A Middlesex University resource provided by Andrew Roberts home page
to all of Andrew Roberts' web site
University education in plain English alphabetically indexed - click for main index

Advice about writing a Report, a Dissertation or a Thesis

The use of the terms report - dissertation and thesis is variable. The research may be library or empirical and the terms may indicate the level of study rather than the type. Here are some definitions from the Compact Oxford Dictionary:

Report: an account given of a matter after investigation or consideration

Thesis (plural theses): a long essay or dissertation involving personal research, written as part of a university degree. (But see thesis as another word for argument)

Dissertation: a long essay, especially one written for a university degree or diploma.

What is a Report/Dissertation?

Stages of production

Researching a project

Parts of a Report/Dissertation

Literature Review

Literature Search

What the marker may be looking for


Practical Reports

In the practical world of business or government, a report conveys information and (sometimes) recommendations from a researcher who has investigated a topic in detail.

A dissertation would probably not make recommendations, unless they are suggestions for further research.

A report like this will usually be requested by people who need the information for a specific purpose and their request may be written in terms of reference or the brief.

Whatever your report or dissertation, it is important to look at the instructions for what is wanted.

A report like this differs from an essay or a dissertation in that it is designed to provide information which will be acted on, rather than to be read by people interested in the ideas for their own sake. An academic report (see below) combines features of practical report and dissertations.

Academic Reports

A report written for an academic course can be thought of as a simulation. We can imagine that someone wants the report for a practical purpose, although we are really writing the report as an academic exercise for assessment. Theoretical ideas will be more to the front in an academic report than in a practical one. Sometimes a report seems to serve academic and practical purposes.

Students on placement with organisations often have to produce a report for the organisation and for assessment on the course. Although the background work for both will be related, in practice, the report the student produces for academic assessment will be different from the report produced for the organisation, because the needs of each are different.

Academic Dissertation

Like a report, a dissertation is based on research, but the focus is on ideas rather than information. Whereas a report may be made on a subject other people choose, a dissertation is much more likely to require you to choose what you want to do and how to do it.

You may begin a dissertation with a general topic that you want to investigate. You could formulate this in a provisional title. You will now need to focus your mind on how to carry out the research. You could draft answers to the following questions?

  • What are your aims and objectives?

  • What do you want to find out?

  • What are your main research questions?

  • What books and other resources can you begin using?

    In this way, you will have begun to form a research proposal


    The answers to these questions will help you to decide what to put in the report and what style to write it in:

    Who is your audience? Who are you writing for?

    What do they know already?

    What do they need to know?

    What do they want to know?


    Because a Report or Dissertation is based on research, the stages to producing one should logically be organised around the research process.

    1. Stage one: Framing the issues and planning
    2. Stage two: Information gathering (Researching the Project)
    3. Stage three: Analysing the information
    4. Stage four: Writing the Report.

    Briefly, the sources you use will be determined by the aims and scope of your report. You may gather data yourself, for example through carrying out interviews or experiments. You will also be looking for relevant secondary data, information that someone else has gathered or produced and that you will find in, for example, books, journals, newspapers, and other reports. Ensure that the information you use is relevant and that you always reference its source.


    It is not sensible to leave all your writing until the end. There is always the possibility that it will take much longer than you anticipate and you will not have enough time. There could also be pressure upon available wordprocessors as other students try to complete their own reports. It is wise to begin writing up some aspects of your research as you go along. Remember that you do not have to write your report in the order that it will be read. Often it is easiest to start with the method section. Leave the introduction and the abstract to last. The use of a wordprocessor makes it very straightforward to modify and rearrange what you have written as your research progresses and your ideas change. The very process of writing will help your ideas to develop. Last but by no means least, ask someone to proofread your work.


      ". . . Writers are big procrastinators. They find countless reasons not to get started. Even when they finally get themselves seated at their desks, they always seem to find diversions: make the coffee, sharpen the pencil, go to the bathroom, thumb through more literature . . . Remember that you are never `ready' to write; writing is something you must make a conscious decision to do and then discipline yourself to follow through. . ." (Bogdan, R.C. and Biklen, S.K. 1982)
    It is easier said than done, but do not keep on waiting until you are "in the mood." It will not happen. Make an early start and write up a section as soon as it is ready.

    You should not leave all your report writing until after your research is completed. Instead, get into a habit of writing up sections while your research is still in progress. Using a wordprocessor means that it is simple to go back and make changes as your ideas develop or as new data are discovered. Start writing with a section about which you feel reasonably confident. Do not sit and stare at a blank screen or page, just get writing. Remember that this is only a first draft. It does not have to be perfect. Your literature review can be written up early on (and added to if you read more or as you discover more). The methodology section is often reasonably straightforward to write. (Remember, the abstract should be left until the end).


    Your timetable for doing your research should include a timetable for writing your report.

    Within the writing timetable, set yourself deadlines for different pieces of writing.

    Try to write regularly. As with all studying, "little and often" will bring better results than doing nothing for days and then working flat out through a day and a night. When you stop, try to be clear what you will be writing next and avoid stopping at a place where the next step will be difficult: this could deter you from getting started again.

    Let your friends, family and flatmates know that you are busy writing and explain that it is important that you are not disturbed.


    Report and dissertations have a different structure and layout to an essay

    A report is used for reference and is often quite a long document. It has to be clearly structured for you and your readers to quickly find the information wanted.

    Follow guidelines given to you when asked to write the report, but, if not given any, the format below is generally acceptable. If you are not supplied with a required or recommended outline, this one will probably suffice, although not every report will need all the sections. If you do have a recommended outline, you should use that, but the plan below will help to explain what goes into each section.

    The purposes of Reports differ so much that any instructions for your particular report are very important. Click here for an example of a report based on a learning agreement and a reflective diary. This differs considerably from the report outlined below.

    You need to plan carefully to make sure that the information which you have gathered gets put under the correct headings. Decide on your headings and subheadings.


    The headings and subheading you need will be determined by the aims of your report and the requirements of your course.

    Make a list of the main parts (as shown under Parts of a Report) that you will need for your report. Then add your own headings and subheadings as appropriate.

    Go through the material you have gathered and list all your points and any supporting information under the appropriate headings.

    [Now take a break and come back later, refreshed.]

    Go through the points under each heading and underline the most important. Cross through any that seem irrelevant, or put them under another heading if they are out of place. Leave the points which you are unsure about. You can decide whether to include or reject them later.

    Arrange the headings into a logical sequence. Read through what you have planned and decide whether or not to include the points about which you were unsure.

    Decide what supporting information should go into the appendices and what should remain in the main body.

    Draft some interim conclusions by summarising, analysing and evaluating your findings.

    Consider what recommendations (if required) should be made.

    Write a full draft, taking account of the points on structure outlined above, and the points on layout outlined below.


    Read through the draft, checking for errors and making revisions. Use the spellchecker on your computer and also a grammar check if available.


    Cover sheet - Contents - Introduction - Methodology - Literature review Results Analysis Discussion - Bibliography

    Cover Sheet

    This will (almost always) include:

  • The full title of your project.

  • Your name and/or student number, or whatever other means is used to identify you

  • Means to identify where the work "belongs". For example the name of the unit of which the project is a part; the name of the institution; the name of your supervisor

  • The date

    It is a good idea to make a draft cover sheet when you start writing and to use this as the first page of your full draft. This will mean that when you show the draft to your supervisor it will be clear whose work it is and what it is for. It will also keep the title you are using in your mind, and so help you to maintain your focus.

    An Acknowledgements section is usually not needed. If you received substantial cooperation from an organisation, it would be polite to mention this, and sometimes people cooperate with you on condition that you acknowledge their help.

    Contents or Table of Contents

    Use a consistent system in dividing your work into parts. Headings and subheadings, for example - Or chapters (with or without headings and subheadings) - Or chapters and sections.

    A simple (unnumbered) contents list makes it much easier to read your work. Make a simple one by listing the headings and subheadings (without page numbers) at the beginning of the work.

    A contents list with page numbers will make it easier for readers to find their way around your work. If you decide add page numbers, add them at the end, when the work has finished growing and changing pages.

    Sometimes a numbered sections report/dissertation is useful You could use chapters for each major part and subdivide these into sections and subsections. 1, 2, 3, etc, can be used as the numbers for each chapter. The sections for chapter 3 (for example) would be 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, and so on. For a further subdivision of a subsection you can use 3.2.1, 3.2.2, and so on.

    It can help people find their way quickly in a report if each new chapter begins on a new page.


    Abstract or Summary or Executive Summary
    and/or Introduction

    These are all the overviews of the whole report. They should let the reader see, in advance, what is in it.

    If you have an abstract and an introduction (as you often will) you will have to decide what to put into each. The abstract, in this case, will be a summary of the whole that could be used separately from the whole, whereas the introduction is an integaral part of the work that introduces it to the reader. There will be some overlap in what each says. It seems to me that if a point is sufficiently important to be mentioned in the abstract, it should also be in the introduction, but the intruction will cover more.

    To show the reader, in advance, what is in your work, the introduction would include what you set out to do, how reviewing literature focused and narrowed your research, the relation of the methodology you chose to your aims, a summary of your findings and of your analysis of the findings.

    If you prepared a Research Proposal at the start of your research, it should have guided you through the research and will provide a basis for drafting your introduction. For example, your introduction might begin by explaining

  • What it is about.

  • Your aims and objectives, and how they may have developed or been modified in the course of your work.

  • What you wanted to find out and what you did find out.

  • Your main research questions

  • How you went about finding out what you wanted to know, and where you get your information from (books, journals, the internet, questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, for example)

    These basic issues might be expected to be covered before you move on to introduce in greater depth the matters you have covered, what you have found out, and what your conclusions are.

    Aims and Purpose or Aims and Objectives
    [This may be part of your introduction
    [Example], or the first item of the body of the work. It is an important focus for everything you do]

    Why did you do the work? What was the problem you were investigating?

    This relates back to your Research Proposal

    If you are not including a literature review, mention here the other research which is relevant to your work.


    Methodology deals with the methods and principles used in an activity, in this case research. In the methodology chapter you explain the method/s you used for the research and why you thought they were the appropriate ones.

    You may be doing mostly documentary research or you may have collected you own data.

    If you collect your own data, you should explain the methods of data collection, materials used, subjects interviewed, or places you visited.

    Give a detailed account of how and when you carried out your research and explain why you used the particular methods which you did use, rather than other methods. Included in this discussion should be an examination of ethical issues.


    The methodology can be after the literature review. However, reviewing the literature can be considered as an important part of your method and so your report may flow more easily if you explain this in your methodology before reviewing the literature.

    Literature Review: This should help to put your research into a background context and to explain its importance. Include only the books and articles which relate directly to your topic. Remember that you need to be analytical and critical and not just describe the works that you have read.


    Results or Findings

    What did you find out? Give a clear presentation of your results. Show the essential data and calculations here. You may want to use tables, graphs and figures.

    Analysis and Discussion

    Interpret your results. What do you make of them? How do they compare with those of others who have done research in this area? The accuracy of your measurements/results should be discussed and any deficiencies in the research design should be mentioned.

    Conclusions What do you conclude? You should summarize briefly the main conclusions which you discussed under "Results." Were you able to answer some or all of the questions which you raised in your aims? Do not be tempted to draw conclusions which are not backed up by your evidence. Note any deviation from expected results and any failure to achieve all that you had hoped.


    Recommendations Make your recommendations, if required. Positive or negative suggestions for either action or further research.

    Appendix You may not need an appendix, or you may need several. If you have used questionnaires, it is usual to include a blank copy in the appendix. You could include data or calculations, not used in the body, that are necessary, or useful, to get the full benefit from your report. There may be maps, drawings, photographs or plans that you want to include. If you have used special equipment, you may want to include information about it.

    The plural of an appendix is two or more appendices or appendixes. If an appendix or appendices are needed, design them thoughtfully in a way that your readers will find convenient to use.

    Bibliography List all the sources to which you refer in the body of the report. These will be referenced in the body of the text using the Harvard method.

    You may also list all the relevant sources you consulted even if you did not quote them.

    A more confusing method is sometimes asked for in which you provide two lists of sources, one labelled "References" and the other "Bibliography". If you can avoid doing this, do so.



    What is a literature review?

    "A literature review is a discussion or 'review' of secondary literature that is of general and central relevance to the particular area under investigation" (Todd, Malcolm and others 2011 section on Writing a Dissertation.)

    A draft literature review

    It may help you if you develop a draft review using a simple plan (see below), and develop a more sophisticated review by analysing the draft.

    In its simplest form, a literature review is a list of relevant books and other sources, each followed by a description and comment on its relevance.

    Most student literature reviews that I see are structured this way. For an example, click here. A review structured like this could also serve as the research for a review structured in the second way.

    A different approach is to analyse the literature you have read on the basis of themes you have used.

    A review of literature on families, for example, might have subheadings about two parent families with children, lone-parent families and families without children. Under each subheading it would review what the literature read has said. This can be a useful way to highlight issues at the you are pursuing in a dissertation.

    Sometimes students are asked to produce a literature review on a topic as a piece of work in its own right.

    When it is part of a project, a literature review is a systematic way of showing evidence of your reading and how it relates to your investigation.

    It should show your insight about the issues and place your topic of study in a wider academic context, linking it to relevant issues and debates.

    When you have written a draft review, you could read through it marking concepts in it that may deserve reflection. In a review of literature on ageing, cultures and religion, for example, the student highlighted references to gender, family care and state care. She found that authors were saying different (possibly contradictory) things on these topics and this gave her material for further investigation.

    Questioning your literature, as in the above example, is often called being critical. A critical review is one that asks questions rather than just repeating what different sources say.

    As part of a research project, a literature review can be used to focus the research.

    If you are undertaking a literature review as part of a dissertation, it would usually be used to develop your original idea in the light of your reading about it. [See below]

    A literature review should demonstrate that you have read and analysed literature relevant to your topic. You should first select books and articles that relate to what you are researching and, in the write-up, you should explain how you selected them. One reason that you carry out the review is to provide you with a picture of what is already known about what you are researching. So there is a process in which you first think of a topic you want to research, then review the literature that you find that is relevant to it, then refine your research in the light of what you have read. Your write up should give the reader a picture of what is already known about what you are researching and how you have used this to shape your own research. As well a describing the reading, you will explain how it relates to your project.

    A literature review should be proportional to the size of the project.

    An undergraduate review essay requires less background reading than a final year dissertation and a postgraduate dissertation would require more.

    By clicking on this link you can see the literature review that was part of Margaret Komba's postgraduate Report on the use of Continuing Professional Development Portfolios.

    For dissertations, you will not rely heavily on textbooks and collections of readings, but should be consulting and citing a reasonable number original texts, research based books and journal articles.

    Your literature search should establish what previous research has been carried out in the subject area.

    Broadly speaking, there are four kinds of sources you will want to consult:

  • introductory materials To get a background idea of your topic you could look in the relevant parts of textbooks and other subject introductions. Try to use ones at an appropriate level and use them as a springboard to concepts and further reading.

  • relevant books The social science subject index may help you.

  • journal articles You may scan and make notes on the abstracts or summaries of work in the area, and then select relevant articles to read in full.

  • web resources

    Keep a careful record of what you have searched, how you have gone about it, and the exact citations and page numbers of your reading.

    Write notes as you go along. Record suitable notes on everything that you read, note methods of investigation. Make sure that you keep a full reference, complete with page numbers.

    You will have to find your own balance between taking notes that are too long and detailed and ones too brief to be of any use.

    It is best to write your notes in complete sentences and paragraphs, because research has shown that you are more likely to understand your notes later if they are written in a way that other people would understand.

    LITERATURE SEARCH quick links

    A guide to making your own literature list
    developed from original articles by Vicki Scarlett, Kathy McGowan, Lesley Curtis-Brown, and other past and present librarians at Middlesex University.

    When you start studying at college, reading lists are prepared for you. Then, suddenly, something plunges you into having to find your own resources. It may be a course that is designed that way, a dissertation, a placement or that you have moved on to more advanced studies. Whatever the reason, you now need to learn the skills of literature searching. But why wait? Why not begin to learn the skills now?

    Literature searches are made to build up your own list of relevant books, articles, web pages and other sources that you will use.

    You are not dependent on your tutors to tell you which books and articles you should read. You can find books and articles for yourself and construct your own booklists if you know how.

    You should use several methods:

    Middlesex Subject Resources has advice about literature searches in different areas.

    Work with what you already have

    You will have an idea about what you are researching, you may have a title, and you may have some reading, and possibly some guidance from a tutor. Look at this carefully. It is your starting point. Reading you have been given is especially important and will help you focus your search. The idea you have and any title will provide you with key words to direct your searching.

    Keep a note of what you find

    As you work, you will need a notebook beside you to write down the resources you find, in a useful form

    learn to use your library fully

    Usually books are arranged on the shelves by subjects which are indicated by a shelf-number. The Dewey system is often used. In this, for example, 330 is the shelf number for economics.

    This means, of course, that you can look along the shelves under relevant subject numbers. This has the advantage that you can look at the books to see if they are relevant. It has the disadvantage that you may not find all the relevant subject numbers and that many books may be out on loan or not on the shelves for some other reasons. So you need to do more than this.

    Books and articles on a subject often contain a bibliography or book list of other relevant books and articles. You can start by looking for these. Recent books and articles will have the most recent references.

    Library computer catalogues usually allow you to look up books by author or title. The catalogues may also allow you to scroll through the list of books under one subject. This has the advantage over scanning the shelves that it includes books that or not on the shelves. Catalogues also lets you search for every book that has a certain word in its title. Many library catalogues are available online. You could experiment with some now by clicking here

    Copac is a catalogue of books and journals in many libraries that will be useful for any search.


    Web based directories are a very rich source of information about literature. Usually a directory is combined with a search engine. Read about the difference. Using The Open Directory, which you will find by following the above link, is a good way to practice the combined use of searching and browsing a directory. For example, you could search for an author and then browse the categories in which you found him or her. The same skills can be applied to using Subject Gateways


    Journal articles are very useful for bringing you up to date with recent ideas on a subject. You should find out what journals your library stocks, what journals you can read over the internet, and what journals cover your area.

    Most journals are indexed, but individual indexes are only useful when you know the journal is likely to contain relevant articles. There are, however, "Indexes" which list the contents of many journals by subject. Even more helpful, there are "Abstracts" which differ from indexes in that they contain brief summaries of the content of articles.

    Abstract and Indexes exist as printed books, but nowadays are mainly computer databases on the internet or CD Rom. They are mostly lists and descriptions of journal articles, but sometimes relevant chapters in books are listed as well. Sociofile covers Sociology and is the equivalent of the printed Sociological Abstracts. Psyclit covers Psychology and is the equivalent of the printed Psychological Abstracts.

    The great disadvantage of these databases is that you (usually) either have to pay to use them or have to be member of a library that subscribes to them. University students usually have free access to many of them and the only difference, then, from information of the open web is that you will need a login and password to use the databases.

    Key Words

    For powerful computer searching, you should think about the key words to use

    Key words are words that you can enter into computer search engines or look up in the indexes of printed sources. You could write down a the words that define your topic and then write definitions of the terms used. Having done that, mark the key words that you think are worth searching for. Now think of synonyms for terms, topics and keywords.

    Defining your parameters means that you should decide what your coverage is. Will you be restricting your searches to a time period, 1980 to the present for example? What geographical areas are you interested in? Will your search be restricted to UK materials only, or to English materials only?

    Your list of keywords and parameters will help you in searching library catalogues, bibliographies, abstracts and indexes, online databases and in using other Search Engines.

    Ideas for your Literature Review may come from many places. Talk with friends on the course and with your tutors and follow up any reading they recommend.

    If you are doing a postgraduate project you will need to talk to experts or others who are familiar with the topic from a variety of angles. They may include other researchers, managers, workers, clients, or members of the general public.


    When you are writing, you can use references in several ways:

    • to provide a descriptive review of the field in question;
    • to demonstrate and illustrate particular positions in theoretical debates;
    • to indicate empirical findings which are used to support particular arguments and positions.
    These are ways in which you will use the literature in your research, but in addition you will want to 'place yourself' in relation to particular pieces of work, to indicate the parts with which you agree and disagree, to provide a critique, and to draw and build upon the theoretical and empirical insights of others.


    There is no one set way to carry out a piece of writing. We all have our preferred ways of working. Basically, any approach that works for YOU is appropriate. One possible procedure follows.
    • 1. When you have gathered all your notes, sort them into piles of what you think might be the main topics or subtopics that you will cover.
    • 2. If one slip has several ideas, photocopy it, or cut the different ideas apart - but be sure to note the original reference on each part.
    • 3. Then take each pile and sort it internally.
    • 4. You will want to add more slips with your own ideas - how the literature relates to your own work (if appropriate) and so on.
    • 5. Now you are ready to write your review.
    • 6. Start by introducing the topic and giving a brief statement of the 'few main topics' that you will cover in the review.
    • 7. Then take your topic piles one by one and key or write some plausible synthesis or analysis for the ideas you want to present. Use headings (which may correspond to your piles) and guide the reader through the material.
    • 8. If possible, stop at times, perhaps at the end of each topic, to mention the main relevant ideas and how they fit together - or how they relate to your research (if the literature review is part of a research project).
    • 9. Once you have gone through all of your piles, write at least a brief conclusion summarizing the main findings and conclusions.
    • 10. As with all writing - leave it, then reread, edit and revise what you have written, to make sure that it makes sense and 'flows' in a way that the reader will understand what you are tying to convey. If at all possible, ask someone else to proof read it for you.

    Possible Assessment Criteria:
    What the marker may be looking for

    Here are some points which various tutors have suggested they look for in a Research Report or Dissertation

    Correct report format with appropriate headings. Material allocated correctly to the headings.

    Your approach to your research. Your ability to define clearly the problem to be tackled, or the purpose of the work. A clear statement of the focus/area/topic/problem/hypothesis. (See

    Review of the relevant literature, relating it to the research you have undertaken. A good relation of theory and literature to the actual research being undertaken, including justification of research topic/setting(s)/programme.

    Your ability to interpret work by others, to make personal observations, or to analyse data, and draw conclusions.

    The thoroughness with which you have tackled the work in relation to the time available. The logical planning of the work.

    The accuracy with which information has been recorded and the clarity with which it is presented.

    Choice of appropriate research methods, setting/s and programme, and a clear description of these.

    Appropriate and sufficient collection of data.

    A clear presentation of data.

    Ability to select relevant material and to reject the irrelevant, and to present a clear and concise report.

    Thoroughness of critical analysis and evaluation of the research, with clear and detailed reference to data and to literature, appropriate theories and explanations. Some appraisal of the validity and value of the research.

    Sensitivity to problems and processes of research undertaken, e.g. ethics, communication, negotiation, collaboration, dissemination.

    Substantial conclusion, raising key issues and points, with suggestions for future research/practice as appropriate.

    Full and accurate references and bibliography (and appendices as appropriate).

    Books Alison Britton refers to on
    Research and on Report writing are:
    Bell, J. 1993 Doing Your Research Project
    Bowden, J. 1991 How to Write a Report
    Howard, K. and Sharp, J.A. 1983 The Management of a Student Research Project
    Inglis, J. and Lewis, R. 1994 How to Write Reports
    Kane, E. 1985 Doing Your Own Research
    Lindsay, D. 1987 A Guide to Scientific Writing
    Orna, E. and Stevens, G. 1995 Managing Information for Research

    Study links outside this site
    Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
    Picture introduction to this site
    Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
    Click coloured words to go where you want

    Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
    To contact him, please use the Communication Form

    © the authors - See what you can do with it

    How to reference the ABC Study Guide - Click here