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Letters and memoranda

There are advantages and disadvantages to writing memos and letters as opposed to the use of e-mail messages. The advantages are:

  1. What is written on paper is a permanent record to which the recipient can later refer.
  2. What is written down is less long-winded than what is spoken. You have to cut out the 'ums' and' ers' and 'you knows,' which are part of normal speech and waste time.
  3. In a letter, you can express yourself with precision because, if you are a careful writer, you put your thoughts in logical order.
  4. A letter can be as private or public as you wish.

The disadvantages are:

  1. Letters are irrefutable evidence that you said what you said.
  2. It is less easy to take back what you said in a letter than what you say in a discussion.

A letter needs the same thought that is given to a technical report. It may need researched information or it may not, but it should be planned, drafted and edited with care. Although letters may need to be approved by a manager or supervisor, they should not require extensive correction or re-writing. Some managers and supervisors re-write the letters of their subordinates as a matter of course, and for a variety of reasons, but letters should be written without expectation of being changed. Letter writers should get their facts in order before letters are submitted for approval.

Spell the name correctly. If you're not sure how to spell someone's name, find out. People are proprietoral about their names and there's no surer way of getting off on the wrong foot than by misspelling the recipient's name.
If the person to whom you write has a title, use it in the address. If the recipient has letters after his or her name - P. Eng., ER.CS, B.5c. - use them. They have worked for those qualifications and are due respect.
Use Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. when you know the recipient's preference. People like a little formality; they do not resent it. If you are unsure whether you are addressing a man or a woman it is better to dispense with the formality.

Make sure the letter and envelope are correctly addressed to the recipient's current address. It is equally important to make sure that there is a return address. Large corporations move personnel around and; internal telephone directories are outdated on the day of issue. In our experience, corporate mail handlers become irate when they can't deliver. They return letters to the sender, often with nasty notes: 'This must be a solicitation', 'This person has never worked here!', etc.

We are stuck with 'Dear ... ' and there seems no likelihood that anything on the horizon will replace this antiquated form. Some correspondents have tried 'Hi!' 'Hello' and 'Greetings ... ' but salutations such as these give the impression of false bonhomie.
'Dear ... ' perhaps, but Dear Who? Use titles: 'Dear Dr. Smith', 'Dear Professor Podkolinski'. Avoid the use of first names unless you know the person well; use of a first name by someone they do not know well is still considered by many to be an unwarranted familiarity.
If you are uncertain of the recipient's sex, it is better to use the salutation 'Dear P. E. Barrett' or 'Dear Pat Barrett'. Pat can be a man's or a woman's name. 'Dear Pat Barrett' is less formal, and safer, than 'Dear Ms. Barrett', especially if you are unsure. Some women prefer Mrs. or Miss to Ms. 'Dear John' or 'Dear Margaret' is a pleasant way of offering the salutation if you know someone who may not remember you well.

Most correspondence, in memorandum or letter form, is part of a continuing exchange of information between two or more correspondents. Because most people deal daily with a large volume of work correspondence it is worthwhile giving a bold title to each piece you write. Fewer and fewer letter writers are using the conventional REFERENCE or abbreviations REF. and RE. It is sufficient to offer a newspaper-style title:


A title identifies for the reader at a glance what the correspondence is about, and is useful for locating a letter or memorandum in a thick file of information.

You may or may not like to use headers such as advocated in the previous item. They may seem too abrupt for your letter writing tastes. In this the case your first sentence has to serve the same function. You need to tell your correspondent immediately what your letter is about.
Beating about the bush wastes time in any kind of writing. Get to the point. Don't take your reader wonder what you are writing about.
  • At our meeting last week you asked me to report the results of our reader survey. Here they are.
  • The labour breakdown for which you asked is given below in four categories.
  • I'm sorry to tell you that a rail strike has interrupted our parts delivery schedule. Here is how we propose to overcome the problem.

If the recipient of the last opening statement is the buyer for a large organization, you need to remind her what parts order you are writing about. If you have given the order number in the title line there is no need to repeat the reference in your opening statement.

Winston Churchill was a master of letter writing. He issued an instruction during World War II (1939 to 1945) requiring that letters addressed to him be limited to one page. Military field commanders are equally brief in their letters.
Discussing the reorganization of an army division following his appointment as corps commander, General Montgomery wrote:
'There is a lot of dead wood which must be cut out.
The following should be removed at once:
CRA (Commander, Royal Artillery)
Two Field Regiment Commanders
CRASC (Commander, Royal Army Service Corps)
The Division requires a really high class GSO who has had recent experience in France and Belgium.
I have discussed removal of the above with the Div Commander: he agrees and is taking action; he should have done so before.'

Do not suppose that lessons from the military do not apply to business and commerce. Most corporate directors come to the point with the same sharp decisiveness as military field commanders. Be like Montgomery and cut from your letters all the dead wood.

Letter writers who take a long time to wind up take just as long to wind down. Asking your correspondent to 'give careful consideration to the matter in hand' is as unnecessary as the closing 'Please do not hesitate to call me if you have any questions.' When you have said what you have to say, stop.
If you want action taken, say so.
  • 'Please give me your decision by the end of the month so that I can complete this report.'
  • 'Please confirm by return that this proposal is acceptable to you.'
  • 'We will not implement the programme until we have your decision.'

In the same way, and for the same reason, that the salutation 'Dear ... ' is a good way to start a letter, 'Yours truly' is a good way to end. If your correspondent is well known to you, use 'Yours sincerely'.


  • Avoid sarcasm
  • Never write a negative reply in anger
  • Refrain from belittling anyone
  • Be considerate
  • Leave an opportunity for discussion
  • Be logical
  • Be concise
A memorandum is usually written within an organization or to someone outside the organization with whom there exists a close working relationship. The memorandum is, therefore, in a different category from a letter. The increasing use of memoranda, fax messages and electronic mail to replace letters is quickly changing, even dispensing with, many of the old letter-writing conventions: the recipient's address, formal salutation, and the stylized closing, all of which makes for speedier communications. Memoranda are easily handwritten because they are quicker to produce in that way than through a word processor. Electronic mail is an even quicker means of communication.
The use of pre-printed form memos that have a title block are common. Having one or more carbon copies, this type of memo can be easily written by hand, with the following points being considered.
  • Note the date and file, or job number, at the top of the memo.
  • A bold title or subject is important. Make sure you put one on the memo.
  • Write memos in point form. Numbered statements have an authority that impresses others with your efficiency.
  • If you cannot be brief in a memorandum you should probably write a report or internal letter instead. Memos are just as important as letters. They provide a record, but are usually acted upon more speedily than a longer communication.

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