A policy memo is a paper written to provide an analysis or recommendation of an issue to a specific audience (1). In public health, they are frequently used as a tool to inform and influence busy decision-makers (2). This section provides a brief overview of the organization and style of a policy memo.
In contrast to an academic paper, the organization of a memo is an “inverted pyramid”– the essential information is emphasized first and is followed by the less important points in order of significance (1). The organization of a memo is generally as follows (2–4):
Format and Style
Memos are known for a clear, professional format and style. Make your memo into a “mini roadmap” to guide your reader through it (3). Each section should have a heading that summarizes the main point of the section and keeps the reader’s interest (3,5). Likewise, paragraphs should have a topic sentence that summarizes the main point. Your reader should be able to skim the memo to understand your main ideas (3).
Bullet points, tables, and figures can also simplify your message to the reader (3,5). When displaying data, explicitly link how the data fits into your argument (5). When writing about data, emphasize the claim rather than the source and methods (5,6):
- Needs Improvement: The Health of Boston Report derived from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2009 reported that 10% of public high school student smoke (7).
- Improved: Ten percent (10%) of public high school students in Boston smoke (7).
Your reader can check your references for more specifics about the numbers and sources.
For more resources on writing policy memos, visit:
- Worksheet : Planning and Outlining Your Policy Memo
- Memo Writing by Purdue OWL
- Policy Memos by Harvard Kennedy School
- Policy Memo by Duke Writing Center
- Tips on Writing Policy Memos by Peter Wilcoxen
- How to Write a Policy Memo by University of Michigan-Dearborn
- Framing Memo: The Affirmative Action Debate by Certain Trumpet Program
- Writing Studio. Policy memo [Internet]. Thompson Writing Program, Duke University; [cited 2014 Jul 15]. Available from: http://twp.duke.edu/uploads/media_items/policy-memo.original.pdf
- Perkins C, Brizee H. Memos [Internet]. Online Writing Lab. 2014 [cited 2014 Jul 15]. Available from: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/590/1/.
- Thrall A. How to write a policy memo [Internet]. University of Michigan; 2006 [cited 2014 Jul 15]. Available from: http://www-personal.umd.umich.edu/~atthrall/writememo.pdf
- Herman L. Policy memos [Internet]. Harvard Kennedy School; 2012 [cited 2014 Jul 15]. Available from: http://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/HO_Herman_Policy-Memos_9_24_12.pdf
- Henderson M, Chetkovich C. A public policy guide to style for authors of policy memos, theses, and reports [Internet]. Mills College Public Policy Program; 2008 [cited 2014 Jul 15]. Available from: http://people.mills.edu/mhenderson/syllabi/PPOL_Style_Sheet.pdf
- Wilcoxen P. Tips on writing policy memos [Internet]. The Maxwell School, Syracuse University; 2013 [cited 2014 Jul 15]. Available from: http://wilcoxen.maxwell.insightworks.com/pages/275.html
- Shah S. Health of Boston 2011 [Internet]. Boston, Massachusetts: Boston Public Health Commission Research and Evaluation Office; 2011 [cited 2014 Jul 15]. Available from: http://www.bphc.org/healthdata/health-of-boston-report/Documents/HOB-2011/Health%20of%20Boston%202011_Final_Print_Revised_30Nov11.pdf