Perhaps the greatest challenge involved with creating an executive summary is keeping it short when there’s so much you want to say. The idea behind a summary is not to overwhelm your reader with details but to sell your project or proposal even before he begins reading the longer report. This places a lot of importance on a brief document, and sometimes visual appeal can count as much as your actual words.
Deciding Whether You Need a Summary
Your project may not require an executive summary at all. If you’ve been invited to submit a proposal, the request for proposal may indicate that a summary isn’t necessary. If it does ask for a summary, it may detail what you should include and this will make formatting and writing it much easier.
Before you begin writing and formatting, it helps to have to have an idea of how many pages you have at your disposal to get your major points across. Colorado State University advises that a summary should be no more than 10 pages or 10 percent of the length of your entire report or proposal. But Texas A&M University advises not to exceed 5 percent of your proposal or report. It will depend to some extent on the nature of your project, but tally up the total pages of your report and plan to come in somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of that.
If you have fewer than 10 pages to work with, organizing your information for the best impact is paramount. Start with an introduction, explaining the purpose of your report or proposal. Move from there to explaining your objective or solution to the issues raised in your introduction. Devote a section to research findings that support your objective, if appropriate. Explain how you’re going to implement your project. If this involves several steps, break them down with bullet points. Then make your recommendations and wrap up with a brief sales pitch.
Although the length of your summary is important, avoid the temptation to cram as many words into your pages as possible in an effort to drive home your project's goal. Leave enough white space so as not to overwhelm your reader when he first looks at the summary -- pages crammed with words can be daunting. Use short paragraphs broken up by headers and bullet points. Try not to include more than one paragraph in each section. Beside each header, you might include a reference to which pages of your report contain more detailed information about whatever that section discusses. Include your contact information at the very end -- if your reader wants to reach out to you right away, you don’t want him to have to dig through your report for this information. You might center this so it stands out.
- Colorado State University: Executive Summaries
- Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center: A Guide to Writing an Effective Executive Summary (PDF)
- Purdue University: APA Stylistics -- Basics
- Purdue University: MLA Overview and Workshop
- Washington Technology: 7 Tips for Crafting a Dominant Proposal Summary
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.