How to Write a Memo

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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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3 thoughts on “How to Write a Memo”

  1. Useful information. In this day and age of email and texting, memos and staff reports are still the way businesses and governments formally distribute info, intitiate decisions, and keep records…….. even though most are prepared, shared, and stored in electronic form. I agree that memos generally are intended for a limited audience. However, memos are most frequently used to go on record (or CYA) about procedures, operations, events, and policy matters (adopted or under discusson) more than the use of email which still is considered less formal and more emphemeral.

    In the “old days,” there always was a chance that sensitive or confidential information in printed form could get into the hands of adversaries. Also, it would have been easier to destroy all traces of printed info if need be. So, this article was a reminder that nowadays it is much riskier to convey sensitive info via a misdirected email, retrieval of cached documents, off-site data storage, hacking, theft, or confiscation of devices……and since the typwritten or handwritten note is a thing of the past, sensitive info always is at risk of ending up astray.

  2. ……..also forgot to say that memos often make reference to background materials that support or provide further information for the topic. The info can be an internet link(s) or hard copy attachment(s).

  3. I think that the generally reduced formality is work communications is a good thing. If nothing else, the contrast between an informal email reminder and a classically formatted memo – whether distributed physically or electronically – gives the writer an opportunity to send a signal to the reader about the comparative importance of the message. An email from the team leader might be construed as a suggestion, but there is no mistaking a hard and formal memo from management as anything but a command.

    Note also that in some contexts, the memo is more than an email analogue. I practice law, and to me a memo might just mean a note to the file about the content of a phone call or the result of a brain storming session – but if I get instructed to write a legal memo, i’m actually getting instructed to write a non-argumentative paper on the law applied to a set of facts. It should be fully researched and cited. The difference between a memo and a brief is that memo is for me, other lawyers on my side, and possibly my client. It’s meant to be an objective assessment for the purpose choosing a fully informed strategy. A brief, by contrast, is an argumentative document submitted to a court. Like a formal legal memo, its fully researched, but the facts and law are presented in a manner calculated to persuade the decision maker to give the writer a desired result.

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