So now that you’ve completed the research project, what do you do? I know you won’t want to hear this, but your work is still far from done. In fact, this final stage – writing up your research – may be one of the most difficult. Developing a good, effective and concise report is an art form in itself. And, in many research projects you will need to write multiple reports that present the results at different levels of detail for different audiences.
There are several general considerations to keep in mind when generating a report:
Who is going to read the report? Reports will differ considerably depending on whether the audience will want or require technical detail, whether they are looking for a summary of results, or whether they are about to examine your research in a Ph.D. exam.
I believe that every research project has at least one major “story” in it. Sometimes the story centers around a specific research finding. Sometimes it is based on a methodological problem or challenge. When you write your report, you should attempt to tell the “story” to your reader. Even in very formal journal articles where you will be required to be concise and detailed at the same time, a good “storyline” can help make an otherwise very dull report interesting to the reader.
The hardest part of telling the story in your research is finding the story in the first place. Usually when you come to writing up your research you have been steeped in the details for weeks or months (and sometimes even for years). You’ve been worrying about sampling response, struggling with operationalizing your measures, dealing with the details of design, and wrestling with the data analysis. You’re a bit like the ostrich that has its head in the sand. To find the story in your research, you have to pull your head out of the sand and look at the big picture. You have to try to view your research from your audience’s perspective. You may have to let go of some of the details that you obsessed so much about and leave them out of the write up or bury them in technical appendices or tables.
Are you writing a research report that you will submit for publication in a journal? If so, you should be aware that every journal requires articles that you follow specific formatting guidelines. Thinking of writing a book. Again, every publisher will require specific formatting. Writing a term paper? Most faculty will require that you follow specific guidelines. Doing your thesis or dissertation? Every university I know of has very strict policies about formatting and style. There are legendary stories that circulate among graduate students about the dissertation that was rejected because the page margins were a quarter inch off or the figures weren’t labeled correctly.
To illustrate what a set of research report specifications might include, I present in this section general guidelines for the formatting of a research write-up for a class term paper. These guidelines are very similar to the types of specifications you might be required to follow for a journal article. However, you need to check the specific formatting guidelines for the report you are writing – the ones presented here are likely to differ in some ways from any other guidelines that may be required in other contexts.
I’ve also included a sample research paper write-up that illustrates these guidelines. This sample paper is for a “make-believe” research project. But it illustrates how a final research report might look using the guidelines given here.