How to Write a Memo
The memo may seem like a thing of the past, long ago supplanted by the email message. However, its general format can be applied to electronic communications, and the hard-copy memo still has its place in businesses and other organizations, especially when providing context for a print publication or another physical object being distributed among a group of people. Here are guidelines about format and organization of a memo.
The full form of memo, memorandum — the equally acceptable plural forms are memoranda and memorandums — means “to be remembered,” and though memos often serve as reminders, they may also introduce a resource or call attention to an event, a policy, or an issue.
Memos are useful for informing or reminding multiple people about something. The only reason to circulate a printed memo rather than email the intended recipients, however, is to minimize the risk that sensitive information will be distributed outside that limited audience, though hard copy can also be leaked to or otherwise appropriated by outside parties. (In that case, it might be best to avoid documentation altogether and circulate the information in person or by telephone.) Therefore, as stated above, the following recommendations are best suited for electronic transmission or for cases in which a memo accompanies an object.
Select the recipients carefully to avoid introducing inefficiency by being too inclusive or inviting resentment by deliberately or inadvertently excluding certain parties. If a superior has requested that you send the memo or will benefit from reading its contents (or simply from knowing that you sent it), be sure to include that person, but take care not to distribute it to upper management unless it is essential information for them; alternatively, you can leave it to your immediate supervisor to decide whether to pass the memo along to his or her superior(s).
Keep in mind, too, the nature of the memo and the culture of the business or organization when determining the degree of formality with which you refer to people or how you write the memo in general.
Format a memo with single line spaces, justified to the left margin, and use line spaces rather than indented first lines of paragraphs to distinguish small blocks of text. Use clear, concise, direct language, and employ headings and bullet or numbered lists to outline the main points.
The first section, the header, should include four components: a “to” field with recipients’ names and job titles, a “from” field with the sender’s name and job title, the full date, and a short but specific subject line.
Introduce the topic in the first paragraph by providing the memo’s purpose (for example, to explain the reason for distributing a printed document), the context of the topic (the importance to the recipients and the company or organization of the document), and the expected outcome (the recipients should read the document and perhaps be prepared to discuss it at an upcoming meeting).
In the sentences (or brief paragraphs) that follow, expand on the context and the task, then elaborate on any points before summarizing the topic and closing with a comment about any follow-up action required or requested (such as asking for recommendations or other responses, or a reference to a scheduled meeting or other event). Headings should be specific (“Ethics Policy Recommendations,” rather than simply “Recommendations,” for example), and lists are best restricted to a few phrases or brief statements.
Remember, too, that memos (like any other form of writing) should clearly convey the writer’s purpose and associate that purpose with the interests and/or needs of the recipient(s).
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