How to write a report

Start early, write regularly

A common way of thinking about thesis writing is that it is best to wait to write until you have something meaningful to say: how can you say something about your project when it isn’t finished? The risk, and it is a large risk, is that if you wait until you “feel ready to write” then you may not write at all. If you skip writing one week thinking that you will be more ready later, suddenly you might only have a couple of weeks until the deadline and you haven’t written a single word!

You can start writing about your project even if you are not exactly sure how it will end up. Writing then helps you develop your ideas and can help you identify what is missing. Through regular writing, you can build your confidence in writing, and through revising, you can select the parts that are useful in the final report version and reject the parts that do not fit. Even if you reject parts you can actually speed up the writing, since you develop your writing skills every time you write something!

Here are some tips on what you can write:

  • My project is about…
  • I am currently working on…
  • The next step is…
  • During the last week, my project has progressed by…
  • I have learned the following from reading articles related to my project…

You can also use some of the parts you write when you send status reports to your supervisor.

Write drafts of each chapter, and send a chapter to your supervisor for feedback when it is ready. Don’t wait until the whole report is written before you send it to your supervisor. The feedback you receive on a chapter might be very valuable when you later write the following chapters.

Who is the reader?

Who, besides from your supervisor and the examiner, do you think is interested in reading your thesis report? When you have an idea about the target audience, imagine yourself being a member of this audience reading your report. What does the audience already know about the theory and background of your thesis? You don’t have to write about things that the audience already knows. Focus on writing what you think the audience need to know to understand your project.

Writing strategies

It can sometimes be very difficult to start writing. You know that you must write drafts, and you keep staring at the blank paper in front of you. There are a number of writing strategies that can help you get started. You can try one or all of them, and use what works best for you.

Writing to prompts

In this strategy, you use a fragment of a sentence or a question to stimulate writing. It can help you getting started. These prompts should be short, direct and informal. They shall help you focus on the topic you need to write about. Some prompts can be used at any point in the thesis writing process, for example, “What writing have you done and what do you want to do?”. Others are more specific to some parts of the writing process. Here are some example prompts you can use:

  • What writing have I done and what would I like to do?
  • Where do my ideas come from?
  • Last week I have worked on…
  • The theory I just read about can be explained as…
  • How does what I read compare to my own views?
  • What I want to write about next is…
  • What do I want to write about next?

Psychologically prompts change your mind from focusing on the mountain of ‘writing still to be done’ to something more manageable. Every time you sit down and are to write a draft in your report, select a suitable prompt and write ten minutes on it. Don’t think about the quality of what you write. You can revise it later!


Freewriting is another strategy that can be used instead of writing to prompts. It can help you “force” writing, fill the report with content, and develop your writing skills. It works like this:

  • Find a topic. What do you want to write about next?
  • Write for five to ten minutes on the topic
  • Don’t stop writing
  • Private writing: what you write is only intended for yourself
  • No structure needed
  • Don’t think about the quality of the text, but use sentences when you write (not bullet points)
  • You are free to wander off the topic

Freewriting can help you to synthesize ideas and bring meaning to thought fragments in your head, and you will most likely become more fluent in writing if you practice freewriting regularly.

Freewriting helps you get into the mood of writing and can be very useful for filling your report with content. It is important to note the privacy of freewriting. What you write during freewriting shall not be seen by anyone else. You can, however, revise what you have written and used it in the report or in status reports to your supervisor. Psychologically the privacy requirement makes you feel less stressed when you write. Since no one else will read it quality doesn’t matter!

Freewriting is a very versatile strategy that can be used for a number of different purposes:

  • As a “warm-up” for writing
  • To get into the “writing habit”
  • To develop fluency in writing
  • To clarify your thoughts
  • To reflect upon a difficult theory
  • To increase your confidence in writing
  • To overcome obstacles by articulating them
  • … and more

Freewriting can be seen as “brainstorming in text”.

Generative writing

Generative writing is very similar to freewriting but with some differences:

  • Find a topic. What do you want to write about next?
  • Write for five to ten minutes on the topic
  • Don’t stop writing
  • Use sentences when you write (not bullet points)
  • Stick to the selected topic
  • Optionally, let someone else read what you have written

It is more closed than freewriting. You focus on a topic and stick to it without wandering off. You can let someone else read what you have written, but this is optional. This has been shown to change the writers’ experiences dramatically. When we know someone else will read it, we focus much more on the quality and that what we write must make sense. It is important to note that if you choose to let someone else read and comment on what you write, it shall be a peer and not your supervisor. Generative writing shall, as in freewriting, not be constrained by academic writing standards. By letting someone else read what you write you feel more and more comfortable in showing your work to others, which can make it less stressful when you have to show your work to your supervisor. Generative writing works best in writing workshops where you and some of your peers write together and comment on each other’s texts.

From drafts to formal text

You shall always proof-read your text before sending it to your supervisor to remove misspellings and grammatical errors. The spelling checker in for example Word identifies most misspellings and many common grammatical errors. Use it!

Here are some common errors we often see in student reports:

  • Wrong use of is/are. Singular, use is. Plural, use are. Examples: “the student is…” and “the students are…”
  • Add s to a verb. If the subject is singular, add an s to the verb. If the subject is plural, don’t add an s to the verb. Examples: “the algorithm works by…” and “the algorithms work by…”
  • Overusing commas. A sentence with too many commas is very hard to understand. If you are unsure about a sentence, read it out loud. It will sound weird if you have overused commas. You can find some good rules of thumb for using commas here.
  • Too many short sentences. Examples: “We conduct an experiment. The experiment is repeated five times. Execution time will be measured.”. Compare to “We conduct an experiment that is repeated five times, and execution time will be measured.”. Again, this is easily spotted if you read your text out loud.
  • A bad structure of sentences. Sentences are often constructed differently in different languages, and you shall make sure you use correct English sentences. Example: “Tomorrow at school I will tell you a story” is incorrect. It shall be “I will tell you a story at school tomorrow”. Some short but very useful information about sentence structure can be found here.
  • Overusing semicolons (;). You can read about when to use them here.

Active or passive voice?

Formal text shall be written in passive voice. Passive voice is used when the focus is on the action. It is not important or not known who or what is performing the action.

  • Passive voice: An experiment was conducted.
  • Active voice: I conducted an experiment.
  • Passive voice: A web service was implemented in the project.
  • Active voice: I implemented a web service in the project.
  • Passive voice: An app was implemented for the company by me.
  • Active voice: I implemented an app for the company.

You can read more about active and passive voice here.

Past or present tense?

Most of the report shall be written in past tense, for example, “an experiment was conducted” and “the results were analyzed”. Exceptions are the Discussion and Conclusion chapters which typically are written in present tense, for example, “the problem has been answered” and “the results show that”. You can read about present tense here and past tense here.

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