Editing a document is one thing, but communicating what you did to your client is another thing altogether. On the one hand, you need to clearly communicate what you accomplished and what you expect them to do next, especially if the project is ongoing. On the other, you need to make a case for the value of the work you've done—without overwhelming the client with endless details they hired you to worry about for them.
These purposes often seem to work against each other, the need for detail at odds with the demand for brevity.
It gets easier with practice, but to help you along the way, here are two example transmission letters I used in my professional life and which demonstrate some solid practices. Note that these are real-world documents—I haven't changed them in any way other than altering personal information to preserve the recipients' anonymity.
Comprehensive Editing Report
The following email is one I wrote after doing a comprehensive edit of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant proposal.°
By "comprehensive," I mean that I did everything: I considered the document in the broadest sense of its organization and the strength of its argument, I copyedited it for clarity and cohesion, and I proofread it to prepare it for submission. I wouldn't normally do all these steps at once—usually I'll complete a phase and then check in with the author before beginning the next phase—but this was a last-minute favor for a friend.
This memo is just to let you know what I did in editing your proposal and to tell you what next steps are needed on your part. I’ve sent you two documents in addition to this one: an .rtf file of your proposal showing the changes I’ve made and including several queries for you to consider (you may need Microsoft Word to view the comments and changes in this file) and a clean version of your proposal with the changes all implemented .so you can see how it looks with my edits included; this is also an .rtf file.
Working on your proposal was a fun experience for me because not only did I get to practice my editing skills, but I also got to learn more about what you do. I remember we talked about it once at your house when our families ate together, and while I got a general idea of your research then, now I think I understand it quite well. In editing your proposal, I did the following things:
- I consulted the websites and that 263-page style guide you sent me to ensure that your proposal met the requirements of the NIH.
- I considered the rhetorical situation of your proposal and the ways it can effectively argue for funding within the confines of the NIH requirements. Many of the changes I made are attempts to make a stronger case for your research by strengthening its connection to the NIH mission.
- I copyedited your proposal to make sure that the sentences and paragraphs were clear and that they were understandable to a non-expert audience. I also ensured your use of key terms and abbreviations was consistent.
- I proofread your proposal to ensure no grammatical, punctuation, or mechanical errors remained.
For the most part, I think your proposal was fine; however, I noticed two ways in which it could make a stronger case for funding. One, the connection between your work and its possible application to public health, which is the NIH’s mission, was sometimes tentative. Though a reviewer will certainly see that this is interesting and important research, he or she might not see that this research can directly impact health. Thus, you’ll see that some of my edits and queries try to make that connection more explicit. Specifically, I ask you at several places to expand what you say about public health. At those places, it would also be very useful if you could cite studies or refer to researchers whose work dovetails with your own. You might not know of any of these off the top of your head, but it might be worth spending some time finding a few references to strengthen your case.
Concerning this point, I also rearranged many of the early paragraphs in the Research Strategy to make it more clear to the reader how your study addresses gaps in previous research.
Second, I wonder if you need to do more to justify your own qualifications to do this work. A reader might think that as a mechanical engineer, you don’t have the necessary skills to perform biological research with medical implications. You don’t comment on this anywhere in the proposal, and I couldn’t find anything in the proposal directions that would allow you to discuss this directly, but I want to bring it to your attention anyway. Maybe in some of the application materials you didn’t send me, or maybe in the Personnel Justification, you can discuss your qualifications at more length to show that not only are you qualified but you are specially and uniquely positioned to make progress in this field as a result of your engineering background.
One last note: you tend to use the word “interestingly” a lot as a transition. When possible, I changed this word to another that was more explicit at indicating the kind of transition implied by the text. Please review those changes to ensure I didn’t unintentionally alter the meaning.
Aside from checking my changes for appropriateness and considering the changes I ask about in the comments, there’s nothing else you need to do at this point unless my edits are unclear or insufficient. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have or help you make additional changes if you feel they are necessary. Feel free to contact me if I can help further. Thanks again for this opportunity, and best of luck to you getting your research funded.
You should notice the following moves made in the email:
- I give a clear inventory and description of the files I'm sending. This avoids confusion and saves the client time either trying to figure out how the files are different or sending an email for clarification.
- I explain what I did, sticking to broad strokes rather than tiny details. Here you can see I've put my tasks into a bulleted list and then offered additional explanations in paragraphs that follow.
- I try to avoid any hint of judgment or criticism when explaining the changes I made. People are sensitive about their writing, even when they've hired someone to make it better. Note the neutral tone in the line, "You tend to use the word 'interestingly' a lot as a transition" and those that follow.
- I clearly state what I expect the client to do next (in this case, nothing, as the work is done).
Progress Report on Extended Major Project
This next transmittal letter came during an extended, extensive project. I was working with two university faculty members on an accreditation report for the business school.
Elizabeth was in charge of the report for the accounting program (a 20-page document with 50 pages of appendices), and Kathy was heading up the report for the business school overall (a 50-page document with 90 pages of appendices). Each report had upwards of a dozen contributing authors—each with their own writing styles and respect (or lack thereof) for deadlines—that Elizabeth and Kathy had to wrangle, each incorporated dozens of tables and figures with complex numerical data, all of which had to be double-checked and carefully formatted. On top of that, the reports had to follow extremely specific, extremely strict guidelines given by the accrediting body, and they had to be careful not to repeat each other despite covering overlapping ground.
Oh, and if the reports were late or the accreditor wasn't convinced by them, the school could potentially lose its ability to grant degrees.
So, to put it mildly, Elizabeth and Kathy were stressed out. My job was to ease their burdens by sweating all the small stuff, bringing both reports into absolute compliance with the rules while also presenting a convincing argument to the accreditors.
The following email was written towards the end of the accounting report's writing process but when the longer business report was still being drafted. Because of the strict guidelines (including an absolutely firm 20-page page limit), I was simultaneously copyediting, proofreading, and designing the look of the final document, which explains many of the details in the email.
Elizabeth (I'm ccing Kathy to keep her in the loop),
Attached you'll find a newly edited draft of the accounting report for your review. We're getting very close to done here, and I hope you'll find my changes satisfactory. Here's what I worked on this round:
- I reread looking for redundancies against the business report (and found none).
- I reread with the AACSB standards in front of me and considered whether it successfully presents what the PRT will be looking for. My opinion is that it does a very thorough job at this point; a few comments in the document make suggestions for minor improvements.
- I ensured that the headings hierarchy and usage was consistent and logical, making some changes in levels of heading and numbering to fix errors and improve the structure. I left some comments for you suggesting additional changes in 6.2 and 6.4.
- I paid particular attention to the AoL and close-the-loop concepts and made suggestions on how they can be strengthened (again, these are mostly in 6.2 and 6.4).
- I moved several tables to the appendices. Right now they are just floating at the end, but I'll reorder and label all the appendices on the next pass, especially after you consider my suggestions for reordering some of them in conjunction with 6.2 and 6.4.
- I highlighted in yellow all the places where we need to add data or tables or clear up page number references to the business report.
- I ensured the document fully follows the guidelines laid out in the style guide, which had been expanded and revised based on your feedback from the last round and my reading of the business report. The revised style guide is also attached to this email.
- I applied consistent styles to the document so that (1) we could get a sense of how long it is with some simple formatting changes (I used a san serif font, Arial, for headings and tables and reduced the basic font size down to 11.5), and (2) so that we can more easily and quickly make consistent global changes to the document's formatting going forward to manage both its length and its consistency with the business report.
As you'll see, the main text is now exactly 21 pages—though we should keep in mind that there are still a few tables to add and considerable formatting tricks we can still do to gain needed space. For example, I find that 12-point Times seems almost cartoonishly big when printed out on paper (looks too much like student work and rough drafts), but an 11-point Times is still very readable and looks more sophisticated. Since we're now at 11.5, we can gain some room that way. Also, we can tweak the spacing between paragraphs and other elements, and we can make last-minute cuts to wordy sentences to manage line breaks and page breaks, gaining space as needed for the final version once the text is finished and set.
Here are the next steps for you:
- Read over and accept and reject changes.
- Read and respond to my comments.
- Respond to the three quick questions at the top of the style guide.
- Take a minute to notice that I've added numbers and titles to each figure and table in the document. Do you like this and want to keep it? If you do, that's great, but if you feel that some of the figures are too small for a title and number and can instead just be described in the text, we can certainly go back to that. (I'm of the opinion that figures can go without official titles and numbers, but tables should almost certainly definitely have them.)
- Also please notice that in almost every case that a course is mentioned, I've opted to give its prefix, number, and title (e.g., ACTG 409 Tax Law). This was to ensure consistency, but if there are some situations where you find it unnecessary or clunky, we can change it. I think dropping the prefix and number in some situations is fine, but I found casual mentions of "the tax course" to be too vague for a reader to process. You, however, are the expert.
Once you've done these things and we get the missing tables and text, we should be able to give it a final polish and call it done. In the style guide I have a running list of things I'm planning to do on my next pass, and they are all minor proofing issues at this point. If you don't have any major concerns after reviewing my work, we can probably just set this aside until the business report is at the same point and then I can do all the final proofing and formatting in one go to save time and ensure consistency without having to do another final check later.
One final thing: as of tonight, I've officially hit 20 hours of work, which was the maximum of our contracted agreement based on my estimate. The contract specified that I would not exceed 20 hours without approval from you. I think that doing the things that remain (copyediting the final additions, proofing, and final formatting) will take about 3 hours. I can focus on or drop one or another aspect of what remains if you'd like me to use less time. Just let me know what works for you.
As always, thank you for your patience and your trust in me. Please don't hesitate to contact me with questions and concerns.
As with the first sample email, you should notice several things:
- I name what files I'm sending—though this is done very briefly, since at this point we've been sending files back and forth for weeks.
- I clearly enumerate what work I've done. In this case, I use a lot of detail because we have established this as our working method and because I really wanted to make clear to my client that my work is valuable to her. I was asking a large hourly wage for my time and had never worked with her before, so I was anxious for her to see that the money she was spending on my services was well spent. I also wanted to lessen her stress load by naming what things she no longer needed to worry about.
- I clearly lay out what I expect her to do next. She really appreciated the clarity that the bullets gave, specifically mentioning how useful she found them in her response to me. At other times and with other clients, I even use bold to make key points in a bulleted list extremely clear (as I've done in the bulleted list you're reading right now!).
Additionally, note that I report here on some executive decisions I made (changing the numbering of figures) and invite the client to consider and potentially reverse them. I do this specifically because of the working relationship we'd established—she trusted me to make decisions like these but appreciated being informed and given the last say.
Finally, you'll see that I updated the client on the hours I'd worked thus far. Since this was a freelance job, our contract had specified a maximum number of hours I would work (based on my initial estimate of how long the job would take), and it specified that I wouldn't work beyond that limit without written permission. It's always nerve-racking to inform a client that things are going to cost more than you estimated (it's always better to estimate high and come in under that amount), and I hadn't reckoned on how much working on a document with so many authors would slow things down. I tried to deflect attention away from the issue by, again, putting the power in the client's hands to decide how I should continue. To my relief, she authorized me to work as many more hours as needed to make the report as good as it could be.
I don't know that writing transmittal letters ever gets easy—I'm always a little nervous because it means the client is about to see my work. What if they think, "I'm paying this guy for this?" But that's just my imposter syndrome popping up to say hi. No client to date° has even been less than thrilled to have their words improved and meaning made clearer through my services.
Even though it's always worrisome, I always stick to the same basic formula identified above: say what I'm sending, say what I did, say what they need to do next. Specific clients, the nature of the job, and the tenor of our working relationship dictate the details beyond that.
Do the same, and you should do just fine.