Reports and essays: key differences
Help and advice
You'll complete assignments with different requirements throughout your degree, so it's important to understand what you need to do for each of them. Here we explore the key differences between reports and essays.
This page describes general features of academic reports and essays. Depending on your subject you may use all of these features, a selection of them, or you may have additional requirements.
There is no single right way to write a report or essay, but they are different assignments. At a glance:
- Reports depend heavily on your subject and the type of report.
- Essays usually have specific content and a planned structure with a focus on sense and flow. You subject might need different types of information in your introduction – some disciplines include a short background and context here, while others begin their discussion, discuss their resources or briefly signpost the topic.
Differences between reports and essays
This table compares reports and essays and provides an outline of the standard structure for each. Your assignment will also depend on your discipline, the purpose of your work, and your audience – so you should check what you need to do in your course and module handbooks, instructions from your lecturer, and your subject conventions.
|Reports have a table of contents.||Essays don't have a table of contents.|
|Reports are divided into headed and numbered sections and sometimes sub-sections, using the IMRaD format(see below).||Essays are not divided into sections but you may have separate headed appendices.|
|Reports often originate from outside academic subjects and are typically used in the world of work.||Essays originate in academic settings, including practice-based subjects.|
|Reports often present data and findings that you have collected yourself, for example through a survey, experiment or case study. Some reports focus on applying theory to your field of work.||Essays usually focus on analysing or evaluating theories, past research by other people, and ideas. They may include applying theory to practice if you are in a practice-based field.|
|A report usually contains tables, charts and diagrams.||Essays don't usually include tables, charts, or diagrams.|
|Reports usually include descriptions of the methods used.||Essays don't usually refer to the methods you used to arrive at your conclusions.|
|The discussion in a report often comments on how the report research could be improved and extended, and may evaluate the methods and processes used.||Essays don't usually reflect on the process of researching and writing the essay itself.|
|Reports sometimes include recommendations.||Essays don't include recommendations.|
Table adapted from Cottrell, 2003, p. 209.
The structure of reports
Most reports use an IMRaD structure: Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion.
Below are some common sections that also appear in reports. Some sections include alternative headings.
1. Table of contents
Your contents shows the number of each report section, its title, page number and any sub-sections. Sub-section numbers and details start under the section title, not the margin or the number.
2. Abstract or Executive summary
This brief summary of the report is usually the last thing you write.
Your introduction describes the purpose of the report, explains why it necessary or useful, and sets out its precise aims and objectives.
4. Literature review
This describes current research and thinking about the problem or research question, and is often incorporated into the introduction.
5. Methods or Methodology
This describes and justifies the methods or processes used to collect your data.
6. Results or Findings
This section presents the results (or processed data) from the research and may consist of mainly tables, charts and or diagrams.
7. Discussion, or Analysis, or Interpretation
This section analyses the results and evaluates the research carried out.
The conclusion summarises the report and usually revisits the aims and objectives.
In this section the writer uses the results and conclusions from the report to make practical suggestions about a problem or issue. This may not be required.
You can include raw data or materials that your report refers to in the appendix, if you need to. The data is often presented as charts, diagrams and tables. Each item should be numbered: for example, write Table 1 and its title; Table 2 and its title, and so on as needed.
Structure of essays
Your essay introduction contextualises and gives background information about the topic or questions being discussed, and sets out what the essay is going to cover.
Your essay body is divided into paragraphs. These paragraphs help make a continuous, flowing text.
The conclusion summarises the main points made in the essay. Avoid introducing new information in your conclusion.
Bibliography or Reference list
This is a list of the resources you've used in your essay. This is is usually presented alphabetically by authors’ surname.
Reference for the Table of Distinctions above:
Cottrell, S. (2003). The Study Skills Handbook (2nd ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave.