The Art of Memo Writing

There is an ebb and flow to writing memos. The goal of any memo is either to bring attention to a problem by providing information, or to solve a problem by defining what action should be taken.

Amaury Murgado Headshot

Photo: Amaury Murgado.Photo: Amaury Murgado.Writing memos is not a particularly fun topic. It's not as interesting as, say, firearms or combatives, but it's an important part of the job nonetheless. Have you ever read a poorly written memo? I have, and it's embarrassing. We want to be considered professionals and yet we often write drivel. Memos are filled with misspelled words and grammar errors, but what's even worse is when the writing creates more questions than it answers. It's especially embarrassing when such a memo comes from someone who gets paid a great deal more money because of his or her rank and position.

There is an ebb and flow to writing memos. The goal of any memo is either to bring attention to a problem by providing information, or to solve a problem by defining what action should be taken. Let's look at how to do this by identifying the target audience, defining what they need to know, and placing the information in a successful format.

Identifying your Audience

Your target group should be limited. Communicating with any group larger than a handful should instead be handled via a training bulletin, policy and procedure, or a letter of instruction. Sensitive issues are often best handled in person.

Your target audience will usually consist of decision-makers. That means answering two questions up front: who you are writing to and why they need to know. Consider their position, responsibilities, and what projects they are already connected to. Since all law enforcement has a bureaucratic and politically charged structure, each recipient you are writing to is not just a position or title. It's a human being, and you need to know something about that person in order to be effective.

For example, how does he perceive bad news? Is he open-minded? And what has been your experience with him? Sometimes having someone else write the memo, even if it is your idea, gives it a better chance of success. Take some time to think about how the information will be received.

Why your target audience needs to know is equally important. The military has a simple philosophy on handing information; they use "the need to know" as a paradigm. In the age of e-mails, the Internet, and intranets, we "cc" the crap out of everybody in an effort to CYA. But it's usually unnecessary and an annoyance. As a unit commander, I already had enough paperwork to deal with so I always appreciated a carefully crafted memo that was actually relevant to me in some way. Usually memos that I received were split equally between a project file and the trash. They're either useful or they're not.

Don't be the person who writes a memo for everything. There is still such a thing as a phone call, as well as bumping into someone in a hallway, or just plain going to speak to someone in his or her office.

What They Need to Know

Once you identify the who and why of a memo, you need to focus on the what. Memos by nature contain very specific and focused information, so don't ramble. If you are bringing attention to something then it's important to include a brief background, specific points that you are making about the issue, and finally what it is you want back from the reader. In other words, include anything the reader would need to make an informed decision.

For example, let's say you're a supervisor and you are having a disciplinary problem with one of your subordinates. You formulate a memo that asks to invoke a formal disciplinary process. In this example, you must include the background that led to this point, what you have already done in order to try to correct the problem, disciplinary history, what policy violations are involved, and what it is you need back from the reader to continue. If there is enough information to suggest a policy violation, then the last item covered should be seeking permission to go forward with an internal affairs investigation.                 

On the other hand, if you are not asking something but are giving instructions to take some type of action, you still mention the background, but you then add where you are with the issue, and state how you want it handled. With an action memo, you need to include all the information necessary for the reader to become successful in completing the task. This means including the parameters, limitations, and the date when it needs to be completed. You can expect clarifying questions; minimize them by being as thorough as possible. Your failure to describe what you want done will result in the recipient's failure to get it done.

As a sergeant I worked for a lieutenant who never told me anything except "Get it done." When I asked questions, his response would make you think I had personally insulted him. Then, when I handled it the way I thought it needed to be handled, he would tear my work product apart. Help your people become successful and don't waste their time. Otherwise they will certainly waste yours.[PAGEBREAK]

Following the Format

A memo follows the usual layout of heading, opening, body, and close. The heading or subject line will help determine whether your memo will be taken seriously, let alone even read. Hit them hard there and you will get their attention. Subject lines like, "HAZMAT Concern," "Problems with Booking," and "Overuse of TASER" will stand out because they grab your attention immediately. Don't ever be generic or funny in this area or you will lose any sense of urgency.

The introduction is your opportunity to set the hook. It's here where you supply the reader with the background, problem, or mission statement. If you lose the reader here, your memo will be given a cursory treatment. Therefore, make your first sentence the strongest.

The body is where you find the supporting evidence for your communication. Here's where you list the points you want known or what you want done. You need to create a balance of information; write too much, you lose the reader. If you write too little, he or she won't understand. The writing cliché "less is more" aptly applies. Writing a concise memo is harder than writing a long one. This is why you see so much drivel in interoffice communication. So often the writer doesn't take the time to craft her documents. To make life easier, she quickly writes 10 words instead of thinking of the appropriate two.

A memo might require varying degrees of involvement. The body might need a tasking section or a discussion section. You may need to list assumptions or detail the pros and cons of an option. In addition, in order to bolster your point of view, you might have to provide additional attachments. You want to draw a picture for your reader. Anything that you can do to help make that picture come in clear and in focus will make your memo stronger and more effective.

The closing requires your attention because it's your last chance to make an impression on the reader. You might have to craft a short summary or hit upon your main point one more time. A closing shouldn't consist of just "thanks for your attention to this matter." Remember, you can lose your reader at any point in your writing. You need to start strong and finish strong.

Memo Writing Tips

Employing several simple techniques can take your memo from laughable to laudable. Remember to define the issue at hand by including the background, where you are now, and where you'd like to be. It's a good philosophy to outline the problem and provide a series of solutions. Unless you are totally clueless, a decision-maker wants to see you have put thought into the issue and are not just passing the buck. Watch your tone; don't let an emotionally charged topic get the better of you. Use facts, make a logical argument, and always try to include options. No one likes to be hemmed in. And don't try to surround your idea with less desirable ones as a ploy. It's an old con that seldom survives a question and answer period.

Make sure to outline your points systematically. If you know how to write a decent police report then you should already know how to do this. Police reports are written chronologically, categorically, or in some type of combination of both. No one wants to read something that takes forever to get to the point or bounces all over the place going nowhere.

Take your reader from Point A to Point B as painlessly as possible. If you are giving instructions, make sure they are clear and easy to follow. If there is any wiggle room, outline where and when the reader can apply his own judgment. If you don't and he ends up not doing what you wanted, it's your fault, not his.

Above all, approach memo-writing from a standpoint of practicality. Try to keep your memo at one page but no more than two. Anything longer is not a memo and should be handled differently. Your memos are public record and subject to freedom of information-type legislation. Write them well unless you want the world to think you're an idiot. Place only the information necessary to get your point across. And always follow-up after you write it. It will help you combat the bureaucrat who deflects criticism by saying he didn't get it or doesn't remember. Of course, it's your name on the memo and not mine, so feel free to write it however you wish; it's just paper. But then again, it's you they'll be calling onto the carpet, not me.

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has 24 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.

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Amaury Murgado Headshot
Lieutenant (Ret.)
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