The Electron ic
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WRITING EFFECTIVE MEMOS
Public policy and management graduates report that systematic thinking and effective writing are among the most important products of their schooling. Indeed, their direct, concise communication is a strength often recognized by employers and colleagues. Writing a forceful, straightforward memo is a frequent assignment in public policy and management schools, and it is worthwhile taking the opportunity to sharpen your skill.
Here are some suggestions:
An effective memo answers a specific request – or meets a perceived need – for information and ideas. Ideas have the greatest impact when the writer aims to make maximum use of limited access to the reader’s attention. When the writer directs attention quickly to the main ideas, expresses them plainly, and makes them stand out, the reader can grasp them the first time through the memo.
Three initial steps make writing the memo more systematic and reading it more productive:
1. Analyze the audience: To whom are you writing? Why do they want your information or ideas? What do they already know? What perspective or opinions do they have? How do they think? Who else might be exposed to what you write? How?
2. Define the subject: What, exactly are you writing about? e.g., “The Fish and Wildlife Department”? Or, “Reorganization of the Fish and Wildlife Department”? Or, “Recommendations for Improving Efficiency in the Fish and Wildlife Department”? Unlike a letter, a memo has only one unified subject.
3. Determine the purpose: Why are you actually writing the memo? e.g., to encourage the director to act? Or, to persuade him to adopt a certain policy? Or, to broaden his perception of the alternatives? Or, to compare various risks…?
Accuracy about your subject and purpose is important to both you and your audience, so that you can select and organize effectively, so that they can read and understand efficiently. Announce the subject in the heading of the memo. State the purpose – or imply it clearly – in the opening sentences.
Effective memos combine several important features:
• Complete, informative heading: This includes the correct date, the full names and titles of the writer and addressee, and the accurate subject. Time gives part of the meaning to information and ideas, and every written communication is a record.
• Straightforward, explicit organization: Expressing a clear purpose captures the reader’s attention. Exposing the outline, e.g., by listing main points, guides the reader through the memo. Explaining reasoning and giving evidence makes your thinking accessible. Summarizing reinforces both your argument and the reader’s grasp of it.
• Minimal introduction: This is only what is required to orient the reader to the subject, provide necessary background, and frame the reader’s thinking about your information or ideas.
• Deliberate emphasis: Ideally, the reader can literally see the outline and main points of your memo. Emphasis comes from section and paragraph headings; capitalization, boldface, and italics; setting off and marking items with bullets, asterisks, letters, numbers, etc. Numbering paragraphs without headings is ineffective: the point is to help the reader see and remember key words and phrases, and to emphasize ranking and order – don’t number unless you mean to so emphasize. Emphasis also comes from repetition, as in summaries.
• Concise expression: Simpler sentences and fewer words make memos clearer and more convincing. Avoiding the passive voice is the single most effective route to clarity. The following contrast makes this plain:
Passive original – “Effective participation of farmers in the program was achieved by providing a steady and remunerative market for dairy products without which they would not have been induced to increase production and adopt scientific practices.”
Active re-write – “Providing a steady and remunerative market for dairy products motivated farmers to increase production and adopt scientific practices. This response made their participation in the program effective.”
Re-writing to eliminate the passive voice almost always leads to clearer thinking and expression.
• Clean, inviting appearance: The visual impact of your memo affects the reader’s ability to grasp your ideas quickly and easily. Large, dense blocks of type are intimidating. Reasonable margins and double-spacing, at least between paragraphs, help the reader see. Headings, capitalization, and similar devices lead the eye as well as the mind.
Writing an effective memo is demanding work, but it consists of systematic actions:
• Start by thinking clearly. Who is your audience? What are you writing about? Why are you writing?
• Write in order to think. Don’t try to edit in your head; think freely on paper. Discover what you think, and figure out how you can say it clearly.
• Re-write for your audience. Strive for clarity, directness, and conciseness. Cut out what you don’t really need. Proofread for accuracy.
• Read your writing critically. Adopt your reader’s point of view. Challenge your writing to be clear and accurate. Show your writing to someone who is unfamiliar with the subject, and ask her to tell you what she doesn’t understand. Then fix it.