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Handbook on Report Formats

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Report Formats

An overview of the how, what, and why of organizing different types of reports

How do you select a format and use it?

  • Purposes and types of report formats
  • Parts of a report
  • Specific advice for writing reports

What is format?

  • A plan of organization
  • A means of structuring material
  • A framework for arranging information

Why should you use a format?

  • To present your report as clearly and as concisely as possible to one reader or to a variety of audiences
  • To signal the type of information being presented
  • To enhance the presentation

Your readers

Before you write a report, you must consider your readers. How you format your report will depend on your readers’ goals and needs. Ask yourself the following:

  • Who are my readers? Remember there may be more readers than you expect. For example, a feasibility report for your boss may be given to someone higher up in the company and a research report may be used by another researcher years later.
  • Why do they need this report?
  • What information do they need to get from this report?

General report format guidelines

When you write a report, you will want to make it easy to read and understand. Here are some guidelines to apply to any report you write:

  • Use lists: Whenever you can, help your reader by using lists. Give your lists visual emphasis by using bullets.
  • Use headings and subheadings: Use headings and subheadings to guide your reader through the organization of the report and list them in the table of contents. Each section should have a clear topic statement to let the reader know what will be included in the section.
  • Use clear typefaces, such as Times New Roman or Arial: Avoid using more than one typeface in a document. Bold section headings for emphasis.
  • Use white space to enhance your information: Dense blocks of text are difficult to read and will make it more difficult for your readers to find the information they need. For further information on this topic, see the OWL resource on document design, HATS.

Other guidelines for writing reports

  • Write the body of your report first—before you write the abstract: Most report writers prefer to save the mechanical elements, such as the title page and the table of contents, for the last step.
  • Maintain consistent structure: Once you determine the structure you will use, keep using it consistently throughout the report. This will make it easier for your readers to understand your report.
  • Choose carefully the voice, mood, and tense: These depend on the rhetorical situation. Consider the expectations of your readers and the needs of your readers. For lab reports and long formal reports, most companies and most teachers prefer that you use the third person passive: "A test was run…" NOT "I ran the test…"

Past tense is used for explaining procedures, and present tense is used for generalizations and for stating what the results show.

For memos and letters, most companies prefer the first person active: "I have reviewed the program…" NOT "The program has been reviewed…"

Check out the Purdue YouTube Channel for vidcasts on writing engineering reports.