How to Write Short Stuff Better?
December 18, 2008 7:33 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to write crisp, short and in-depth memos?

Inspired by all this publicity over Gladwell's Outliers, I've decided I have to get in my 10,000 hours of practice in my craft (public policy) if I'm going to be any good at it. Problem is, I don't know how to get lots of practice with feedback in the writing style I think I need to bone up on: the clear, short, and to-the-point memo. While I've been taking plenty of internships, I don't think they're providing quite as much practice as I need to get really good at this really quickly. While I can do some blogging, I don't really think the voice people look for on my blog is quite the same.

Any ideas on places my writing can get the once-over by tough critics? Any ideas on how I can better critique myself? Any organizations / web places I can write for that will just let me get in as much practice as possible?
posted by l33tpolicywonk to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I always say to people "This seems quite complicated. What are you trying to say?"

And then I tell them to write that down instead.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:40 PM on December 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

There are two types of these that you should worry about.

The first is the "bring up a problem and say what's going to happen to solve it" type. Use this whenever you think that the background/context for the memo and it's contents needs to be explain. For example, "The president of the company is coming to observe us tomorrow. Because of this, the Casual Friday that was scheduled is being changed to Monday December 22."

The second type is the "tell people what's going to happen" type. No explanations, just directions. "Wearing footie pajamas to work will no longer be tolerated."

Basically if the sentence doesn't either give directions or put the directions into some sort of context then it doesn't need to be there. No "hope you have a nice day"s or "thank you for reading"s. Those just waste time.
posted by theichibun at 7:56 PM on December 18, 2008

Best answer: I'm a professional persuader. The key is (1) a chunky topic sentence that serially lays out each key point of the argument, repeated at the beginning of the main section and the conclusion; and (2) repetition.

Better to be inartfully clear about what you are saying than to be well-written and unclear.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:20 PM on December 18, 2008 [5 favorites]

Metafilter: well-written and unclear

But seriously. What does that even mean?
posted by jckll at 8:56 PM on December 18, 2008

My english teacher always said to do follow these three steps to writing well:

1. Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em.
2. Tell 'em.
3. Tell 'em whatcha told 'em.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:25 PM on December 18, 2008

A clear, direct writing style also helps, and for this you might review a style manual like Strunk and White.
posted by tss at 10:09 PM on December 18, 2008

Best answer: Googling the search terms, "writing workshop critique" yields some cold leads. See for example, The Internet Writing Workshop.

Any ideas on how I can better critique myself?

Review your writing well after you've finished and forgotten. Fresh eyes bring new insights.

Read and apply The Elements of Style - just as tss recommends.

Plain English for Lawyers also counsels for clear, concise writing.
posted by GPF at 10:27 PM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: well-written and unclear

But seriously. What does that even mean?

posted by Mike1024 at 1:05 AM on December 19, 2008

Best answer: It's worth reading George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language," which is easily Googled. While it does not focus on memo-writing specifically, it is entirely about how to write clearly and concisely. It concludes with these six rules. I think back to 3 and 4 almost every day when writing emails at work.

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
posted by kprincehouse at 1:39 AM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Two words: bullet points.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:20 AM on December 19, 2008

Best answer: I think the structure of the memo is infintely more important than the writing style etc. The CPQQRT method (stands for Context, Purpose, Quality, Quantity, Resources, Time - Google it for more info) might be helpful in this instance. It's generally intended for task assignments, rather than memos, but in practice I've found it can be easily adapted, and is a useful guide for writing a memo and ensuring that all the areas are covered off, and that the memo is brief and to the point.
posted by ryanbryan at 5:49 AM on December 19, 2008

I'm a huge fan of the Pyramid Principle (sadly out of print at the moment).

It was a general method developed by Barbara Minto, who used to be in charge of teaching new McKinseyites how to write clearly. I recommend the book for in-depth analysis, but here's my nutshell version:

1. Start with an clear statement of your message. Make it as non-controversial as you can.

"The Pyramid Principle is a useful tool for developing clear, concise memos."

2. Then, list the three points that you would like to make to support your statement. Try to employ inductive or deductive reasoning. Your points should be linear, and flow from the original statement.

"The Pyramid approach is specific, easy to implement, and proven."

3. Then, take each of your points, and expand them with three supporting points.

"The method gives you a fixed format for your thoughts, and describes how you can fill out that structure, as opposed to other approaches that provide only general advice."

Rinse, repeat.

Then, go through your outline, and turn it into a narrative. Narratives have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
posted by rush at 10:15 AM on December 19, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks so much everybody!
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:35 PM on December 19, 2008

Response by poster: Follow Up: For my own reference, I decided to make a one-pager of the tips on good writing I got from all of your suggestions. I put it up and licensed it CC By:


If anybody has comments on it, please MeFiMail me and let me know. Thanks again!
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:52 PM on December 20, 2008

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