Leading Donkeys To Water

Never assume.
Never assume.

Given the value I place on authentic writing assignments, I’ve been a bit frustrated at recurring problems in the briefing memos submitted by students who are taking my first-year seminar. For example, each memo is supposed to begin with a specific one-sentence recommendation, but I often see vague run-on sentences that would not be acceptable in the workplace. One potential mechanical solution is to adopt the fifty-word sentence method, but set the limit at perhaps only thirty words.

While thinking about the above technique, I suddenly recognized a more fundamental problem: as with methods of investigation, most students don’t know what memos are or why they exist. And if students don’t understand the function of a type of writing, content and format become meaningless.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab contains excellent information about professional writing, and its description of memos is worth quoting in full:


Memos have a twofold purpose: they bring attention to problems and they solve problems. They accomplish their goals by informing the reader about new information like policy changes, price increases, or by persuading the reader to take an action, such as attend a meeting, or change a current production procedure. Regardless of the specific goal, memos are most effective when they connect the purpose of the writer with the interests and needs of the reader.

If I use the briefing memo assignment in the future, I’ll point students to this resource and assess whether students understand why memos are used.