A Checklist for ‘Executive-Ready' Writing

A Ketchum account manager recently asked me to provide her account team with some tips on what she called “executive-ready” writing. Her main goal was to ensure that any document the team produced — from PR plans to e-mail messages — was written in a way that could be quickly read and understood by the client’s highest-level executives. But a secondary goal was perhaps just as important: getting rid of any low-hanging fruit that could lead a client to focus more on the mechanics of writing than on the message.

Her request got me thinking: All Ketchum writing should be executive-ready. Below is a checklist of 10 things you can do to help make sure yours is. Do you follow any of these practices? Do you have any others you would add? I welcome your comments.

1. Did you use everyday language?
Industry jargon and acronyms may be plain to their niche audiences, but they can read like a foreign language to everyone else. In general, avoid obscure jargon (including PR jargon), confusing acronyms, excessively flowery adjectives or words the average reader might need to look up. Any of these can leave a reader wondering what you’re talking about.

2. Are your modifiers in the right place?
Where you place a modifier in relation to the word it is intended to describe affects the meaning – and can leave a reader confused. Consider this:

The USA Today reporter only wanted to speak to the CEO.

This is not the same as . . .
The USA Today reporter wanted to speak only to the CEO.

And this is not the same as . . .
Only the USA Today reporter wanted to speak to the CEO.

3. Is there unnecessary repetition or wordiness in your writing?
Wordiness and repetition weaken good writing and slow down the reader. Weed out wordiness by reducing some common phrases to one word. (For example,”For the purpose of” becomes “for,” “in the event that” becomes “if,” and “at the present time” becomes “now.”) And carefully check your writing for unintended repetition, such as inadvertently pasting the same sentence or paragraph in multiple places within a document — or simple redundancy, such as writing “circle around the wagon” when “circle the wagon” will do.

4. Do you really need “there” or “it”?
Avoid using the words “there” or “it” to prop up your writing. Cutting them out can result in clearer, more active sentences. Consider these examples:

OK: There are many uses for the new product.
Better: The new product has many uses.
OK: It is the company’s plan to announce earnings next week.
Better: The company plans to announce earnings next week.

5. Would bullet points or numbers make it easier for the reader to follow your points?
Dense paragraphs can look like a chore to read. If you want the reader to take away three or four key points, consider highlighting them with numbers or bullets. This breaks up the copy and makes each point easier to see and quickly comprehend.

6. Did you use parallel construction in any list or series?
Parallel construction may well be one of those terms that is everyday language only to grammar geeks. So, here’s what I mean:

What’s “off” in this sentence?
Her hobbies include running marathons, Scrabble and collecting historical dolls.

If you noticed that “Scrabble” is inconsistent with “running” and “collecting” — or if you’re wondering what exactly she does with Scrabble — you understand parallel construction. Double-check bulleted lists as well as those within sentences.

7. When using bullet points or lists, did you? . . .
Start every item with either capital or lowercase letters? (Not both.)
Use either complete sentences or fragments for every item? (Not both.)
Use or not use punctuation at the end of every item? (Not both.)

8. Is formatting consistent throughout the document?
Make sure that margins line up appropriately, headings and text are the same size for comparable sections of the document, and font styles do not inadvertently switch back and forth from, say, Arial to Calibri. Also, if you abbreviate the same word on multiple pages of the document, be sure to do so consistently. Don’t write “continued” as “cont’d” in one place and “cont.” in another.

9. Are dates and other time elements consistent?
If an event is set to happen on Thursday, Sept. 1, in one place in the document, double-check that the timing doesn’t change to Wednesday, Sept. 1, elsewhere. Ditto on a.m. and p.m. And if a time element actually does change after your first draft of a document, proofread carefully to make sure the new timing is reflected throughout.

10. Is the client’s brand or product name spelled or written the same throughout the document?
This one truly is low-hanging fruit. Any executive is bound to notice incorrect or inconsistent spelling of his or her brand’s name, and you should, too. Know how important names should be spelled and spell them right every time. Similarly, use one consistent spelling for common words that can be spelled multiple ways (e.g., “dietician” versus “dietitian”).