A memo—short for “memorandum”—is a document used by people within an organization or business to communicate with one another. Memos are less formal than letters, and, like most business documents, should be brief and direct. Although memos have largely been replaced by email, there are times when a paper memo may be useful, such as if you need a hard copy record of an action or need recipients to initial a document. You can also use the memo format as the basis for an email message.
Think carefully about who needs to receive the information in your memo; don’t automatically include the whole office. When deciding how formal or informal your tone should be, consider whether your recipients are supervisors, peers, subordinates, or some combination of those groups. Since your readers will likely be familiar with your institution’s projects and the language of your industry, you won’t need to provide much background information. And remember: your readers are busy. They don’t have time to waste on confusing, disorganized information. That means your memo must be organized, informative, and succinct.
Memos can announce a change in policy, an upcoming event, or a personnel action. They may solicit more information or request that someone take action. They may be written to persuade someone to support an initiative or change a policy. They can also be used to thank or praise someone.
Memos should be succinct and professional. You don’t want to be pretentious or too formal; you are talking to your colleagues. Ostentatious language, jargon, or complicated syntax will make you sound stuffy and pompous. Instead, write short, active sentences and maintain a cordial, straightforward, and conversational style. Generally, your tone should be neutral or positive, but there are cases where memos are used for complaints or reprimands. In these situations, use caution. You never know who will ultimately read the memo, so be aware of the effect of your words.
Memos should be single-spaced with double spaces between paragraphs, in block form, text flush left. They should be brief, typically less than a page. Memos have two sections: the heading and the body.
Date: Write the full name of the month (January 3, 2016) or its standard abbreviation (Jan. 3, 2016).
To: Address people of higher rank by title unless instructed otherwise. For more formal situations, use the addressee’s full name; in some informal situations, you may use first names. If the addressee’s name alone won’t ensure that the memo will reach its destination, put an identifying tag directly after the name (Bob Thompson, Payroll Office). If company policy or your relationship with the addressee allows, you may omit courtesy (Mrs., Ms., Mr.) or professional titles (Dr., Dean, etc). If the memo is directed to three or four people, list their names alphabetically or in descending order of their positions in the institutional hierarchy. If several names are required, use “TO: See Below” and then place the names at the bottom of the page. If the group is too large to list, follow “TO” with an identifying classification (TO: Faculty or TO: Board of Directors, etc.).
From: Place your name on this line, not including a courtesy title. If your reader(s) may not know you, identify yourself with your job title or department name (Anne Carter, Hiring Department). Hand write your initials to the right of your typed name.
Subject: Make the subject line concise and accurate, since that often determines where or how the memo will be filed and even if it will be read. (In some instances this line will say "RE:" which is short for "Regarding.")
CC or C: List names of other people who will receive copies of your memo. The “cc” line can be placed in the heading, next to the heading, or at the bottom of the document. The term “cc” is short for “carbon copy,” a holdover from the days when memos were written on a typewriter. Some writers now use a single “c” for “copy.” This line is optional; it won't be found on every memo.
Body Paragraphs. The body states your purpose for writing so that readers can quickly grasp the memo’s content and significance to them. If the memo is longer than a page, use the first paragraph to provide background. An outline will help you organize your thoughts. Focus your reader’s attention on main ideas, not details and digressions. Be plain, direct, and brief and remember that most memos are less than a page.
Decide on a pattern of organization that best suits your purpose. The two most common for memos are deduction and induction. Deduction presents ideas in decreasing order of importance and assumes the reader is acquainted with the topic. Most memos use this pattern. Place supporting facts in subsequent sentences for readers who are unfamiliar with the subject. Place background information last. Induction presents ideas in increasing order of importance. If you must give bad news or if your reader may not understand the main idea without prior preparation, use this form. Lead up to the most important idea and then present that idea at the end of the memo.
Finish with a courteous and clear call for action. Tell your reader precisely what results you expect to follow from reading your memo. It may be helpful to include deadlines.
Body Headings. If your memo is more than two or three paragraphs, you may want to add headings for your body paragraphs. Use headings that capture the section’s key topic and set them in bold.
End the discussion with an invitation to give feedback or request further information. While you don’t need a closing salutation, as you do with a letter, always provide contact information to show you’re engaging your reader rather than talking at them. If you’ve attached documents, identify the attachments at the bottom of the memo, in case they get separated from it.
Boiarsky, Carolyn R. Technical Writing: Contexts, Audiences, and Communities. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1993.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Writing Center. Memos. Mar. 2009. Web. June 2005.
DATE: May 1, 2010
TO: All writing consultants and administrators
FROM: M.L. Dickinson, Executive Director [initial here, MLD]
SUBJECT: Mandatory staff meetings
CC: Vic Nabokov, Director of Student Services
Starting this fall, our weekly staff meetings will move to 8:15 Wednesday mornings and will be held in our conference room. All staff members will be required to attend. I know 8:15 is early for a meeting, but this is the only date and time that doesn’t conflict with anyone’s class schedule. If you have a conflict with this meeting time, you need to let me know immediately.
Remember: your attendance at all staff meetings is crucial to your job performance. At these meetings, you get updated information about changes to our policies and learn valuable consulting techniques from your colleagues. We’ll send a schedule of meeting topics out to all employees at the beginning of the semester.
If you have a conflict or any questions about the staff meetings, contact me at my extension, 555-WRITEIT.