Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out

Writing Professional Memos

VIEWS: 1,416 PAGES: 3

									Writing Professional Memos
This memo provides twelve tips for writing short, effective professional memoranda
concerning policy decisions. These tips are not unbreakable rules, but they provide
standards or presumptions that will serve you well in a wide range of professional
settings. Writing is a personal business and you must find a style that makes you
comfortable. With the help of these tips and lots of practice, anyone, or at least any
Maxwell MPA, can become an effective professional writer.
1. Stick to the main points.
A typical decision maker is very busy, and your memo must compete for his or her
time. A decision maker will quickly become impatient with tangents, no matter how
clever or interesting. Focus on the points that help make your case; leave out the
minor points.
2. Be concise, but clear and complete.
Perhaps the most difficult trade-off in writing a policy memo is to be complete and
clear while at the same time being concise. You need to put down every important
step in your argument, expressed so that the reader can readily understand it, but in
most cases you also must limit your memo to a couple of pages. The only way to find
the right balance is to edit your memo. Edit, edit, edit, and edit some more.
3. State your recommendation first.
Nothing is as important as your recommendation and you should not save it until
the end. In a short memo the reader will not know what to do with your analysis if
he or she does not know where it is headed. A professional memo is not the same as
an academic paper in which you can present detailed evidence and analysis and then
come to a policy conclusion. When a decision must be made, you should lead with
your recommendation. The reader should have no doubt as to where you stand.
4. State your recommendation with confidence and authority.
In a professional setting, you have been asked for your recommendation, so do not
let your language make it seem as if you are unsure about it or unwilling to take
responsibility for it. Make it clear where you stand. In addition, avoid talky
introductions such as: "I have examined the material on this subject...." or "As you
requested, I have compared the alternative policies for...." Get right to the point.
Say something direct, such as "I recommend..."
5. Provide a clear framework for the reader.
The purpose of your memo is to build a case for your recommendation. You should
make sure to tell the reader how the pieces or your argument fit together. One good
strategy is to be explicit about your framework, with headings or with a brief
overview of the framework at the beginning of the memo (after the
recommendation!). Another possible strategy is to edit the sentences at the
beginning of each paragraph so that the framework is clear without ever being
mentioned explicitly. In either case, you should avoid repetition. For example, do
not say something like "As noted earlier, the third key point concerns...." Moreover,
you should avoid long paragraphs. Each paragraph should refer to one of the main
points in your framework; longer paragraphs that refer to more than one main
point are confusing. In some cases, the framework may include introductory
material explaining certain key concepts before they are actually applied to the
decision at hand.
6. Have a strong conclusion.
Think of the end of your memo as your last chance to drive your recommendation
home to the reader. Do not end with just another point (as journalists often do).
Instead, end by summarizing your main points and stating why they lead inevitably
to your recommendation. One way to undermine your memo is to save a main point
for the conclusion. This approach is confusing because the reader does not know
how this new point fits into your framework. If a point is important enough to be in
your memo, it is important enough to be incorporated into your framework. The
conclusion should summarize and emphasize, not start anything new.
7. Accentuate the strengths of your recommendation.
Your memo should emphasize the strengths of your recommendation. Make a case
for something. Do not undercut your recommendation with lengthy disclaimers or
complaints about the lack of good information; make the best case you can with
available information. The point here is not that you should be dishonest and hide
the flaws of your proposal. On the contrary, you should be sure to mention the
disadvantages of your recommendation and to explain why you are making this
recommendation in spite of these disadvantages. Instead, this tip is about balance.
You cannot convince someone that your recommendation is the best course of action
unless you are clear about its strengths. In addition, this tip implies that your memo
should not devote many words to alternative recommendations. If credible
alternatives are available, you should briefly explain why you did not select them,
but you should not dwell on them. You cannot make a strong case unless you keep
the focus on your recommendation.
8. Avoid the passive voice.
In a professional memo, the passive voice disconnects the writer from the substance
and makes it seem as if you are hesitant about your recommendation or analysis.
Moreover, the active voice is livelier and more direct than the passive voice -- useful
traits when you are trying to get someone's attention. Thus, for example, you should
write "I recommend" not "It is recommended" and you should write "Several
factors support this argument" not "There are several factors that support this
9. Be attentive to word choice, spelling, and grammar.
At least for many readers, nothing undermines a writer's credibility faster than
misspelled words, inappropriate words, or poor grammar. If you do not even care
enough to check your spelling or to select the proper words, many readers say, you
must not care very much about the quality of your information. If you cannot even
construct a grammatical sentence, you must not be able to construct a sensible
argument. Edit for word choice, spelling, and grammar (including punctuation), as
well as for substance. Use the spell checker on your computer! Review the basic
rules of grammar if you are having trouble with them! You cannot convince people
that your recommendation makes sense if they dismiss you before finishing your
10. Maintain a professional tone.
In many nonprofessional settings it is appropriate to write with an irreverent or flip
tone or to make your points through jokes. In a professional setting, however, you
should maintain a serious tone and focus on making your analysis as clear and
complete as possible. If you are not serious about the task at hand, the reader is not
likely to take your recommendation seriously.
11. Write in plain English, without jargon or graphs.
The best method for getting through to a busy decision maker is to write in plain
English. Jargon should be avoided; it is distracting, and perhaps confusing, unless
you know the reader is familiar with it already. Graphs place different demands on
the reader than does plain English, so they also are distracting. Important graphs
may be put in an attachment (see tip 12) but should not be in the text. In some cases,
a simple table may be an effective way to summarize information. A table listing the
pros and cons of various proposals could be helpful, for example, as could a table
summarizing the results of an important set of calculations, such as calculations of
net benefits from a project under various conditions. Tables included in the text
should always be simple.
12. Use an attachment to present calculations or figures that support a main point.
If one part of your argument is supported by a detailed set of calculations or can be
explained with a figure, it may be helpful to include those calculations or that figure
as an attachment to your memo. Attachments should follow these rules: (a)
Attachments should not be included unless they add depth to your explanation of a
key point. (b) Each attachment should be referred to explicitly in the text, so that the
reader knows its role in the analysis. (c) An attachment should be regarded as a
supplement to the explanation in the text, not as a substitute for it; the text should
summarize the main point of the attachment. (d) Every attachment should stand on
its own; that is, a reader should be able to understand the attachment without
referring to the text of your memo. The reader must refer to the text, of course, to
understand the role that the attachment plays in your analysis, but the information
conveyed in the attachment (the details of a benefit-cost calculation, for example)
should be accessible on its own.

To top