Dr. Judith M. Newman

[Original Source: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/pw/p_memo.html ]

Memo Writing

Memo writing is something of an art form. A letter is not a memo, nor is a memo a letter. A memo is a short, to the point communication conveying your thoughts, reactions or opinion on something. A memo can call people to action or broadcast a bit of timely news. With memo writing, shorter is better.

As with all writing, memo writing needs a structure. Because they are short, rambling meanderings will soon destroy the memo’s effectiveness and become a waste of productive time to those that read it and to the person who wrote it.

If you have something longer than a page, it’s better to send it as an attachment or a document that follows the memo used as a cover letter. Never make a memo too long. If someone takes a glance at a memo that appears to be too long, there’s a good chance it will be set aside for a time when they aren’t busy. This can defeat your memo’s purpose which is timely communication.

Basic Formats

Memos can be approached in different ways depending on your purpose:

  1. Decide if it’s to be persuasive or informative. While many memos are a combination of the two (“In order to process your claim promptly, please submit it no later than January 15.”), sometimes memos have to be one or the other for the reader to take the appropriate action. A persuasive memo engages the reader’s interest before issuing a directive, where as an informative memo outlines the facts and then requests the reader’s actions.
  2. Clearly state the purpose of communication in the subject line. Most memo formats have the basics of the header, like “to,” “from” and “date” in place. But you have a responsibility to make the subject line as descriptive as possible so the reader understands the intent. A memo simply titled “Vacation Time” might appear to be good news – until the document explains that vacation time won’t be granted unless first requested in writing. Thus, a better memo title might be “New Vacation Time Request Policy".
  3. Write memos with purpose and make that purpose known in the first paragraph. Needless memo writing should be a crime across all states. One way to make sure no one reads or heeds memos is to send them out for the slightest issue. Try to avoid doing this. Also, outline the purpose and the desired action in the memo’s first paragraph. Readers will become conditioned to the importance of a memo and gain that knowledge as soon as they open it.
  4. K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Silly. Most memo formats accommodate one page of information. This means that the topic details should be concise, with clear directives and contacts for follow-up. If it’s a complex topic extending into multiple pages, still keep the language as direct as possible, add headings or bullets to guide the reader and conclude with a summary paragraph of key points.
    Reinforce the reader’s necessary action. At the end of the memo, specifically direct the reader to the desired action.
  5. Effective business communication improves workflow and relationships. Use the tools of memo formats and well-constructed information to your advantage.

Parts of a Memo

There are three basic reasons to write a memo:

  • to persuade action
  • to issue a directive
  • or to provide a report.

Regardless of your purpose, memos are generally divided into segments in order to organize the information and to achieve your intention.


The heading segment follows this general format:

TO: (readers' names and job titles)
CC: (any people you are copying the memo to)
FROM: (your name and job title)
DATE: (complete and current date)
SUBJECT: (what the memo is about, highlighted in some way)

  • Make sure you address the reader by his or her correct name and job title.
  • Be specific and concise in your subject line.

Opening Segment

The gist of a memo should occur in the opening sentences/paragraphs. It's a good idea to include some information about the context, a task statement and perhaps a purpose statement.

  1. The context is the event, circumstance, or background of the problem you are solving or the directive you are giving. You can use a paragraph to establish the background and state the problem or more commonly simply use the opening of a sentence. Include only what your reader needs and be sure it is clear.
  2. In the task statement describe what you are doing to deal with a situation. If an action was requested, refer to it by a sentence opening like, "You asked that I look at...." If you want to explain your intentions, you might say, "To determine the best method of xxx, I will...."
  3. Finally, the purpose statement of a memo gives your reason for writing it and forecasts what is in the rest of the memo. You want to come right out and tell your reader the kind of information that's in store. For example, you might say: "This memo presents a description of the current situation, some proposed alternatives, and my recommendations." If you choose to use headings for your memo segments, you can refer to your major headings in this forecast statement to provide a guide for your reader.

Summary Segment

If your memo is longer than a page, you may want to include a separate summary segment. This segment provides a brief statement of the key recommendations you have reached. These will help your reader understand the key points of the memo immediately. This segment may also include references to methods and sources you have used in your research, but remember to keep it brief.

You can help your reader understand your memo better by using headings for the summary and the discussion segments that follow it. Try to write headings that are short but that clarify the content of the segment. For example, instead of using "Summary" for your heading, try "New Rat-Part Elimination System," which is much more specific. The major headings you choose here are the ones that will appear in your purpose-statement forecast.

Discussion Segments

The discussion segments are the parts in which you get to include all the juicy details that support your ideas. Keep two things in mind:

  1. Begin with the information that is most important. This may mean that you will start with key findings or recommendations.
  2. Start with your most general information and move to your specific or supporting facts. (Be sure to use the same format when including details: strongest--->weakest.)
  3. For easy reading, put important points or details into lists rather than paragraphs when possible.
  4. Be careful to make lists parallel in grammatical form.

Closing Segment

You're almost done. After the reader has read your information, you want to close with a courteous ending stating what action you want your reader to take. Make sure you consider how the reader will benefit from the desired actions and how you can make those actions easier. For example, you might say, "I will be glad to discuss this recommendation with you during our Tuesday trip to the spa and follow through on any decisions you make."

Necessary Attachments

Make sure you document your findings or provide detailed information whenever necessary. You can do this by attaching lists, graphs, tables, etc. at the end of your memo. Be sure to refer to your attachments in your memo and add a notation about what is attached below your closing, like this:

Attached: Several Complaints about Product, January - June 2007


Persuasive Memorandum

To: Mary McGee, Alistair Warwranka, George Lipton
CC: Dorothy Barrie
From: The Boss
Date: June 1, 2006
Re: Need for New Memo Format

I’ve noticed that we don’t seem to be able to communicate important changes, requirements and progress reports throughout the company as effectively as we should. I propose developing one consistent memo format, recognizable by all staff as the official means of communicating company directives.

While I know this seems like a simple solution, I believe it will cut down on needless e-mail, improve universal communication and allow the staff to save necessary information for later referral.

Please talk among yourselves to determine the proper points of memo writing and return the input to me by 12 noon. I will then send out a notice to the entire staff regarding the new memo format.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this.

Directive Memo

To: All Staff
From: The Boss
Date: June 1, 2006
Re: New Memo Format Effective June 1

In order to make interoffice communications easier, please adhere to the following guidelines for writing effective memos:

  • Clearly state the purpose of the memo in the subject line and in the first paragraph.
  • Keep language professional, simple and polite.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Use bullets if a lot of information is conveyed.
  • Proofread before sending.
  • Address the memo to the person(s) who will take action on the subject, and CC those who need to know about the action.
  • Attach additional information: don’t place it in the body of the memo if possible.
  • Please put this format into practice immediately. We appreciate your assistance in developing clear communications.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call me. Thank you.

Technical Memo

To: The Boss
From: Sue Masterson
Date: May 15, 2007
Re: Update on the T-12 Phase Three testing

As we enter Phase Four of the T-12 testing, I wanted to provide a progress overview of the Phase Three testing.

[The body of the memo might include two-four paragraphs outlining the purpose of the memo. If this is a longer memo, each paragraph will have a subhead to help guide the reader through the document. Finally, there is a summary paragraph, which features bullets highlighting the main points of each previous paragraph, and concludes the memo with a stated action required by the reader or writer.]