Session 12: Finishing Touches on Long Documents

Welcome to the LAST session in this boot camp! In this session we’re going to cover what I think of as finishing touches. These are things not all documents necessarily need, but that are especially useful for long documents: Opening (or Executive) Summaries and Tables of Contents.

Opening summaries

When you have a long document and you know some readers are mainly interested in the conclusions, consider including an opening or “executive” summary. (Executive summaries were originally meant to provide executives with essential information and specific recommendations about business decisions they’d be making.) Executive summaries aren’t just for execs, however. They’re for everyone who wants to understand the issues and conclusions without necessarily reading the entire document.

People often ask me how long an executive summary should be. There’s no definitive answer. Instead of worrying about the ideal length, focus on providing information the reader needs in a clear, concise manner. If you do, you’ll always end up with summaries that are the right length.

Treat summaries as stand-alone documents

Though executive summaries are usually included as part of the document, you should treat them as stand-alone documents. In other words, you should give the reader enough information to understand the issues without having to read the underlying document. So, for example, if you use jargon or any acronyms in the summary, you must define them in the summary. (You cannot rely on the fact that you defined them in the main document because not all readers will read the full document.) Also, if your summary is longish, the summary should include headings and sub-headings.

At a minimum, the summary should contain a description of the issues and your conclusions related to the issues. As well, the summary should include information that helps the reader decide if they agree with the conclusions you’ve come to.

It’s customary to present the arguments and ideas in the summary in the same order you presented them in the underlying document. Doing so makes it easier for readers to find details in the main document. Similarly, if you included headings in the summary, they should parallel those in the main document so that readers can cross-reference them.

Tables of contents

A Table of Contents is basically a list of the document’s main headings and sub-headings, along with page numbers showing where to find them. Tables of Contents (ToCs for short) are especially important in longer documents because they help readers find specific information quickly. But that’s not the only reason they’re useful.

If you crafted meaningful headings and sub-headings, the Table of Contents will provide a quick overview of the topics and arguments in the document. As the author, review the ToC carefully – considering both whether the headings are helpful AND whether the topics are in a logical order. A critical review of the ToC may also help you spot weaknesses or information that’s missing and that you should further revise.

Closing thoughts about the boot camp…

We covered a lot of ground in the 12 sessions. I imagine you found some topics easy – probably more of a refresher – and others that were more challenging for you. Regardless, just keep at it, consciously focusing on all the things we covered. If you do, I’m sure your writing will continue to improve.

And finally, always remember that the true key to better writing is to write with the reader in mind.

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