Summary paragraphs are helpful to readers, but while many people have heard of them, few people actually write them.

In an email of several paragraphs, a formal memo, or a report, the opening paragraph should give the reader a window into what the entire memo is about. Here are the hallmarks of a summary paragraph:

  • It is usually two, three, or four sentences in length, occasionally longer depending on the length of the overall message.
  • It contains the essentials: snippets of information that represent the highlights of the entire message.
  • It lets a reader read one paragraph and know everything he or she needs to understand why she is being asked to read the message.

Let’s say you have significant information in the second, fourth, and seventh paragraphs, and that is where it belongs, based on how the message is organized on the page. That’s fine, but don’t make the reader wait until the fourth or seventh paragraph to find out for the first time what the key morsel of information is regarding those topics. Take slivers of information and piece them together in a tightly written first paragraph that achieves the same desired result as a front-page news story. You read one paragraph and know what the story is about.

People often open with The purpose of this message is to bring you up to date … but that is not a summary. The purpose in why you are writing should be made clear in the subject line. That will save you seven words at the start of your first sentence and will let you open with more helpful, specific information. If the message contains four recommendations, determine the most important two and mention them in the summary.

A synopsis tells the reader the main point along with such things as who is involved, what the deadline is, key phone numbers, and one or two important details that the reader will need for context.

The summary should not “get into the weeds.” The details belong in the body, and if you have any concerns that the reader might not see them, then mention in the summary, “Please read below for details,” or, “The steps you need to follow are below.” You could even add “in paragraph three.”

By giving the reader an overview at the start, you have laid a clear path, which makes it easier to continue through the rest of the communication.