your instructor to find out what kind of summary, if any, should be on this page. Note that the title page is numbered "i" (the actual presence of a page number on the first page is optional).
Contents Page. The table of contents includes the names of all the headings and subheadings for the main text. In addition, the table of contents includes names of all headings (but not subheadings) in the front matter and back matter. For instance, the contents page includes listings for the the appendices (including appendix titles), the glossary, and the references.
Summary. Perhaps no term in engineering writing is as confusing as the term "summary." In general there are two types of summaries: descriptive summaries and informative summaries. A descriptive summary describes what kind of information is in the report; it is a table of contents in paragraph form. An informative summary is a synopsis of the text portion of the report; it is analogous to a baseball boxscore. Unfortunately, few people use these terms to name the summaries in reports. The names you're likely to run into are "abstract," "executive summary," and plain old "summary."
An "abstract" usually, but not always, refers to a summary written to a technical audience, and depending on its length can be either descriptive, informative, or a combination of both. As you might imagine, short abstracts are typically descriptive and longer abstracts are typically informative. Abstracts generally do not include illustrations. Sometimes the word "abstract" is proceeded by the word "descriptive," which is usually a clue that you should write a descriptive summary written to a technical audience. Other times the word "abstract" is proceeded by the word "technical," which is usually a clue that an informative summary written to a technical audience is called for.
An "executive summary"is the most consistently defined term-it refers to an informative summary written to a management audience. Because it is informative, it includes the most important results and conclusions of the document. Because it is written to a management audience, it includes enough background for the manager to understand those results and conclusions. Stylistically, it is tailored so that a manager can read it quickly and garner what happened in the report. Whether it contains illustrations or not depends on the format.
The catch-all term "summary" can be most anything--a descriptive summary, an informative summary, a summary with illustrations, a summary without. So how do you proceed if a company, laboratory, or professor asks you to write a "summary" for a formal report? Well, the best thing to do is to look at examples of summaries in previous reports for that company, laboratory, or professor. In formatting the main summary of your report, treat the name ("Abstract," "Executive Summary," or whatever your instructor prescribes) as a major heading. If illustrations are allowed, number them using the abbreviation of the summary's title. For instance, if the summary is named an "Executive Summary," number the illustrations ES-1, ES-2, and so on. Number the equations in the same way. For a more detailed discussion of summaries, see pages 21-27 of The Craft of Scientific Writing.
The text portion of your formal report contains the introduction, discussion, and conclusion of your report. Begin all major headings ("Introduction," for example) on a new page. Use arabic numerals for numbering pages of the text and begin the first page of your text as page 1. For more discussion about the structure of formal reports, see Chapter 2 of The Craft of Scientific Writing.
Introduction.The introduction of a report prepares readers for understanding the discussion of the report. Like the title and summary, the introduction is written for the widest audience possible. For more discussion about introductions, see pages 27-33 in The Craft of Scientific Writing.
Discussion.The discussion or middle is the story of your work. You do not necessarily present results in the order that you understood them, but in the order that is easiest for your readers to understand them. In your discussion, you not only present results, but you also evaluate those results. Note that you do not generally use the word "Discussion" as the title for the major headings in this part of the report. Rather, you choose titles that reflect the content of the sections.
Conclusion.The conclusion section analyzes for the most important results from the discussion and evaluates those results in the context of the entire work. In your conclusion, you often make recommendations based on those evaluations. The conclusion is much like an informative summary except for one thing-in the conclusion, you are writing to an audience who has read your report. Note that you do not necessarily have to use the word "Conclusion" as the title for this section. Depending on the situation, you might for example choose "Conclusions and Recommendations." In still other situations, your conclusion might span two sections.
The back matter portion of your report contains your appendices, glossary, and references. The back matter portion usually begins on the page following the conclusion. Continue numbering back matter pages with arabic numerals. In other words, if the conclusion section ends on page 16, the first appendix will begin on page 17.
Appendices. Use appendices to present supplemental information for secondary readers. When the occasion arises in the text, refer readers to information in the appendix. For example:
This section compares three software pages to run tests on Hemodyne's blood analyzer. Hemodyne's blood analyzer performs test for such diseases as syphilis, tuberculosis, and the AIDS virus. The analyzer has a complex design, which is discussed in Appendix B. The three software packages considered in this report are...
Treat each appendix as a major heading. If you have only appendix, call it the "Appendix." If you have more than one appendix, number the appendices with letters: Appendix A, Appendix B, and so on. As with all major headings, skip three returns from the top margin and center the appendix name and title. Illustrations in appendices are numbered as follows. In both a single appendix and in an Appendix A, figures and tables are numbered A-1, A-2, and so on. Equations in Appendix A are numbered in the same way. In an Appendix B, illustrations and equations follow a B sequence.
Glossary. Use a glossary to define terms for secondary readers. Arrange terms in alphabetical order. Use italics or underlines to key readers to terms that the glossary will define. Footnote the first italicized or underlined term in the text and key readers to the location of glossary, where that term and all future underlined or italicized terms will be defined. Use a reverse indent for each definition and treat each definition as a separate paragraph.
References. Use a reference page to list alphabetically the references of your report. Also skip a space between each citation.