LawProse Lesson #289: The true meaning of “executive summary.”

Shorter is not always better when it comes to summaries. You don’t want to say more than the occasion demands—but you don’t want to say less, either. Brevity without substance is worthless.

So how do you write a concise, useful summary? An effective summary is focused, specific, and placed always at the beginning of your document so readers don’t have to dig. It gets to the point and lays the foundation for what’s to follow. You want a summary that can be fully understood by most readers—don’t assume familiarity with the subject or insider status.

If you’re summarizing a document and struggling to incorporate just the right amount of detail, write a descriptive outline of your document with “the five Ws”—the who, what, when, where, why (and how). Use those points to build your general summary.

Most important, keep your readers’ needs foremost in your mind. What questions will they have? Provide brief, concrete answers. That will not only enhance your credibility but also assure your reader that the detailed information that follows will matter to them.

In Part 3 of Bryan Garner’s ten-part webinar series, Legal Writing in Plain English, you’ll learn how to enhance your command of English vocabulary. You’ll learn skills mastered by the best legal writers: avoiding jargon, using strong verbs, and simplifying wordy phrases.


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