What is an Executive Summary? (And How to Edit One)

If you’re a proofreader or editor who specializes in business writing, you’ll need to know how to edit an executive summary.

An executive summary is a short overview of a business document that outlines the basic topics covered. In today’s post, we’ll explain executive summaries in more detail before giving you some tips on how to edit one.

The Role of an Executive Summary

As mentioned, an executive summary is a section (or sometimes an entire document) that sums up the points addressed in a longer business plan, proposal, or report.

Executive summaries are usually aimed at project team members, shareholders, or potential investors. They serve two purposes:

  1. To provide key information contained in the main document in a more concise format, saving time and resources.
  2. To convince the reader of the importance of the project or business proposal.

While not always strictly necessary, executive summaries are a helpful time-saving tool that can quickly get the audience on the same page. If your client has written a lengthy business document that doesn’t include an executive summary, then you might want to suggest they write one!

Executive Summaries vs. Abstracts

Executive summaries shouldn’t be confused with abstracts. These are short article summaries aimed at helping the reader decide whether to read further.

In contrast, an executive summary will often be read in place of the full document. This means it needs to include all the information necessary to understand the business or project proposal.

As such, an executive summary is typically longer than an abstract (usually between one and two pages) and covers:

  • An overview of the proposal addressed in the main document.
  • An analysis of the cost, benefits, and other key details of the proposal.
  • A conclusion.

Next, we’ll share some details to look out for when editing executive summaries.

What to Look Out for When Editing an Executive Summary

Can it Be Skim Read?

Skim reading is a method of reading a document quickly to understand its main points. As executive summaries are designed to save time, you’ll want to ensure your client’s work is easy to skim.

To do this, check that your client has:

  • Broken it up into clear sections with subheadings
  • Used bullet points and lists to present key information
  • Avoided any redundancy and repetition

Does it Provide Evidence?

An executive summary should aim to convince the reader that the business or project proposal is necessary by providing evidence, sources, and figures to back up any points made.

If your client’s work lacks figures, you should suggest they pull key information (such as percentages, projected turnover, and timeframes) from the main document.

Does it Use Cliched Language or Jargon?

If your client has included unnecessary jargon in their summary, this could confuse readers who don’t share their precise knowledge of the project or business. When this happens, advise your client to either explain any terms used or replace the jargon altogether.

Cliched language should also be avoided, as it could be misunderstood as a strictly factual statement. For example, it could be misleading to say that a proposed product will be “the number one item on everyone’s Christmas list” without any proof to back that up.

If you spot cliched language in your client’s executive summary, it’s probably best to remove it.

Is it Consistent?

The executive summary is an extension of the main report, so the information provided and formatting used should remain consistent across both documents.

When editing an executive summary, look out for:

  • Details that aren’t provided in the main document. The executive summary shouldn’t introduce new information.
  • Differences in vocabulary, terms, and headings. If the main document establishes a certain vocabulary or term, such as “business goals,” this same language should be present in the summary.
  • Changes in tone and voice. Both the executive summary and the main document should be written with the same tone and aimed at the same audience.

Does it Make Sense on Its Own?

As an executive summary may be read in place of the longer document, it needs to make sense as a standalone document and shouldn’t lack any key context.

If, when editing an executive summary, you find there’s something you wouldn’t understand without reading the details in the main document, flag this with the client.

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