Guidance for writing reports

Purpose and introduction

The purpose of this document is to provide guidance on the preparation and presentation of University reports. This guidance is intended for authors preparing reports intended for submission to University committees(including Senate, Council and their sub committees), as well as those for consideration by senior University officers.

The guidance takes a best practice approach to report writing and encourages the use of a standard style and format – layout, font, numbering conventions, use of headings etc.

It is accepted that the standard style and format described in these guidelines will not necessarily be suitable in every detail for every type of report. For example, some of the standard headings may not be applicable or relevant to certain subjects, and if followed too rigidly, in such cases they may impair the flow of the report. Authors will need to adopt a common sense approach in deciding whether to adapt or omit certain aspects of the recommended style and format in order to achieve ‘best fit’ with their specific report.1 If in doubt, authors are invited to seek further guidance from the Governance Office.

Definition

For the purpose of this guidance, the term “report” refers to systematic, organised documents which are prepared for consideration by a University committee or senior University officers, and are designed to address a specific subject, problem or proposal. Such reports commonly include the following features:

  • A description of a sequence of events or facts.
  • An evaluation of the significance of these events or facts.
  • A discussion of whether these events or facts require actions or decisions to be taken.
  • An assessment of the consequences of taking, or not taking, such actions or decisions.
  • Conclusions.
  • Recommendations.

The importance of layout and style

Basic aspects of a report’s layout and style can have a significant impact not just on its general ‘readability’, but also its ultimate value and effectiveness. A report’s recipients will need to understand clearly its purpose and significance. The layout and style provided in this guidance will allow recipients to recognise clearly a report’s topic, recommendations, key issues and risks/opportunities. Poor layout and report style run the risk of valuable time may be wasted as a consequence of a decision being deferred whilst a report is taken away to be rewritten and clarified.

The single most common problem with many reports is that information is not presented in a concise manner. As well as keeping conciseness in mind, report authors should avoid the following pitfalls:

  • The purpose of the report has not been explained clearly. Why is it being presented, and what is it trying to achieve?
  • The report has not said what the recipients are supposed to do with it. Do they simply have to note its contents, or are they expected to approve a recommendation contained in the report? For this reason, the report’s recommendation should be set out unequivocally at the beginning of the report.
  • The full implications of a report’s recommendations have not been expressed clearly. What do they actually commit the University to do? Will any additional expenditure (or savings) be involved? If so when, and how much? What is the opportunity cost? Do the proposals carry any risks, or any implications for different equality groups?
  • Any previous discussions associated with the report have not been disclosed. Has an earlier version of the report, or at least the same topic, already been discussed by another committee or considered by another senior University officer? If so, what was the outcome?
  • The draft report has not been proof-read properly, and irritating mistakes have appeared in the final version.

This guidance specifies the house style for University reports, to help eliminate these common problems, improve consistency and achieve a minimum standard.

Basic features of the house style

The University’s house style for reports has the following basic features:

  • Margins. 2.0 cm for top and bottom and 2.5 cm for left and right sides.
  • Font. Calibri. Font size for the report title and committee name (if the report is submitted to a University committee) is 14 and, in bold, with the rest of the report in font size 11. Section headings should be in bold, not underlined.
  • Paragraphs. All paragraphs should be numbered sequentially. If a paragraph requires subsections, avoid bullet points and instead use a., b., c. etc. for the first level and i., ii., iii. etc. for the second level.
  • Spacing. Lines and paragraphs should be spaced at 12 pt, to open out the text and make it easier to read.

Basic features of an effective report

To be effective, a report must contain the relevant facts, analysis and evidence which support its final conclusions and recommendations. Report authors should bear in mind the following:

  • The report’s recipient must be given the information that they need in order to be able to do what it is being asked to do.
  • Information that is not required for the main body of the report, but which may help the committee to further understand, it is best placed in an appendix.
  • The report should be broken down into logical sections, each with its own section heading, arranged in the order used in this guidance.
  • Report authors should use short, simple words with short sentences organised into short paragraphs. Plain English guidelines recommend that the most effective sentences contain on average 15-20 words. Individual paragraphs should normally not exceed 10 lines.
  • Charts and diagrams should only be included if they are necessary for the recipients to understand the report or make a key contribution to enforcing a particular point. Where charts and diagrams are used, these should be titled clearly and referenced in the report.
  • In the interests of economy, the University expects that all reports and their appendices will be produced in a format which is suitable for printing in black and white. Colour should not be used unless it is essential.
  • Many committee members and senior officers will not have time to read long reports, so include vital information only and use the minimum amount of space. A cover sheet is required for all reports of more than four sides in length, excluding appendices.
  • Before its first use, an acronym should spell out the words in full, followed by the acronym in brackets. The acronym can then be used for later references in the report – e.g. University Leadership Team (ULT) at first mention, thereafter ULT.
  • Report authors should stick to plain English and avoid jargon or gobbledegook.

Use of headings

The italicized headings in section I below are the standard headings for use in reports. They represent the University’s standard structure and they are arranged in the order in which they should appear.

It is possible that some of these standard headings may not be applicable in all reports. This may occur, for example, where the content and purpose of the report is so straightforward that it requires only a simple, very short report. Authors will need to judge the relevance of the headings carefully in each case. Where necessary, it is best to omit any redundant heading(s) rather than enter them as ‘not applicable’.

Equally, authors may use additional headings of their own if this adds to their report’s clarity and effectiveness.

Report cover sheets

All reports of more than four sides of A4 in length (excluding appendices) must be accompanied by a one-side cover sheet. The purpose of the cover sheet is to enable the reader of a longer report to see quickly what the main report is about, what the committee is required to do with it, and whether there are any important timing issues attached to any decisions required of the committee.

A template for the one-side cover sheet is given in the Appendix.

Appendices

Authors may need to convey significant background information or lengthy documents in support of their report. Appendices should be titled clearly (Appendix A, Appendix B and so on) and must be referenced in the main report if used. Appendices should not be used to convey significant, new information, but can provide more in depth material/background information in support of the report.

Standard headings for committee reports

The standard headings to be used in committee reports are shown in italics and explained in the sections below.

Purpose of this report

This section should provide a concise statement of what the report is setting out to achieve.

Recommendation(s)

This is the most important section of any report, which should state clearly the recommendation(s) which the recipient is being asked to consider. Recipients should never be left to ‘guess’ what to do with the report. In most cases, unless they are is simply being asked to note the report, this will usually involve a recommendation for a certain course of action to be taken by or on behalf of the University. It should always state clearly what the recipients are being asked to do, for example:

  • is it to comment on something in the report?
  • is it to approve a recommendation in the report?
  • is it to recommend something in the report for approval by a higher body?
  • is it simply to note the report?

If more than one decision or action is required these should be listed out separately so that the recipients fully understands what is involved.

Background

This section should provide a short and succinct summary of where the report has arisen from. It should also confirm whether any of the matters addressed in the report have been the subject of previous discussions or decisions within the University, including whether the report (or a version thereof) has been considered by a University committee or senior officer.

Key issues

This section forms the core of the report and its purpose is to explain in more detail the key issues that the recipients are being asked to consider. It should set out the evidence and arguments for and against any proposed action(s) that the recipients are being asked to take. It should also explain any relationship between the subject of the report and the University’s strategic objectives or external policy/regulatory drivers. Sub-headings may be useful in this section.

Resource implications

This section should summarise the resource implications that flow from any recommendations that the recipients are being asked to approve. It is important that all projected costs or savings are stated explicitly and that financial risks are being explored. It must be made clear whether the required resource is already accounted for and available (fully or only in part) in the relevant financial plan, and whether an additional allocation will be required.

Risk factors

This section should indicate whether any matters addressed in the report carry a significantly increased level of risk for the University – and if so, the steps that will be taken to mitigate the risk - or if they will help to reduce a risk identified on a previous occasion. Report authors may wish to consider risks related to the following areas and address how they have been addressed and which colleagues have been consulted therein:

  • Legal.
  • Students. Where a report’s recommendation is likely to have a significant impact on the student body, authors should state clearly how students have been consulted in the decision-making process.
  • Public relations.

Human Resources, including Equality implications

This section should indicate whether due regard has been taken of any potential human resources-related, including equal opportunity, implications arising from matters addressed in the report. Some proposals, particularly those relating to policies, procedures, or delivery of services may require an equality impact assessment to be carried out. This section should include brief details of the outcome of such an assessment, and confirm whether any mitigating actions will need to be taken as a result. Further guidance on this area is available on from the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team.

Social impact and sustainability

This section should indicate whether due regard has been taken of any potential social impact and/or sustainability implications arising from matters addressed in the report. This section should include brief details of the outcome of such an assessment, and confirm whether any mitigating actions will need to be taken as a result.

Timing implications

There may have been an important reason why it was necessary for the report to be presented to this particular meeting. In addition, there may be specific timing implications attached to proposals in the report, such as where a failure to make a decision could result in a critical deadline being missed or an important opportunity being lost. Any such factors and their consequences should be drawn to the committee’s attention in this section.

Conclusions and next steps

This section should briefly recap the key issues explored in the report and, where appropriate, the conclusions and recommendations that arise from it. Recommendations should be described in way that is clear and unambiguous, and they should also indicate to the committee where responsibility for implementing the recommendations will be located and what the next steps will be if the recommendations are approved.

And finally, all reports should end with the author’s first and last name (no personal titles to be used) and date.