Online Technical Writing: Report Format and Final Production

In this chapter, you explore the components of a formal report (like the one you might do in a technical writing course) and see what their required format and contents.

Take a look at these examples of formal technical reports:

Example technical report 1: DVD Technology and Applications Frames Nonframes Plain
Example technical report 2: Cerebral Palsy and Its Treatments Frames Nonframes Plain
Example technical report 3: Feasibility of Implementing a Departmental Intranet Frames Nonframes Plain
Example technical report 4: Photolithography: Its Importance in the Wafer Fab Frames Nonframes Plain
Example technical report 5: Effects of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Frames Nonframes Plain
Example technical report 6: Video Alert and Control Dashboard System Frames Nonframes Plain
Example technical report 7: Report on Light Water Nuclear Reactors Frames Nonframes Plain

General Formatting Guidelines

Here are some general formatting guidelines that apply to the entire report:

  • Use 1- or 1-1/2-inch margins for all four margins of the report. You might want to use a 1-1/2-inch margin at the top and 1-inch margins for the left, right, and bottom.
  • Use a 1-1/2-inch left margin if your binding uses a lot of space (for example, brad-type binders that require 2- or 3-hole punch).
  • Generally use doublespaced typing except in those areas where singlespacing is shown (for example, in the transmittal letter, descriptive abstract, figure titles, short vertical lists, and items in the information-sources list).
  • Use one side of the paper only.

Formal Reports: Component by Component

This section examines each component of the formal report and points out the key requirements in terms of content, design, and format. Remember that these are requirements, or "specifications." Much of the work that professional technical writers do is governed by specifications. Just as an electric component much be built according to certain design specifications, so must most technical documents such as instructions manuals, reference books, and so on. Your job, like any technical writer's, is to stay as close to the specifications as you possibly can.

Covers and label. Your final report should use some sort of cover and label. The best is the plastic spiral binding that you can have done at most copy shops. It uses only a quarter-inch of the left margin, and the bound report lies flat when open. The least expensive binding is the type for which you punch holes in the left margin and fix the pages in the folder with brads. Loose-leaf, ring binders are generally too large and bulky-also the pages tear. Copy shops offer other kinds of binding that work well also. However, avoid the clear or colored plastic ones with the plastic sleeve that fits on the left side-not only is it grade-schoolish, it's aggravating to use.

As for the label, the best option is to design your own and print it out on an ordinary sheet of paper, then take it to the copy shop and have it copied onto the cover of your choice. Adhesive labels are okay-but you have to buy hundreds of them and then find a typewriter to type them.

Report cover with label (the label can be photocopied onto the cover).

Transmittal letter. The transmittal letter basically says "here's that report we agreed I'd write!" Notice that it mentions the contract date, briefly discusses the purposes and main contents of the report, and then closes with a polite suggestion to get in touch after the recipient has had time to review the report. (Notice that the middle paragraph is very repetitious of the descriptive abstract and the introduction—that's okay. Reports are designed to accommodate multiple entry points by readers.)

Transmittal letter. It's not "officially" a page inside the report; normally it's attached to the outside of the front cover by a paperclip.

Title page and descriptive abstract. At the bottom of the title page is the descriptive abstract. See the section on descriptive abstracts for further details.

Title page and descriptive abstract. This is the first "official" page in the report. No page number is displayed on this page (but it is "i").

Table of contents. The table of contents (TOC) lists the headings from the body of the report and the page numbers on which they occur. It is not required to list all headings. This TOC could have excluded all third-level headings and fit on one page.

Table of contents. Notice the use of initial caps and all caps as well as the use of right alignment on the Arabic and Roman numerals. No page number is displayed on this page (but it is "ii").

Second page of the table of contents. Notice the format if you have more than one section in the appendix.

List of figures. In the list of figures, you list all of the titles for figures and tables in your report. If any title is too long, trim it to a meaningful portion. In this example, notice that instead of having a separate list of tables, the tables (Figures 13 and 14) are included here.

List of figures page. Notice that the page number would be "iii" if the table of contents had been only one page long.

Abstract (informative). See the section on informative abstract for details.

Informative abstract (first page).

Second page of the informative abstract.

Body of the report: introduction. See the discussion on introductions for details.

First page of the body of the report--the introduction. Notice that the title of the report is set at the top, just above the first-level heading and that no page number is displayed (although it is Arabic "1").

Second page of the introduction. Notice that the next section (section II) does not start directly below the end of this introduction. The next section starts with a first-level heading (Roman numeral "II") and therefore starts a new page.

Page with headings and graphics. In the body of your report, be sure to use the standard format for headings, for lists, and for graphics. If you are writing instructions, don't forget to use the standard format for special notices.


   This section of the report describes the key
components of the pressurized light water reactor and
explains their operation in the production of

Description of the Major Parts

   In a pressurized water reactor (see Figure 1),
the reactor cooling water entering the core is highly
pressurized so that it remains below the boiling point.
The water leaves the reactor to pass through steam
generators where a secondary coolant is allowed to boil
and produce steam to drive the turbine.

  Figure 1.  Schematic of a Pressurized Water
  Reactor.  Source:  Nero, Anthony V.  A Guidebook
  to Nuclear Reactors, p. 78.

The key components in this process are the core, the
control rods, the reactor vessel, the steam generators,
and the pressurizer.

   Core.  The core is the active portion of the reactor
providing heat to the system.  The core contains fuel
assemblies that contain fuel rods filled with fuel

   Fuel.  The fuel in the pressurized water reactor
consists of cylindrical pellets of slightly enriched
uranium dioxide with a diameter of 0.325 in by 0.39 in.
The pellets are dished at the ends to allow for thermal
expansion [12:2004].


Page from the body of the report. First- and second-level headings are used, along with a graphic and figure title. (This one uses the long form of citing the source. Directions for a shorter form can be found in graphics.)

Appendixes. The appendix is a good place to put information that just will not fit in the main body of the report, but still needs to be in the report. For example, big tables of data, large maps, forms used in an organization, or background discussion-these are good candidates for the appendix. Notice that each one is given a letter (A, B, C, and so on).

Appendix divider page. Call it "Appendix" if there is only one appendix (for example, the list of information sources); call it "Appendixes" if there is more than one appendix. (No page number is shown, but it would be "32").

Information sources. Remember to put all information sources in this list, including nonprinted, nonpublished ones. For style and format of these entries, see the section on documentation.

List of information sources. If this list is the only appendix, omit the "APPENDIX B." part and just have "INFORMATION SOURCES."

Second page of the information-sources list. Remember that titles of books, encyclopedias, and magazines are underlined (or in italics) and titles of magazine or encyclopedia articles are in double quotation marks.

Page-Numbering Style

Page numbering in technical reports may seem a little peculiar. However, it is pretty much the same style used generally in traditional publishing. Go back through the example pages in this chapter and check whether a page number is shown and what style is used.

  1. All pages within the front and back covers are numbered (except for the transmittal letter); but the page number is not always displayed.
  2. All pages coming before page 1 of the introduction use lowercase Roman numerals.
  3. All pages beginning with page 1 of the introduction use with Arabic numerals.
  4. Page numbers are not displayed on the transmittal letter, title page, first page of the table of contents, page 1 of the introduction, and the appendix divider page.
  5. There are several choices of pagination style for the main-text pages:

    • Center page numbers at the bottom (halfway between the last text line and the bottom edge of the paper).
    • Place page numbers in the top right corner (on the right margin, halfway between the top text line and the top edge of the paper). Do not display page numbers on any page with a centered (first-level) heading (display it centered at the bottom).
  6. Some word-processing software causes problems in implementing these pagination guidelines; let your instructor know.

Final Production

The following discussion focuses on what you should do to get your final report ready to hand in. You don't need to format your pasteup/format assignment like this, however. Also, these guidelines need not be followed for the preliminary draft of your final report.

Once you have your final draft as polished as you can get it, you are ready to "package" it for final production. Here are the steps:

  1. Make a good printout (or final typing) of your report, on good paper, using fresh print supplier (ribbon, toner, cartridge, whatever you printer or typewriter uses). Remember to design and type or print your cover label (just type or print it out on a clean white sheet of paper).
  2. Make sure your graphics are good quality. If they are, tape them down onto the pages. Make sure they fit neatly within the margins-top and bottom, left and right. (See the section on graphics for more on creating graphics and incorporating them into your reports.)
  3. Make sure all the components (discussed in the first part of this chapter) are in place and everything looks okay.
  4. Head for a good copy shop; there, get a good photocopy of your text pages. Check to see how the pages with taped-in graphics look. If they are not right, ask a copy-shop person for help.
  5. Now select the cover and have the label you design printed on it. Most shops have numerous colors and thicknesses of covers to choose from. (Spare us the leatherette look with the fake gold-embossed trim-make it plain, simple, honest!)
  6. Finally, get the report with its cover bound. The plastic spiral binding works great. There are other bindings that work nicely too. Remember, though-no clear plastic cover with those plastic sleeves on the left side!)

You can have your final copy back-just call your instructor after the semester is over or hand the report in with a self-addressed, stamped envelope that can hold it.

Take special pride in this part of the project! If you've not produced a report this way before, you'll probably be very pleased and impressed with the results (I'll be out there somewhere muttering, "See--I told you this would all be worth it...")

Interested in courses related to this page or a printed version? See the resources page. Return to the main menu of this online textbook for technical writing.

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