Policy Memo Writing Tips
Applicants often ask us to provide some guidance in writing a policy memo. Steve Frakt, WWS writing advisor, has been advising WWS undergraduate and graduate students for the past 17 years. Steve meets with students one-on-one during his office hours to advise them on their various writing assignments. Graduate students in our Masters in Public Affairs program are required to take a core course entitled "The Politics of Public Policy" in which special attention is given to writing skills as they apply to the roles of advisers and decision makers in public-sector organizations.
Below is an excerpt from Steve's policy memo writing guidelines he provides to the graduate students in that course:
Purpose. A policy memo provides information, guidance or recommendations about an issue or problem to a decision-maker. It must be well-organized, clearly written and succinct, with a logical connection between the background information, evidence and conclusions/recommendation. The reader should be able to identify the essential points in a quick scan of the memo (particularly the section headings and topic sentences).
Structure. The format of a memo should enhance its readability. It is not written as one lengthy essay. Rather, it is divided into sections, with headings that identify the content or major point of each section. Each paragraph should begin with a significant point (the “topic sentence”), to be supported or expanded upon in the rest of the paragraph. Each major point should be the focus of a separate paragraph. Do not “bury” major themes in the middle of a paragraph.
A typical memo may include the following sections:
- Description and significance of the issue or problem you are examining.
- Evidence of the scope of the issue.
- Factors contributing to the issue or problem.
- Recommendations or conclusions about the issue.
- Counter-arguments against your position.
- Rebuttal to counter-arguments.
- Implementation issues for any recommendations (i.e. political, economic, environmental, technical, etc.).
Language. Policy memos require brevity and specificity. Each sentence must serve to advance your presentation. Be concise and do not waste words. Use clear, direct language, free of bureaucratic jargon, pompous language or clichés. Eliminate unnecessary words and avoid repetition. Write in the active voice, keep sentences relatively short, and minimize the use of adjectives and adverbs. Avoid vague language and sentences that have no substance or state the obvious. Also, refrain from dramatic embellishment, hyperbole and emotional rhetoric (you are not writing a political speech or an op-ed article).