Why learn about writing memos? • important form of corporate communication • clear and concise communication of complex subjects • writing style and approach applicable to other communications, such as email • set yourself apart from people who cannot write
Purpose of a memo • “solve problems” by: • informing • persuading • refuting • arguing • analyzing • … • Recipients: one person, several persons, one or more groups, a whole community
General rules • keep your audience in mind • follow a structure (see below) • follow an outline • get to the point early • revising is easier than writing perfectly the first time • follow style guides and writing manuals • budget between 20 min – 1 hr for most memos
Memo plan Header } Subject line Opening paragraph } Supporting details/explanation Closing
Header • To: recipient (individuals and/or groups) • From: you/office (e.g. “Student Affairs”)/group (e.g. “Social Committee”) • CC: more recipient(s) • Date: • use correct names/designations for recipients • include titles when appropriate, for all recipients when possible
Subject line • probably the most important part of your memo • summarize the intent of your memo, e.g.: • “Request for assistance with grant project” • “Consequences of recent material thefts” • specific, concise and to the point
Opening paragraph • complete summary of your memo • provide: • context • task/action/request • summary of the rest of the memo • Best: put your intent into the first sentence
Supporting details/explanation • maintain a global structure, such as findings implications action items • arrange facts in a logical order • don’t provide more detail than necessary • use bullet points where appropriate • use correct structure bullet points (e.g. no standalone bullets)
Closing • If necessary, summarize what you want recipient(s) to do. • Provide clear instructions, including deadlines where applicable. • Provide further references/contact information when appropriate.
In-class exercise 1: Critique a memo Review Institutional Advancement Memo – Version 1 for compliance with the rules just discussed.
Writing style “It now appears that obligatory obfuscation is a firm tradition within the medical profession. … [Medical writing] is a highly skilled, calculated attempt to confuse the reader. … A doctor feels he might get passed over for an assistant professorship because he wrote his papers too clearly—because he made his ideas seem too simple.” Michael Crichton, NEJM
More about writing style “There are times when the more the authors explain, the less we understand. Apes certainly seem capably of using language to communicate. Whether scientists are remains doubtful.” Douglas Chadwick, NYT
Example Our lack of data prevented evaluation of state actions in targeting funds to areas in need of assistance. Because we lacked data, we could not evaluate whether the state had targeted funds to areas that needed assistance.
Clarity: Actions • Use subjects to name your central characters. • Express their most important actions as verbs.
Verb Noun = Nominalization Examples: discover discovery resist resistance different difference proficient proficiency Nominalization makes for a noun-heavy writing style that is complex and hard to understand.
How to fix it • Diagnosis • Analysis • Revision (J. Williams, Style, p. 54, 55)
Please fix: The agency conducted an investigation into the matter. The agency investigated the matter. There was first a review of the evolution of the dorsal fin. First, she reviewed how the dorsal fin evolved.
Use characters as your subjects • A character is whatever entity you can tell a story about, such as: • you • the school • the Executive Committee • the Democratic party • freedom of speech • health care costs
Active vs. passive voice Choose the passive voice when you don’t know who did it, your readers don’t care who did it, or you don’t want them to know who did it.
Example Those who are found guilty can be fined. Once the design was publicized, it was widely adopted.
A style that seems complex … • may be necessary to express complex ideas precisely. • may gratuitously complicate already complex ideas. • may gratuitously complex simple ideas.
Cohesion • Move from old information to new. • Arrange topics in a logical order. • Start sentences with ideas that you have already described, or with something you can safely assume the reader already knows. • Keep your topics short and reasonably consistent.
Syntactic complexity • In general, readers best comprehend long complex units after they have read a relatively short and clear subject+verb sequence. • Place technical terms new to the reader not at the beginning, but towards the end of the sentence.
Example To help in the efforts of ABCO, Inc., to develop medical policies in regard to coverage of employees engaged in high-risk activities, Dr. Jones has served as a medical consultant. Dr. Jones has served as a medical consultant to help ABCO, Inc., develop medical policies in regard to coverage of employees engaged in high-risk activities.
Clarity, grace and concision • Delete words that mean little or nothing. • Delete words that repeat other words. • Delete words whose meaning the reader can infer from other words. • Replace a phrase with a word. • Change unnecessary negatives to affirmatives.
Homework Rewrite Institutional Advancement Memo – Version 2 for compliance with the guidelines discussed in the lecture.
Resources • Williams, J. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (7th Ed.), Longman, New York, 2002 • Pitt style guide: www.umc.pitt.edu/umc/styleguide/contents.html • Merriam Webster’s Manual for Writers and Editors, Merriam-Webster, Inc., Springfield, MA 1998 • Siegal, AM and Connolly, W. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Random House, New York, 1999