How to write a memo
You’d be surprised at the number of people who get passed over for promotion—or even denied jobs—because of poor memo writing. Memos are written by the dozens every day, and you can expect to get your fair share in the course of your work. If you want to keep your job for more than two days, memo writing is a skill worth mastering.
A memo is a form of internal communication between people from the same office or organization. Memos are commonly used in place of notes or text messages, especially when the message needs a touch of formality. Technically, all memos should be in paper form, although many offices have adopted the electronic memo as official correspondence.
Why write memos?
Memos serve two main purposes: to bring up a problem, and to solve or suggest solutions to the problem. Not all memos do both—some memos are purely informative and don’t include a call for action. They may alert you of price increases, policy changes, or new administration, but they won’t require any action on your part.
Most memos, however, are written to induce some kind of response. Memos about upcoming deadlines may prompt you to step up the work. Those that come with delivered goods usually require a signature or confirmation of receipt. That’s where the first rule of memo writing comes in: you have to indicate your purpose and make a clear demand for action.
Your subject and audience
Not all matters can be discussed in memos. Most work-related issues are good memo material, but personal matters—even if they’re remotely tied to your work—are usually best discussed face to face. Before writing, make sure the subject is relevant enough to warrant your time and your reader’s.
After defining your purpose and required action, you need to know who you’re writing for. Sometimes your audience is just one (presumably important) person; other times it’s a group of people or an entire department. Your subject should be directly relevant to them—not to their department, their colleagues, or their subordinates. Wrongly addressed memos get passed around a fair deal, and if you’re waiting for action, you’ll want to avoid such delays.
It’s important that your memo reaches the right people, but be careful not to send it to too many. Some offices refer to this practice as “broadcasting.” Not only is it a waste of perfectly good paper; it’s also a waste of people’s time. Try to limit your recipient list to less than ten names. If there are more, consider writing the department head and listing down the names in the memo body.
Parts of a memo
Memos should be split up into segments to make the information easy to digest. A typical memo contains the following parts:
- Heading: The heading should take up around 1/8 of the document. This part is pretty straightforward; mostly it’s just a listing of names and agendas. A typical heading follows this format:
- TO: (name and job title of recipient/s)
FROM: (name and job title of sender)
DATE: (including year)
SUBJECT: (one-line description of your subject
- TO: (name and job title of recipient/s)
- Make sure to use the person’s real name and not a nickname (Andrew instead of Andy, Jessica instead of Jess), and get the job titles right. Be as specific as possible in your subject line—instead of “Dress Code,” try “Implementation of New Dress Code.”
- Opening: Start by saying what the memo is about. A good starting sentence would be “This concerns the new dress code which will be implemented on Monday, September 1st.” This part should be about three to four lines long on a letter-sized sheet, or about ¼ of the memo.
- Context: This is where you get into detail about your subject. Use two to four sentences to state the problem and provide any background information. Arrange your details in descending order, starting with the most important. Together with the task, this should take up about half of your memo’s body. In shorter memos, the context is made clear in the opening so a second paragraph isn’t always necessary.
- Task segment: This is where you make that call for action. Make sure to connect it sensibly to your context part; if it’s about that dress code, the task is to follow it starting Monday. If you are replying to another memo, give a brief rehash of your task and say what you have done to accomplish it. A good task statement might go, “In response to your previous request, I have…” or “To minimize costs, you are requested to…”
- Closing: After delivering your message, end with a courteous statement offering your assistance on the task. It can be something as simple as “For questions, please contact the HR Department at…” Make it sound formal but sincere. The closing and summary parts should take up about 1/8 of your memo.
- Summary: Most memos don’t take up more than one page, but if it’s longer, you need a summary segment to wrap it up. Just give a brief recount of your key points or recommendations. In an academic setting, you may also have to include your sources or references.
Some final tips
- Most memos are left-aligned, single-spaced, and have a one-inch margin on all sides.
- Keep your paragraphs short. Write out lists in bullets.
- Sometimes “Re:” is used in place of “Subject:” Both are appropriate, but most offices have in-house rules regarding memo formats. Use old office memos as guides.
- Avoid bias by listing recipients in alphabetical order.
- When sending electronic memos, provide a hard copy for formality.
- Keep a friendly but professional tone—your memo should be somewhere in between a personal note and a full-length business letter.