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The memorandum (or memo) is an incredibly versatile form of communication, often used in business settings. In practice, memos answer questions and give information. A memo is defined by Merriam-Webster as a "brief written message or report from one person or department in a company or organization to another."
Though the definition may seem simple enough, knowing how to write a memo still requires you to follow a specific format. And, as is true for any form of writing, this format can be followed well or poorly.
Intent and Audience
When beginning your memo, start by considering your memo's intent.
What is your memo trying to accomplish? Are you trying to inform people of a change? Are you making an announcement? Are you trying to answer a question?
Though this step may seem simple, it will be helpful in the long term if you can clearly identify what purpose your memo is serving.
Next, determine your audience. Whom do you want to have read your memo? Your boss? The whole office? Or a specific department? Knowing your audience will help you focus on making your memo helpful and clear to your readers by influencing the words you choose and the tone you use.
Now that you have determined your memo's intent and audience, you can easily fill in the heading of your memo. Your memo's heading, quite simply, is information above the main text of the memo; it signals to the reader what the document is, to whom it is addressed, whom it is from, the date it was sent, and the subject.
Here's an example heading layout:
When writing your subject, try to give as much information in as few words as possible. Think of it as if you are writing the headline for a breaking news story; give the reader a quick and clear indication of the text that will follow.
Since you know the names or departments to which the memo is addressed, the date, and your name, the next step is to work on the body of your memo.
When working on the main text, your focus should be simplicity and clarity. You want your reader to quickly and easily understand what you are saying.
In your first sentence, restate the subject of the memo in sentence form. The opening paragraph should flow easily from the subject line. Like a thesis statement, it should clearly state the intent of the memo, while setting the tone for the rest of the memo.
Overall, the first paragraph should explain exactly what your memo is going to be about. Each of the following paragraphs should build on that information, going into more detail.
To keep your memo readable, try to keep each paragraph under seven lines long. Short paragraphs are easier for your audience to read, and your audience will appreciate lots of white space on the page (or screen).
Remember to keep your memo as short as possible. Do you ever get annoyed when the latest episode of Game of Thrones includes extended scenes of a character you don't care about? Well, that frustration isn't anything compared to a reader trying to sift through an overly long, boring memo.
Memos are typically less than one page long (though there are exceptions, and if your memo is over a page, you'll need to add a short summary statement at the end). Never cut out necessary information for the sake of making your memo shorter, but remember that knowing how to write a memo that is concise will ensure that your audience reads it entirely and understands it completely.
There is more to the body of a memo than just stating things quickly. Clarity also addresses how you state ideas, which means eliminating overly technical words or jargon. This is why it's important to keep the memo's intended audience in mind. If you're addressing a specific department, you can get away with using technical terms in your memo (it will probably even help them understand you better). If you're writing to the whole office, it's best to avoid terms that require a dictionary.
If you refer to other sources in your memo, be sure to put directly quoted material in quotation marks, and include the list of sources on a separate page. Also, make sure you cite them properly!
Editing and Proofreading
Your readers will only take your memo seriously if you do. If you litter your memo with typos or fill it with formatting errors and inconsistencies, your communication will lose its effectiveness.
Allow yourself some extra time to complete the task, especially while you are just learning how to write a memo, After you finish writing, take some time away from the memo (get a coffee, work on another project, or regale your coworkers with tales of your days abroad) and return to your writing with a fresh pair of eyes. Or, better yet, ask a colleague or professional editor to look over your writing for you.
Once you're sure the memo is clear, concise, and free of errors, you're ready to send it out into the world!
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