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What is the difference between an essay and report?

Refer to QuickRef 6, Essay or Report? in Language and Learning Online for an introduction to this issue.

At the basic level, an essay is characterised by being one piece of prose (or text) whilst a report is broken up into 'chunks' or sections of writing with specific functions or purposes. An essay can include headings but a report always does.

Reports

Reports have a formalised structure (i.e. executive summary, scope, discussion, recommendations) and are written with a specific purpose in mind, or with a particular focus. That given structure supports that purpose. See an example that illustrates the elements of a report under When should I use headings?.

This structure is often dictated by the discipline you will be writing in. For example, Psychology uses a specific laboratory report structure (see recommended resources for Psychology, including an extract from O'Shea (2002) 'Quick start for reports') that differs from one in Science (see recommended resources for Science; for example, an extract from Drury (1997) 'Results'). BusEco's report preferences are different again and that faculty's Q Manual outlines the requirements. Just how your lecturer would prefer your report to be structured will be given in your subject's Unit Guide.

Essays

Essays are structured around an introduction, body and conclusion, and the text itself is separated into paragraphs. See examples of the more formalised components of the essay, the introduction and the conclusion, in What does a good introduction look like? and What does a good conclusion look like?. The structure of an essay is not as formalised as that of a report. In some ways, you have more discretion about how you put your essay together, although you need to adhere to disciplinary expectations. Like reports, however, you must still provide an argument or position that is clearly sustained; that is, your reader must be able to follow what you have written. Refer to 'The reader – the writer' in How can I improve my argument? for more on this.

Using headings

One of the more obvious differences between reports and essays is that reports always use sections with headings, and each of these sections has a particular purpose. As you will do in an essay, however, you are also required to analyse, evaluate and produce a line of argument to support your report outcomes.

Whether you use headings or not in your essay will depend on your discipline. For example, it is often acceptable in BusEco subjects to use headings. It is generally not the case in Sociology. For further discussion and examples on this refer to When should I use headings?.

Improve your awareness

Spend some time with writing in subject areas available in Language and Learning Online to get a feel for what is accepted practice in your discipline, including how to write essays and reports.

Discuss with others how they approach or have approached particular tasks on your subject MUSO site.

Refer to your Unit Guide, and if you are unsure whether to use a report or essay format, check with your lecturer.

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