Memos and letters are brief and relatively informal documents, • Yet many technical professionals spend more time writing (and reading) these familiar forms, in hard copy or as electronic mail, than they spend on any other communication task.
Despite their brevity and relative informality, memos and letters may be archived and reviewed later, often by those not originally addressed. • Both forms may become important parts of a project record. • They may serve as the basis for important decisions, with effects as significant as those of multivolume proposals or articles published in prestigious journals.
The structure of both memos and letters is flexible enough to be useful for a wide variety of purposes, including • Proposals, • Requests for information, • Trip reports, • Complaints, • Inquiries, • Records of telephone conversations, or • Calls for meetings.
The personalized forms of memos and letters distinguish them from other technical workplace documents. • They name the recipient, • They name corecipients, and • They identify the author.
The memo form is used for communicating within an organization, never for an outside audience. • The letter Is used for communicating outside an organization. • Thus a feasibility report prepared for exclusive use within a company will be accompanied by a memo of transmittal, and a report prepared for a client will be covered by a letter of transmittal.
In e-mail communication, no distinction is made between memo and letter or between files that will be transmitted to the next office and files that will be transmitted across the country or around the world. • E-mail written to a colleague in the next office looks exactly like e-mail written to a client on another continent.
Gone are the social signals and organizational images communicated through letterhead. • You, under your user name, write to someone else with a user name. • All user names are more or less the same length, without clues to educational or professional status.
Most e-mail recipients open their own mail—even those who never read hard copy memos or letters until a secretary has opened envelopes and logged in each document. • Most e-mail readers answer their own mail—even those who otherwise dictate copy for secretarial transcription.
Reaching Your Audience • In shaping the content of memos and letters, youmust address the information needs of your recipient. • In your search for a persuasive strategy, consider what your reader already knows about the situation you are addressing.
Ask yourself how this reader is likely to react to what you are saying. • Then remember that the first audience for memos and letters may not be the last. • If copies of your document need to be sent to other readers, you should also consider how each one is likely to respond to what you have written.
Brevity and Focus • Though memos and letters are frequently many pages or screens long, • The book recommend using these correspondence forms for brief accounts of single issues, with a goal of one-subject, one-page (or one-screen) for each document.
The subject should be specified in the subject line, and the content should relate to the stated subject. • For two subjects, write two documents. In that way, each subject can receive your reader’s full attention, and each document can be appropriately filed for retrieval at a later dare.
Realistically, the conventional format of letters requires so much space for formalities that it is often difficult to hold to a one-page limit. • Brevity is recommended.
Design for Emphasis • For hard copy memos and letters, visual presentation is crucially important: • memos look like memos; • letters look like letters.
Faithfulness to outward appearance is not enough to ensure effective communication. • Simply following a prescribed format will not help you to write a memo or letter that suits its particular context.
Though your memo or letter may be brief, do not assume that every word will be read with interest and rapt attention. • Make judicious use of bullets, numbered lists, headings, and bold type to emphasize the ideas you want to get across. • Remember that you are competing for the attention of readers who probably have too much to read and too much to do.
The burden of calling attention to key points rests with you, not with your reader.
Memo Format • Though the exact placement of elements in the heading of memos will vary from organization to organization, the content remains constant: • memo headings invariably identify • Date, • Recipient, • Author, and • Subject.
Memo headings perform important reference functions. • The prominence of the date provides a chronology for the issue under consideration, so anyone can see at a glance where each document fits into the evolving life of a project.
The date locates each action and may be important later if, for example, you are involved in legal action.
Organizational titles and levels of responsibility may influence the relative weight a reader will give each communication. • Although scientists and engineers should be influenced primarily by objective evidence, readers are, nevertheless, often influenced by the professional rankings of authors and audiences.
Of all the elements of a memo, the subject line carries most responsibility for flagging readers. • Because it functions as title and abstract combined, the subject line needs both to present a concise statement of the memo’s topic and to contain information that will tell a reader whether the memo is immediately important.
An additional audience for the subject line is the clerical personnel who file your document. • They are likely to make filing decisions based on mechanical searches for keywords.
An ambiguous subject line can keep your memo from reaching the right reader.
Memo Organization • Though the external forms of memos and letters are rigid, the content is extremely malleable. • Once you identify your purpose and audience, you can shape your text more precisely than for other technical documents. • Each memo or letter you write should adhere to some broad outlines, but within those outlines you develop strategies for organizing and presenting your content to a specified audience.
A three-part organizational plan works well for most memos. • Open with an overview. • Tell readers exactly why you are writing and what they will gain from reading. • Use the middle section of the memo to develop your point and provide supporting arguments. • Use the final section to summarize your point and, when appropriate, to request or suggest follow-up action.
Consider adding internal headings to give your reader a quick preview of contents. • If your memo is more than one page, include a heading that will allow your document to be reassembled if pages become separated. • Always indicate the presence of attachments or enclosures with a notice at the bottom of the page.
Memo Style • Memos are utilitarian forms, less formal than letters. • In most organizations, memo writers initial their documents in the heading and do not sign their full names. • But memos are also personal: by all means, use “I” and “you.”
A memo is an internal document, and formality is not expected. • Aim for a style that is efficient and cordial.
But keep in mind that despite their in-house status, memos may become important parts of historical archives. • You may be tempted to include a private communication in technical memos; • For example, you may want to use the occasion of reporting progress on a new stack gas emission control to add congratulations on the birth of a baby.
Remember that your memo may need to be reviewed. • Many writers attach removable notes to memos and use those spaces for personal comments that they would not want retrieved at a later date.
Letter Format • Most organizations have a “house style” for letters, with standards for indentation, spacing, and punctuation. • The widely used block style is both attractive and functional.
Though a subject line is not absolutely required, it provides a preview for the recipient and filing information for an assistant who may need to retrieve the letter at a later date.
Some organizations prefer modified block. • In this style, paragraphs are indented, and date, closing, and signature are aligned approximately two-thirds across the page. • As with memos, be sure to put identifying information on second pages and to indicate the presence of enclosures.
Letters should always be addressed to someone, never to “Dear Sir” or “To Whom It May Concern.” • If you do not know the name, title, and preferred form of address of the person you’re writing to, you should not, except in unusual circumstances, be writing a letter.
Check details with care, and do not assume goodwill. • Most people are irritated when their names are misspelled or their titles garbled.
Letter Organization • No all-purpose form letter will achieve the results you want for all occasions, for all readers. • Like memos, letters must be designed to reach the specific reader named as recipient, the specific readers named as corecipients, and unknown readers who are likely to read the document at some later date.
The recommended three-part organization for memos works well for most letters. • Open with an overview, telling the reader exactly why you are writing. • Use the middle section of the letter to develop your point. • Use the final section to summarize your point and to suggest follow-up action.
Though the middle sections of technical letters are closely related to the spare and utilitarian style of memos, the openings and closings are strictly ceremonial. • Letter writers are more constrained than memo writers to make verbal gestures that are purely social.
Letter Status • A letter is simultaneously highly personal and official. • You speak directly to the intended reader with the salutation “Dear,” and you close the document with your handwritten signature.
At the same time, the letter may bear your company letterhead and highlight your administrative level. • A word processor’s initials at the bottom of the page will signal to your reader that you are important enough to have secretarial assistance. • And when you include the title and organizational address of your recipient, you indicate that your letter is both written and received in full recognition of institutional hierarchies.
Letters written on organizational letterhead are official forms, and they relay the weight of your office and affiliation. • Because communication on company letterhead carries an implied official endorsement, take care when you use it. • You are, in effect, expressing not only your own message but also the views of your organization.
Reaching Your E-Mail Audience • While e-mail is an instrument for sharing ideas and information, the volume of e-mail in networked writing environments frequently leads to cognitive overload. • As a result, e-mail messages are often just skimmed, not scrutinized carefully. • A closely related problem with e-mail is that few readers are willing to read extended on-line text.
Important e-mail is often printed out or followed up by a conventional memo or letter.
If you want your e-mail messages to be read, you will have to consider that the recipient of your message may be receiving dozens of messages along with yours. • With most e-mail systems, the person to whom you are writing will receive a list of mail to read, identifying the author and displaying the subject line.