For the final report in some technical-writing courses, you can write one of (or even a combination of) several different types of reports. If there is some other type of report that you know about and want to write, get with your instructor to discuss it.

This chapter briefly defines these different report types; some are covered in full detail elsewhere in this book; the rest are described here. But to get everything in one place, all the reports are briefly defined here, with cross-references to where their presentations occur:

Technical Background Reports

The technical background report is hard to define—it's not a lot of things, but it's hard to say what it is. It doesn't provide step-by-step directions on how to do something in the way that instructions do. It does not formally provide recommendations in the way that feasibility reports do. It does not report data from original research and draw conclusions in the way that primary research reports do.

So what does the technical background report do? It provides information on a technical topic but in such a way that is adapted for a particular audience that has specific needs for that information. Imagine a topic like this: renal disease and therapy. A technical background report on this topic would not dump out a ten-ton textbook containing everything you could possibly say about it. It would select information about the topic suited to a specific group of readers who had specific needs and uses for the information. Imagine the audience was a group of engineers bidding on a contract to do part of the work for a dialysis clinic. Yes, they need to know about renal disease and its therapy, but only to the extent that it has to do with their areas of expertise. Such a background report might also include some basic discussion of renal disease and its treatment, but no more than what the engineers need to do their work and to interact with representatives of the clinic.

Take a look at the examples of technical background reports.

One of the reports is an exploration of global warming, or the greenhouse effect, as it is called in the report. Notice that it discusses causes, then explores the effects, then discusses what can be done about it.

Typical contents and organization of technical background reports. Unlike most of the other reports discussed in this course guide, the technical background report does not have a common set of contents. Because it focuses on a specific technical topic for specific audiences who have specific needs or uses for the information, it grabs at whatever type of contents it needs to get the job done. You use a lot of intuition to plan this type of report. For example, with the report on renal disease and treatment, you'd probably want to discuss what renal disease is, what causes it, how it is treated, and what kinds of technologies are involved in the treatment. If you don't fully trust your intuition, use a checklist like the following:

We could add many other categories to a checklist like this, but maybe this is enough to get you started planning the contents of your technical background report. And remember that each of these checklist items may represent a full section in the report—not a sentence or two.

As for the organization of these parts of the report, again, your intuitions are in order. Some subtopics logically come before others. See the chapter on organizational patterns and applying them.

Typical format of technical background reports. See the format for technical background reports. That chapter takes you from the front cover all the way to the last page in this type of report, showing the expected contents and format. Remember that in most technical-writing courses, you are expected to use a format like this exactly and precisely—unless you work out some other arrangements with your instructor.

Technical Guides and Handbooks

There's a distinction to be made between reports, on the one hand, and guides and handbooks, on the other. However, it's difficult to distinguish between the two latter types. A report, as the preceding section explains, is simply a collection of information on a topic—its background. For example, your boss might call you in and bark out this order: "Jones, our architectural firm needs to catch up with this green roof thing. See if you can pull some basic information together for me. How about in two weeks?"

A guide or handbook, on the other hand, has a somewhat different purpose. A guide would "guide" its readers in determining the feasibility of a green roof, planning, and constructing one. A handbook might contain little or no guidance but have lots of reference information about green roofs: associations supporting them, case studies, specifications, vendors, government ordinances, and so on.

But, frankly, the distinction between these two is difficult. And, in terms of format, style, and structure, there is very little difference. The abstract and executive summary have no logical place in a guide or handbook. If you are taking a technical writing course, check with your instructor about whether you still should include an abstract or executive summary.

For more detail, see handbooks.

Primary Research Reports

Primary research report is our name for that kind of report that presents original research data—no matter whether that data was generated in a laboratory or out in the "field." A secondary research report then would be a report (such as the technical background report) that presents information gained largely from printed or online information sources or from other sources such as interviews or direct observation.

You're probably already familiar with this type of report as the "lab report." The contents and organization of this type of report have a basic logic: you present your data and conclusions, but also present information on how you went about the experiment or survey. In other words, you enable the reader to replicate (the fancy scientific word for repeat) your experiment, or at least, visualize quite specifically how you went about it.

See the examples of primary research reports.

One of the examples is an experiment to see whether production of rainbow trout can be increased by varying water temperature. While there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the typical sections in primary research reports and the sections you see in the actual rainbow trout report, you'll find that most of the functions are carried out. Instead of a full paragraph, sometimes all that is needed is a single sentence. And sometimes certain functions are combined into a single sentence.

Contents of primary research reports. To enable readers to replicate your experiment or survey, you provide information like the following (each normally in its own section):

As for the organization of a primary research report, the typical contents just listed are arranged in an actual primary research report in just about the same order they were just discussed. Loosely, it is a chronological order. First, you discuss set-up issues such as the problem and objectives, then you discuss the procedures, then the data resulting from those procedures, then your conclusions based upon that data.

Typical format of primary research reports. In most technical-writing courses, you should use a format like the one shown in the chapter on report format. (The format you see in the example starting on page is for journal articles). In a primary research report for a technical-writing course, however, you should probably use the format in which you have a transmittal latter, title page, table of contents, list of figures, and abstracts and in which you bind the report.

Technical Specifications

Specifications are descriptions of products or product requirements. They can provide details for the design, manufacture, testing, installation, and use of a product. You typically see specifications in the documentation that comes in the package with certain kinds of products, for example, CD players or computers. These describe the key technical characteristics of the item. But specifications are also written as a way of "specifying" the construction and operational characteristics of a thing. They are then used by people who actually construct the thing or go out and attempt to purchase it. When you write specifications, accuracy, precision of detail, and clarity are critical. Poorly written specifications can cause a range of problems and lead to lawsuits.


Outline and two-column style used to present information in specifications. Graphics, tables, and lists are heavily used, but some details can only be provided through sentences and paragraphs. For these reasons then, specifications have a particular style, format, and organization:


Graphics and tables used to for present information in specifications.

Contents and Organization of Specifications. Organization is critical in specifications—readers need to be able to find one or a collection of specific details. To facilitate the process of locating individual specifications, use headings, lists, tables, and identifying numbers as discussed previously. But a certain organization of the actual contents is also standard:

Graphics in specifications. In specifications, use graphics wherever they enable you to convey information more effectively. For example, in the specifications for a cleanroom for production of integrated circuits, drawings, diagrams, and schematics convey some of the information much more succinctly and effectively than sentences and paragraphs. See the example of a graphics used in specifications writing in the second illustration on specifications. For details, see the chapter on graphics.

Literature Reviews

A literature review summarizes what is known about a specific research topic, narrates the milestones of the research history, indicates where current knowledge conflicts, and discusses areas where there are still unknowns.

A literature review can be a standalone document or a component of a primary research report (as discussed previously). Research journals often contain articles whose sole purpose is to provide a literature review. As a component of a research report, a literature review can be as long as a whole chapter in book, only a paragraph in a research article, or as short as a few sentences in an introduction. In all cases, the function of the literature review is the same: to summarize the history and current state of research on a topic.

As you know from the preceding section, a primary research report (such as those in engineering research journals) focuses on a question: for example, the effect of weightlessness on growing vegetables. The literature-review section of that report would summarize what is known about this topic, indicate where current knowledge conflicts, and discuss areas where there are still unknowns.

A well-constructed literature review tells a story. It narrates the key events in the research on a particular question or in a particular area:

  1. Who were the first modern researchers on this topic? What were their findings, conclusions, and theories? What questions or contradictions could they not resolve?
  2. What did researchers following them discover? Did their work confirm, contradict, or overturn the work of their predecessors? Were they able to resolve questions their predecessors could not?

You narrate this series of research events in a literature review. You can consider this research as similar to the thesis–antithesis–synthesis process. You start out with a thesis, then along comes an antithesis to contradict it, and eventually some resolution of this contradiction called a synthesis is achieved, which is actually a step forward in the knowledge about that topic. But now the synthesis becomes a thesis, and the process starts all over again.

Hilton Obenzinger of Stanford University in "How to Research, Write, and Survive a Literature Review?" ("http://www.stanford.edu/dept/undergrad/urp/PDFLibrary/writing/LiteratureReviewHandout.pdf) calls this type of literature review a "road map." He identifies several other types, most importantly those that review the methodology of the research as well as or instead the the research findings. Obenzinger emphasizes that the literature review is not just a passive summary of research on a topic but an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of that research—an effort to see where that research is "incomplete, methodologically flawed, one-sided, or biased." In any case, as the following examples show, a literature review is a discussion of a body of research literature not an annotated bibliography. Notice in the following examples that literature reviews use standard bracketed IEEE textual citation style and end with a bibliography (called "References").

Consider the following excerpt, which shows the beginning of the review of literature, found in A. S. Tolba, A.H. El-Baz, and A.A. El-Harby, "Face Recognition: A Literature Review." International Journal of Signal Processing, vol. 2, no. 2, 2005:

Face recognition, in additional to having numerous practical applications such as bankcard identification, access control, mug shots searching, security monitoring, and surveillance system, is a fundamental human behavior that is essential for effective communications and interactions among people.

A formal method of classifying faces was first proposed in [1]. The author proposed collecting facial profiles as curves, finding their norm, and then classifying other profiles by their deviations from the norm. This classification is multi-modal, i.e., resulting in a vector of independent measures that could be compared with other vectors in a database.

As you can see, the first paragraph establishes the topic and its importance; the second paragraph goes back to the beginning of modern research that provided a foundation for computer-based face recognition. This literature review moves on to the current status of research in this field:

Progress has advanced to the point that face recognition systems are being demonstrated in real-world settings [2]. The rapid development of face recognition is due to a combination of factors: active development of algorithms, the availability of a large databases of facial images, and a method for evaluating the performance of face recognition algorithms.

Notice how this next excerpt describes an important advance in the research on this topic, but then points out its deficiencies:

The literature review of face-recognition research examines many different methods used in computer-based face recognition. For each, it summarizes the method, the results, and the strengths and weaknesses of that method. This example is not so much the thesis-antithesis-synthesis pattern mentioned above but rather a collection of efforts all striving toward a common goal, increased accuracy of computer-based face recognition. Here's how the summary of that process ends in this literature review:

In [83], a combined classifier system consisting of an ensemble of neural networks is based on varying the parameters related to the design and training of classifiers. The boosted algorithm is used to make perturbation of the training set employing MLP as base classifier. The final result is combined by using simple majority vote rule. This system achieved 99.5% on Yale face database and 100% on ORL face database. To the best of our knowledge, these results are the best in the literatures.