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 an example of a technical background report. This one 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:

There are many other items we could think up and add 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 section 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 of 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.

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 information sources or from other sources such as people.

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 example of a primary research report. It 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 discussion of 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.

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.

This type of report varies greatly in terms of how long the typical sections are, whether they get combined with other sections, and what they are called (their headings).

Typical format of primary research reports. In most technical-writing courses, you should use a format like the one shown in the section 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. More broadly, 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.

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. As you prepare to write a set of specifications, look ahead as best you can to determine which formats—graphics, tables (or lists), and sentences—will be the most succinct, exact, and practical for each of the sections of your specifications. For details, see the section on graphics.