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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

URSI Stylesheet

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In writing a memorandum to a staff member in another department, there is a distinct format and style that is suggested:





RE: Give the memo a heading that summarized its content (remember, this is the information that the secretary will use to decide where to file your memo)

Introductory paragraph "This is what I am writing about, and why I am writing it."

Body of memo This is where the "meat" goes (one or more paragraphs). Include only the essentials, but all the essentials. Make sure you deal with the "So what?" question. A general structure for the body of the memo is:

  • Explain your problem
  • Explain the data you gathered, and how you tested it
  • Explain what this test tells you about your data
  • Explain what your data tells you about your problem

Summary paragraph "This is what I said."

Conventions about the length of a memo differ. A 2 page limit is typically preferred (plus attachments, tables, appendices, etc.), but in your professional practice check with your supervisor for her/his preference. A page limit requires the author to focus on what is most important. If a subject is too complex to summarize in 2 pages, one should consider writing an issue paper instead (but make sure it is worth killing all those extra trees). As Shakespeare said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." Often, long reports indicate lack of focus rather than importance of topic. Footnotes and a bibliography are generally not included because of the descriptive nature of the memo.


  • Use concrete (i.e., tied to one of the senses) words and phrases
  • Use active verbs, in the active voice
  • Use simple sentences: short, subject-verb-object style
  • Use paragraph structure to break material into manageable groups (100 words or so)
  • Use lists and bullet-points – they add to the ease of reading
  • Use Anglo-Saxon English
  • Avoid empty words
  • Use first person singular if appropriate (no "royal we")
  • Don't struggle for "elegant variation"
  • Use a simpler word whenever possible (eschew obfuscation)

The Issue Paper

An issue paper (sometimes called a "white paper") is a staff report to a decision-maker which provides an assessment of everything that is readily available about a particular problem. It is not an in-depth analysis, nor does it require extensive data gathering. It is, rather, a systematic first phase which provides the foundation for further analysis.

An issue paper should focus on four key questions:

  • What are the dimensions of the problem?
  • What is the effect of the problem on public objectives?
  • How can you monitor progress in resolving the problem?
  • What current activities are underway? What alternatives should be considered?

Generally speaking, a white paper follows a standard format:

  • Executive Summary
  • Source and Background of the problem
  • Significance or reasons for attention
  • Target Groups or institutions toward which corrective activity is directed
  • Beneficiaries
  • Related Programs
  • Goals and Objectives to be met
  • Effectiveness Measures
  • Analytical Framework (kinds of alternatives, possible methods, critical assumptions)
  • Alternatives (description, effectiveness, costs, spillovers, ranking)
  • Recommendations

Depending on the situation and the problem, this format may be modified as long as the four key questions are dealt with. While "Recommendations" are important, the process by which they were derived is equally important in a white paper. While the "Executive Summary" is not always listed as part of the format, it is good practice to include it in any policy paper.

For more detailed information, refer to: Quade, A.S. (1975) Analysis for Public Decisions. NY: Elsevier.

Guidelines for Technical Writing

  • Brevity is a by-product of vigor
  • Omit needless words
  • Sentences are made stronger, as a rule, when they become shorter
  • Avoid tame, noncommital words and phrases ("weasel words")
  • Use specific, concrete language instead of vague, abstract language
  • Avoid "there is," "there are," "because of the," "that is," "kind of…"
  • Judicious use of lively, colorful words makes for forcible writing
  • Avoid jargon (especially words ending in "-ize," "-ive," "-ization," "-ise")
  • The active voice makes for forcible writing
  • Occasionally vary sentence structure to maintain reader attention and avoid monotony
  • Don't run several words or phrases together trying to illustrate an abstract concept
  • Be consistent about related ideas and words
  • Express coordinate ideas in similar form
  • Keep related words and ideas together.
  • Clarify! Clarify!
  • Dig for the word that's closest to your meaning
  • Make sure a sentence says exactly what you want it to tell
  • Do not use a negative unless you intend a denial
  • Express a negative in its positive form. Don't evade–confront!
  • Use topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs
  • Key words can be put at the end of a sentence for emphasis. But use it sparingly
  • Avoid colloquialisms.
  • Check your spelling
  • Avoid frequent repetition of the same word
  • Don't attribute animate powers to inanimate objects
  • Watch for redundancies, such as "mutually agreed," "very unique," etc.
  • Verb tense should be consistent throughout
  • "Data" are plural (a single point is a "datum")