Memos are INTERNAL correspondence; letters are written to people EXTERNAL to a
company. Letters, therefore, are usually more FORMAL than memos. Both memos and letters
generally serve the same purposes (communication) and both require an analysis of the
AUDIENCE (what does the audience want or need to know? what level of language/jargon is
appropriate? How can you make the information easier to locate and understand? etc.).
Memos are the single most important business communication of all, followed closely by letters.
Why are memos more important than letters, when letters represent your company to the
“outside” world (to customers, regulatory agencies, suppliers, etc.)? Well, because you'll usually
write many more memos than you do letters, because memos are a business’ way of
communicating information within the company–between peers, with subordinates and
superiors, and with the file drawer.... Even oral discussions–both face-to-face meetings and
telephone calls–will usually be followed up by a memo “reminding” both you and your audience
of what was said. Why? (Memos are a WRITTEN RECORD of the conversation; even if there
is a log or recording of the conversation, such as in an electronic chat room conversation, for
example, a memo can help by SUMMARIZING the conversation).
Nowadays, of course, you may often use email rather than traditional memo or letter formats.
Nonetheless, the same rules will apply: email memos may be less formal than written ones, of
course; however, depending on your audience, the difficulty of the information you are
communicating, your purpose in writing, and the culture of your organization, you may want (or
need) to follow the same careful formatting that you do for typewritten (word processed) memos.
As a matter of fact, many email programs (such as Microsoft Outlook) allow you to use your
word processor (in this case, Microsoft Word) to compose your message using the same textual
features you would use in print (i.e., italics, bold, various font faces, colors, and sizes, etc.). Use
caution with these programs, however; make sure your audience is using the same program to
read your messages or they may be difficult or impossible for your reader to access!
If you use email to correspond with people outside your company, you will probably use the
same formal language that you would in a traditional letter format. Again, make sure any
formatting you include is readable by your audience; if in doubt, it's better to use straight ASCII
(DOS) text formatting. The language and organization will need to carry the weight of your
message. (For example, you may use asterisks or hyphens in place of bullets; you will still want
to run spell check; you will want to carefully proofread your message before hitting the “send”
Your organization may have a book with sample documents (often, it's just a three-ring
binder). Or you may just be able to look at documents as they circulate around the office or ask
fellow workers (or bosses) for samples of previous documents. Sometimes, an organization will
have formal guidelines (such as Microsoft's Manual of Style, APA guidelines followed in
disciplines such as education and psychology, MLA guidelines for humanities and modern
languages, COS guidelines for electronic sources. Other styles include Chicago and Turabian,
Council of Science Editors, ISO standards (International Standards Organization), and many
more. Lawyers have specific style guidelines for citing cases, for briefs, etc.
You don't want to surprise your reader in the workplace. They want and need to find the
information they need quickly and efficiently. Following expected styles makes it easy for them
to locate what they need–they already understand the format and layout :)
If you need to create a document when you have no style guidelines to follow, remember
the rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, occasion, and medium). By analyzing the rhetorical
situation, you can design a document to suit the situation.
When you are writing correspondence in the workplace, think of yourself as a politician.
You may be trying to impress your boss, give directions to a subordinate, or deal with an angry
customer. That is, consider how your words will sound to the reader.
Let's look at the parts:
Consistency is important (if you use titles for some, use titles for all; if you use initials for first
names on some, use them for all. If your memo is going to more than one person, or if it is from
more than one person, remember that if the names are not listed alphabetically, then a hierarchy
Write out dates to avoid confusion (you may choose either U.S. or international date format–
depending on what is prevalent in your company.
Subject line should be informative (for memos, email, as well as essays). In business, the readers
are busy–they should be able to know from the subject line if this memo applies to them. The
first sentence or so of the memo should then tell them exactly what information the rest of the
memo will provide. (NOTE: this applies even to formal reports, where you will often have an
executive summary or abstract, followed by the introduction, the various parts of the report, a
conclusion (often with recommendations), and perhaps appendices that may contain additional
technical information for audiences who may need it.
Note cc's (also bcc's)
Note attachments or enclosures. Don't forget, you MUST refer to attachments/enclosures in the
body of the memo as well!
You can use headers, bulleted or numbered lists, etc. to present information to make it easy to
locate. Keep in mind, however, that every list must be introduced. Every header has at least a
one or two-sentence explanation, etc.
Remember, in the workplace, if it doesn't happen in writing, it doesn't happen.
Checklist for Memorandums
Write a descriptive subject line.
Identify clearly the principal idea (pleasant idea or routine idea).
Present sufficient supporting details in a logical sequence.
Assure accuracy of facts or figures.
Assure message is ethical and abides by any legal requirements.
Adapt message to be understood by an international audience.
Use an appropriate organization pattern (e.g., deductive for good-news and routine messages; inductive for bad-news
and persuasive messages).
Present supporting details in a logical sequence.
Include a final paragraph that is courteous and indicates a continuing relationship with the receiver.
Assure that message is clear and concise. Include jargon and acronyms only if the receiver will understand them.
Use active verbs and concrete nouns predominantly.
Use first person sparingly or not at all.
Make ideas cohere by avoiding abrupt changes in thought.
Keep sentences and paragraphs relatively short and vary length and structure.
Emphasize significant thoughts (e.g., position and sentence structure).
Use original expression (sentences are not copied directly from the definition of the problem or from
sample letters in text); clichés are avoided.
Include TO, FROM, DATE, and SUBJECT information.
Omit courtesy titles on TO and FROM lines.
Single space lines; leave blank space between paragraphs; do not indent paragraphs.
Highlight text for emphasis and easy reading (e.g., bulleted or numbered lists, headings, or graphics).
Place handwritten initials by the name on the FROM line.
Include special parts if necessary (subject line, enclosure, copy, etc.).
Assure that keyboarding spelling, grammar, and punctuation are perfect.