Writing effective policy memos
What is a policy memo?
A policy memo is a document that provides analysis and/or recommendations for a particular audience regarding a particular situation or problem. A well-written policy memo reflects attention to purpose; it is well organized; and it has a clear, concise style.
Determining and responding to your audience
In most cases, you will know the audience for your work because (1) you have been hired by that individual or organization or (2) your instructor provides that information to you. Think carefully about the needs and expectations of your audience. For example, if your audience is an elected official seeking analysis on a highly technical matter, you should generally assume that the official lacks substantial technical expertise. You will need to define technical terms and provide enough background about the situation you are discussing that such a “lay” audience can grasp your arguments. On the other hand, if you are writing for a technically trained audience, you will waste time and energy providing background information that your readers already know.
Organizing an effective policy memo
One distinguishing characteristic of a policy memo is that a summary of the document’s
conclusion(s) and recommendation(s) is placed right at the beginning of the memo.
Remember that the purpose of the document is generally to provide your audience advice
about a particular decision, project, or policy stance. Thus, you open the memo by
summarizing the problem or situation about which you are writing, and by providing a very
brief summary of the conclusions/recommendations you have reached during your analysis.
The rest of the memo is designed to support the conclusions or recommendations you
Keeping in mind that different audiences need different amounts of background information
(see above), follow your introduction with a concise summary of any historical or technical
that your audience needs to understand the arguments you are building. (It may be that no
background information is needed at all.)
Supporting arguments or analysis
Once you have set the stage for your audience, show how this information leads logically to
the conclusions/recommendations you have provided.
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Style and format
Your ideas will be no more meaningful to the reader of your memo than you are able to make them. Meaning is not just embellished by style; rather, the two must function together. Muddled writing reflects hazy thinking. Your prose should be simple, clear, and easy to read; you will confuse, not impress, your readers with sophisticated vocabulary. Your reader should be able to describe your conclusions and the general arguments you used to reach them after only one reading of your memo.
Some tips on achieving an effective writing style:
(1) Choose the simplest words available to express your ideas. When discussing technical information, avoid the use of jargon–or at least define your terms clearly.
(2) Make your sentences “active”; avoid phrases such as “there are” or “it is.”
(3) Use one paragraph to develop one idea or argument. Make that idea or argument explicit within the first one or two sentences of the paragraph.
(4) PROOFREAD CAREFULLY. Don’t distract your readers from the content of your memo with poor spelling or grammar.
The format of the memo should be as follows:
(1) Memos must be typed on 8.5 X 11” or A4 paper with margins of one inch on all sides.
(2) Paragraphs should be single-spaced and should be separated by a double space.
(3) You may use any standard conventions for the layout of your memo, including numbering, bullets, indentation, etc. Do address the memo to your audience at the top of the page. See the attached sample for a suggested layout.
The length of your policy memo assignment will be announced in class. Do not exceed this length limit! I am enforcing this rule for several reasons:
(1) I assume that you will continue to write persuasive documents for clients and/or colleagues in the future. Like you, most of these people are busy. They rarely have time to review lengthy documents; these generally wind up unread in a filing cabinet or waste basket. I’m hoping to help you craft documents that are concise and of use to your clients or colleagues.
(2) Confining yourself to a particular page limit encourages careful editing, establishing priorities, and paring your arguments down. In general, these practices also improve the flow and impact of your writing.
(3) Tightly written policy memos have a much better chance of influencing others toward a particular point of view.
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I strongly recommend that you exchange your memos with other students in the class for proofreading and editing before you submit them. You can help one another with suggestions for clarity and content of your assignments.