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How to write a memo

Writing memos is a core competency for most of us. Yet we don't get a lot of targeted instruction in how to create the missives effectively.

That's why a lot of my writing coach clients approach me for guidance on writing better memos. One recent client had been working in a small production company where most of the communication was done face to face. After being recruited to a very large production company, Shari* discovered the group relied primarily on memos, in part because several people worked in the field. She wasn't confident about her writing skills and wanted to up her game before starting the gig.

A laptop and notebook illustrating a post on memos from writing coach Margot Lester of The Word Factory

Shari had a couple challenges I see in a lot of people's writing: lack of confidence and poor organization.

Big Memo Writing Problem #1: Lack of Confidence

When we don't feel confident about the subject matter or our status in the organization, we often develop writing habits that actually undermine us. The most common issues are:

Lots of qualifiers or disclaimers: We pad our writing with words like may, might, could, when we're not totally sure about our ideas or when we don't want to appear arrogant or overly sure of ourselves. A lot of folks also have the habit of saying "I think" when we really know. Again, this telegraphs that you're self-conscious (at best) or you can't defend your ideas (at worst). Shari used these tactics so much in her early memos that it was easy to wonder if she really was the expert everyone at the new company thought she was. These tactics sow a seed of doubt in the minds of our readers, and while it does make us seem less snobby, this technique also makes us seem unsure of ourselves, which doesn't build confidence in others. The fix: Go through your writing and circle/highlight any conditional, qualifying or disclaiming language you find. Sometimes you can just delete those terms. In other cases, you can rewrite the statements so they're more confident and straightforward without seeming uppity.

Unnecessary Tee-ups: Another thing we do when we're insecure about our ideas or status is use tee-ups to ease the reader into the big idea. But these phrases do nothing but get in the way. Here's an example:

  • Tee-up: At the end of the day, we need to produce more shows for children in the 2-5 age group.
  • No tee-up: We need to produce more shows for children aged 2-5.

Shari's writing was full of tee-ups, which made the readers have to work harder to get to her strong ideas. It also made it more difficult for busy coworkers who liked to skim or scan memos instead of reading word for word. The Fix: Start by looking at the first words of each paragraph, and the first words of the final sentence in each paragraph. This is where tee-ups most often occur. Sometimes, these statements serve as necessary transitions, and you should keep those or rewrite them. But for the ones that are just getting in the way, cut them out!

Big Memo Writing Problem #2: Poor Organization

This is a serious killer that's easily avoided. A lot of us write to process our thoughts and ideas. This tendency bears itself out within paragraphs or sections, or through the entire piece. I'm not advocating stopping this, but promise me you'll do a careful, ruthless revision before you go any further.

Paragraph/Section Organization: Shari had a ton of good ideas, but they didn't show up until the end of paragraphs or sections -- because she was writing to get her thoughts together. All the "thinking" got in the way of "communicating" because her readers didn't need to see her work (as they used to say in my math and accounting classes). And in the few instances when "how did you get there" would be helpful, she still had too much detail. The Fix: Go through your memo and find the most important ideas. Then consider the details that are of most value to your readers. Maybe you can just move the big idea to the top of the section. Maybe you need to add some new details or delete/tighten up the ones you have.

Memo Organization: Often, the way we structure drafts isn’t the way our audience wants to consume them. Sometimes, it's the way our brain is processing them. Other times it's because we tackled the sections separately (I do this a lot when feeling stuck or overwhelmed), which doesn't seem weird to us because we have all the logic in our heads, but crushes our readers who usually don't. And when our readers can't follow our logic, our memos are useless and we look bad. The Fix: Basing organization on our audience’s needs allows us to build information logically. Sketching out a rough running order before drafting can help. Figure out the sections you need, then number them in an order than flows from one concept to another and provides enough information to helps us understand what comes next. Draft in that order, then read it through to see how it feels. If you sense the logical flow is off – you might sense the text is jumping around too much or realize that one section needs to come earlier to establish correct context for another section -- move stuff around until it's a smooth journey to your logical conclusion. If you can, ask someone else to read the piece specifically to help you get the organization right.

Get detailed tips on organizing your writing.

Use this information to write better memos and have more of an impact at work.

* c'mon. You know I wouldn't use her real name.

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