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Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering

Types of Documents: Memos

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“Memo writing is technical writing with its sleeves rolled up.” [1: 351]

A Memo is a no-nonsense professional document, designed to be read quickly and passed along rapidly, often within a company or work group.  E-mail messages are by far the most common form of memo.

This document describes the basic format for the business and technical memo.  Most memos are characteristically brief, but they should follow the other principles of good technical writing as well: know your audience, be clear, and be accurate.

Typical Components: While a memo generally requests or delivers a quick response to a specific question, it may also be a compact version of a short report, progress report, or lab report (See our pages on these genres).  Although section titles may appear awkward in a very short memo, they allow your readers to scan efficiently and respond quickly.
  1. Header
  2. Purpose
  3. Summary
  4. Discussion
  5. Action
Memos are often routed, posted, and forwarded, which means they can reach a lot of people quickly. Effects of careless mistakes compound quickly, since they tend to generate even more memos asking for clarification.  Memos also get filed, which means they can come back to haunt you later.  In fact, “memo” comes from the Latin memorandum, “a thing which must be remembered.”

1. Header: The header is a compact block of information at the top of a memo.  Different offices may prefer different layouts, but in general you should use an arrangement like the following:

Date:  January 24, 1998 
To:  F. Prefect 
From:  A. Dent  
cc:  T. MacMillan 
       Z. Beeblebrox   
bcc:  D.Adams
Subject:  My Suggested Revisions to the Local Demolition Schedule

  • Date: Spell it out.  In some countries “12/01/98” means “December 1, 1998,” but in others it means “12 January, 1998.”
  • To: and From:  In general, omit titles such as Professor or Mr., but follow the style your organization prefers.  Write your initials after your name on the “From” line.
  • Note:  The standard memo does not use a salutation (“Dear Mr. Prefect:”) or a closing (“Sincerely,  Arthur P. Dent”).  However, many people do add such lines to e-mail messages.
  • cc (“Carbon Copy”) and bcc (“Blind Carbon Copy”):  Although carbon copy paper is obsolete technology, the term persists.  A "blind copy" might go to a person who should be informed of what is going on (such as an office assistant or a secretary), but who is otherwise not directly involved.  These headers are optional.  The people on the “cc” list do not see the names of the people on the “BCC” list.
  • Subject:  Be specific.

Annual Report 
(Too vague)

Annual Report Cover Artwork 
(A little more precise, but there could be many other memos on  this same topic)

Cost Estimate for Annual Report Cover Artwork
Emergency Revisions to Annual Report Cover Artwork

The first two examples are unacceptable because they only state a topic, but the last two are more informative because they also identify the focus -- the particular relationship of this memo to the general topic.

2. Purpose: Immediately state your reason for writing. Answer the journalist's questions: who, what, when, where, and why.

Mr. Howard has asked me to arrange a working lunch for all members of the writing staff, at the main office, sometime before the end of the month.

The purpose of this memo is to request authorization to purchase a sound card and a modem for the computer in the front office.

This memo confirms the details of your tour of the new processing plant, as we discussed over the telephone this morning.

3. Summary: The summary should do more than describe the contents of the memo, it should be a miniature version of the memo.  A technical document is not a mystery novel, so put all your important information up front.
This memo confirms the plans made during the writing staff's working lunch with Mr. Howard.  It describes the proposed changes to the Greenfield Power proposal, and explains the procedure by which employees may voice their own opinions. 
(This passage merely describes the organization of the memo.  It does not actually summarize the contents.)

During last week's working lunch, Mr. Howard asked the writing staff to consider two major changes to the Greenfield Power proposal: 1) invite the governor to write a letter of introduction, 2) transpose sections four and five.  Mr. Howard will hold an open meeting next Friday at 12, in conference room 2, in order to solicit employee feedback. 
(Some readers, satisfied with the summary,  might stop reading here.  If so, you have done your job well.)

4. Discussion: Since your memo may be pulled from a file years from now, your discussion section should include sufficient background information.  The background may include the names and titles of the people involved, or the dates of earlier memos related to the one you are writing.  The rest of the section should expand on and support all the points you made in your summary.  You may employ subheadings similar to those found in larger technical documents:  situation, problem, solution, and evaluation (see Online Handbook / Case Studies).  Label these subsections.  You may choose to arrange the discussion chronologically, from more important to less important, or from the general to the specific.  Whatever rhetorical pattern (see Online Handbook / Writing Process / Rhetorical Patterns) you choose, you should follow these general pointers:

  • Start with the old information and work carefully towards the new.
  • Give your reader a sense of the big picture before you zero in on the individual parts.  For example:

Observation A. [Details on A...]  Observation B.  [Details on B...]  Observation C.  [Details on C...]  Research suggests that factors A, B, and C combine to create problem Y.  [Details on Y...]  Therefore, conclusion X.  [Details on X...]  
(An unconnected string of details is often hard to follow.)

Problem Y occurs when factors A, B, and C are present.  This section explains why we should avoid problem Y, examines each of the contributing factors, and explains why I feel that action X should prevent further instances of problem Y.  [Details follow, in the order promised.] 
(Advance knowledge of how the details fit together makes them easier to absorb.)

  • Use active verbs.
  • Use the pronoun "I" when you are talking about your work.
  • Simplify your language.  Instead of "somewhere in the proximity of," write "near".  Instead of "at this point in time," write "now."  Avoid puffing up your writing to make yourself appear more important.

5. Action: Unless the purpose of the memo is simply to inform, you should finish with a clear call for action. Who should do what, and how long do they have to do it? You may need to include alternatives, in the event that your readers disagree with you.  Be polite when you ask others to do work for you, especially when they are not under your supervision.  You may wish to mention the actions that you plan to take next, and what your own deadlines are, so your reader can gauge how important the project is to you.  A canned conclusion such as “If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at 555-1234” is too vague for a statement of action.

[1] Markel, M. and Holmes, H. Technical Writing:  Situations and Strategies. Scarborough:  Nelson Canada, 1994.

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