General guidelines for a formal report

Final presentation of the formal report includes three major sections: prefatory parts such as the letter of transmittal, the title page, table of contents and an executive summary; the body, which includes an introduction, discussion of findings, and summary, conclusions and recommendations; and supplementary parts such as the works cited, a bibliography and the appendix.

  • Letter of transmittal

First impression is important; as such the letter or memo authorizing the report should be given serious consideration. The letter should:

  1. Deliver the report (‘Here is the report requested by’)

  2. Present an overview of the report

  3. Offer to meet to discuss the contents

  • Title page

The first page of a report contains the title of the report, name of addressee or recipient, author’s name and company, date and sometimes a report number.

  • Executive summary

An abridged version of the whole report, written in non-technical terms; very short and informative; normally describes salient features of report, draws a main conclusion, and makes a recommendation; always written last, after remainder of report has been written.

  • Table of contents

Shows contents and arrangement of report; always includes a list of appendices and, sometimes, a list of illustrations.

  • Introduction

Prepares reader for discussion to come; indicates purpose and scope of report, and provides background information so that reader can read discussion intelligently. The introduction should motivate the reader. The reader should understand why the problem was researched and why the study represents a contribution to existing knowledge. Guffey and Nagle (2003) suggest the introduction contains seven items:

  1. Explanation of how the report originated and why it was authorized.

  2. Description of the problem that prompted the report and the specific research questions to be answered.

(c) Purpose of the report.

(d) Scope (boundaries) and limitations or restrictions of the research.

(e) Sources and methods of collecting information.

(f) Summary of findings, if the report is written deductively.

(g) Preview of the major sections of the report to follow, thus providing coherence and transition for the reader.

The introductory paragraph is usually followed by a review of the literature, often given the heading ‘Background’. The literature review serves at least the following purposes in the presentation of the report:

  1. Placing the research in a historical context to show familiarity with relevant developments.

  1. Distinguishing what has been done from what needs to be done.

  1. Showing how your research builds on prior knowledge by presenting and evaluating what is already known about your research topic.

  1. Offering a point of reference for interpreting your own findings. Your report will show how your study expands, revises, or improves knowledge in an area.

The goal of the literature review is to demonstrate ‘the logical continuity between previous and present work’ (APA, 1994, p. 11).

  • Discussion of findings

A narrative that provides all the details, evidence and data needed by the reader to understand what the author was trying to do, what he or she actually did and found out and what he or she thinks should be done next.

Formal reports often use visual aids to emphasize, summarize or clarify information. Some general guidelines apply to the use of visuals: visuals must have meaningful titles and headings; visuals must be identified and discussed in the text; they must be located close to their reference in the text; they should be vertical on the page; and the source must be credited if appropriate. Using graphics software packages can create professional-looking visuals.

  • Conclusions

A summary of the major conclusions or milestones reached in the discussion; conclusions are only opinions so can never advocate action.

  • Recommendations

If the discussion and conclusions suggest that specific action needs to be taken, the recommendations state categorically what must be done.

  • References

A list of reference documents which were used to conduct the project and which the author considers will be useful to the reader; contains sufficient information for the reader to correctly identify and order the documents.

Although many methods of documenting reports are currently in practice (Guffey & Nagle, 2003) we will discuss only one: the APA method. The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends in-text citations that refer readers to a list of all references cited in the report.

For example: As Bratton and Gold (2003) explain, “there are five main HRM models that seek to demonstrate analytically the differences between traditional personnel management and HRM” (p. 18).

At the end of the report, all references are included on a page entitled ‘References’, as illustrated.


Bratton, J. & Gold, J. (2003). Human resource management: Theory and Practice (3rded.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Corporate Author:

Wood Gundy Ltd. (1974). The Canadian money market, revised. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

American Psychological Association. (1994). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.


Article in an academic journal:

Charlwood, A. (2002). Why do non-union employees want to unionize? British Journal of Industrial Relations 40 (3), 463 – 491.

Article in a newspaper:

Lewis, D. (2003).Women mentors on the rise. The Globe and Mail.

February 12, C8.

Other Sources:


Tillman, H.N. (1998). Evaluating quality on the net. [Online]. Available:

http:// www.

For a more comprehensive review of APA documentation go to:

  • Bibliography

It is recommended that a bibliography that lists all sources consulted in the research, whether actually cited or not, be included in a formal report.

  • Appendices

A section at the back of the report that contains supporting data (such as charts, tables, photographs, specifications and test results) that rightly belong in the discussion but, if included with it, would disrupt and clutter the major narrative.

Suggested Further Reading

Guffey, M. E. and Nagle, B. (2003). Essentials of Business Communications (4th Edition). Scarborough, ON: Nelson.

Hart, C. (1998). Doing a Literature Review. London: Sage.

Marsen S (2003) Professional Wriging: The Complete Guide for Business, Industry and IT. Palgrave Macmillan

1 Comment on "General guidelines for a formal report"

  1. rashmisinha | July 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Reply

    its really well explained.

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