JY’s Tips for Professional Writing
PAI 735 / ECN 635
State and Local Government Finance
This memo provides twelve tips for writing short, effective professional memoranda concerning policy decisions. These tips are not unbreakable rules, but they provide standards or presumptions that will serve you well in a wide range of professional settings. Writing is a personal business and you must find a style that makes you comfortable. With the help of these tips and lots of practice, anyone, or at least any Maxwell MPA, can become an effective professional writer.
1. Stick to the main points.
A typical decision maker is very busy, and your memo must compete for his or her time. A decision maker will quickly become impatient with tangents, no matter how clever or interesting. Focus on the points that help make your case; leave out the minor points.
2. Be concise, but clear and complete.
Perhaps the most difficult trade-off in writing a policy memo is to be complete and clear while at the same time being concise. You need to put down every important step in your argument, expressed so that the reader can readily understand it, but in most cases you also must limit your memo to a couple of pages. The only way to find the right balance is to edit your memo. Edit, edit, edit, and edit some more.
3. State your recommendation first.
Nothing is as important as your recommendation and you should not save it until the end. In a short memo the reader will not know what to do with your analysis if he or she does not know where it is headed. A professional memo is not the same as an academic paper in which you can present detailed evidence and analysis and then come to a policy conclusion. When a decision must be made, you should lead with your recommendation. The reader should have no doubt as to where you stand.
4. State your recommendation with confidence and authority.
In a professional setting, you have been asked for your recommendation, so do not let your language make it seem as if you are unsure about it or unwilling to take responsibility for it. Make it clear where you stand. In addition, avoid talky introductions such as: “I have examined the material on this subject….” or “As you requested, I have compared the alternative policies for….” Get right to the point. Say something direct, such as “I recommend…”
5. Provide a clear framework for the reader.
The purpose of your memo is to build a case for your recommendation. You should make sure to tell the reader how the pieces or your argument fit together. One good strategy is to be explicit about your framework, with headings or with a brief overview of the framework at the beginning of the memo (after the recommendation!). Another possible strategy is to edit the sentences at the beginning of each paragraph so that the framework is clear without ever being mentioned explicitly. In either case, you should avoid repetition. For example, do not say something like “As noted earlier, the third key point concerns….” Moreover, you should avoid long paragraphs. Each paragraph should refer to one of the main points in your framework; longer paragraphs that refer to more than one main point are confusing. In some cases, the framework may include introductory material explaining certain key concepts before they are actually applied to the decision at hand.
6. Have a strong conclusion.
Think of the end of your memo as your last chance to drive your recommendation home to the reader. Do not end with just another point (as journalists often do). Instead, end by summarizing your main points and stating why they lead inevitably to your recommendation. One way to undermine your memo is to save a main point for the conclusion. This approach is confusing because the reader does not know how this new point fits into your framework. If a point is important enough to be in your memo, it is important enough to be incorporated into your framework. The conclusion should summarize and emphasize, not start anything new.
7. Accentuate the strengths of your recommendation.
Your memo should emphasize the strengths of your recommendation. Make a case for something. Do not undercut your recommendation with lengthy disclaimers or complaints about the lack of good information; make the best case you can with available information. The point here is not that you should be dishonest and hide the flaws of your proposal. On the contrary, you should be sure to mention the disadvantages of your recommendation and to explain why you are making this recommendation in spite of these disadvantages. Instead, this tip is about balance. You cannot convince someone that your recommendation is the best course of action unless you are clear about its strengths. In addition, this tip implies that your memo should not devote many words to alternative recommendations. If credible alternatives are available, you should briefly explain why you did not select them, but you should not dwell on them. You cannot make a strong case unless you keep the focus on your recommendation.
8. Avoid the passive voice.
In a professional memo, the passive voice disconnects the writer from the substance and makes it seem as if you are hesitant about your recommendation or analysis. Moreover, the active voice is livelier and more direct than the passive voice — useful traits when you are trying to get someone’s attention. Thus, for example, you should write “I recommend” not “It is recommended” and you should write “Several factors support this argument” not “There are several factors that support this argument.”
9. Be attentive to word choice, spelling, and grammar.
At least for many readers, nothing undermines a writer’s credibility faster than misspelled words, inappropriate words, or poor grammar. If you do not even care enough to check your spelling or to select the proper words, many readers say, you must not care very much about the quality of your information. If you cannot even construct a grammatical sentence, you must not be able to construct a sensible argument. Edit for word choice, spelling, and grammar (including punctuation), as well as for substance. Use the spell checker on your computer! Review the basic rules of grammar if you are having trouble with them! You cannot convince people that your recommendation makes sense if they dismiss you before finishing your memo.
10. Maintain a professional tone.
In many nonprofessional settings it is appropriate to write with an irreverent or flip tone or to make your points through jokes. In a professional setting, however, you should maintain a serious tone and focus on making your analysis as clear and complete as possible. If you are not serious about the task at hand, the reader is not likely to take your recommendation seriously.
11. Write in plain English, without jargon or graphs.
The best method for getting through to a busy decision maker is to write in plain English. Jargon should be avoided; it is distracting, and perhaps confusing, unless you know the reader is familiar with it already. Graphs place different demands on the reader than does plain English, so they also are distracting. Important graphs may be put in an attachment (see tip 12) but should not be in the text. In some cases, a simple table may be an effective way to summarize information. A table listing the pros and cons of various proposals could be helpful, for example, as could a table summarizing the results of an important set of calculations, such as calculations of net benefits from a project under various conditions. Tables included in the text should always be simple.
12. Use an attachment to present calculations or figures that support a main point.
If one part of your argument is supported by a detailed set of calculations or can be explained with a figure, it may be helpful to include those calculations or that figure as an attachment to your memo. Attachments should follow these rules: (a) Attachments should not be included unless they add depth to your explanation of a key point. (b) Each attachment should be referred to explicitly in the text, so that the reader knows its role in the analysis. (c) An attachment should be regarded as a supplement to the explanation in the text, not as a substitute for it; the text should summarize the main point of the attachment. (d) Every attachment should stand on its own; that is, a reader should be able to understand the attachment without referring to the text of your memo. The reader must refer to the text, of course, to understand the role that the attachment plays in your analysis, but the information conveyed in the attachment (the details of a benefit-cost calculation, for example) should be accessible on its own.