Writing Conventions



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 memoThis 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;

·        What does the test tell you about your data?

·        What do your data tell you about your problem?


Summary paragraph—“This is what I said.”


Conventions about the length of a memo differ.  I prefer to limit memos to 2 pages (plus attachments, tables, appendices, etc.).  This 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. 


No matter what I prefer, in your professional practice check with your supervisor for her/his preference.  But for this course, I am your supervisor.


   Footnotes and Bibliography

Due to the succinct, descriptive nature of memos, generally footnotes and bibliography are not included.



·  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)


For a more extended discussion of the memo, see Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL)


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

·        Possible 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 or David Weimer’s 2007 memo to students in the LaFollette School at the University of Wisconsin


Scholarly Writing (Research Article) with assistance from Raymond Asomani-Boateng


Motivations for writing and publishing

  • To clarify your own thinking
  • To contribute to the ongoing scholarly/professional conversation
  • To establish your authority on the subject
  • To establish professional credentials


How to write

  • Finding time
  • When and where to write
  • Collaboration with an established scholar
  • The role of reading


Getting published

  • Queries and guidelines
  • Journal mission statements
    • Usually found in each issue and/or on a website
    • Use to identify the most likely journal (s) for your manuscript
    • Use to help mold your manuscript to be relevant to a specific journal
  • Queries to editors
    • Queries  are welcome
    • Queries can save time and avoid wasted effort for both you and the journal staff
    • Use e-mail if possible: include an abstract of your manuscript
    • Use queries judiciously
  • Manuscript and submission guidelines
    • Find and follow them
    • Author Guidelines  (JAPA)
  • Multiple submissions
    • Serious no-no
    • Investment of time and effort in a largely volunteer enterprise
    • Sanctions against those who make multiple submissions


The Scholarly Paper

  • Follow tradition –standard parts in standard order
    • Ensures paper achieves its purpose
    • Guide the reader to better understand and critically asses the new contribution
  • Parts
    • Abstract
      • Abstracts should generally be no longer than 125 words and have one sentence to answer the each of the following questions:
      • What is the issue addressed and why is it important for planning theory or practice?
      • What gaps or misunderstandings in the literature does the research fill or correct?
      • How was the research conducted?
      • What are the research findings?
      • What are the conclusions for planning theory or practice and the implications for further research?
    • Introduction
      • Question
      • Contribution  & significance
      • Logical argument and evidence
      • At the end of the introduction provide a simple outline or map of material to follow
      • Your subheadings throughout the paper should reinforce this outline
      • Your subheadings should indicate the substance
      • For example an introduction could be labeled “The need for a Land-Use Impact Model” rather than introduction
    • Literature Review
      • Identify what is known and not known
      • Where the gaps are that your research will fill
      • A useful literature review is a purposeful story that explains:
        • How the studies build on each other
        • What are the questions?
        • What does the previous literature mean
        • What are the unanswered questions
        • What limitations and gaps your new study will avoid and fill respectively
      • Provide practical guidance in conducting your research
    • Methodology
      • Explain what data was collected and sources
      • How you sampled
      • How you collected it
      • How you coded it
      • And how you analyzed it
      • Discuss any limitations, drawbacks or possible biases in your methodology and what you did to compensate for the problem
    • Results/ Findings
      • Present your findings clearly and directly
      • Graphs, charts and maps helps complement or illustrate your text
      • Present only the evidence you need to support your new contribution
    • Discussion
      • Loops back to “Literature” discussion
      • Focus  on your contribution
      • Why should we care
      • Why this paper is important
      • Tying your research to the relevant literature helps to construct your conceptual framework
      • How the results contribute to the main quest of your paper
      • Questions that remain unanswered, new questions that are raised
    • Conclusions
      • Return to your original important question and recap your answer
      • Examine the implications for policy and further research
      • Can add recommendations
  • Why papers are rejected
    • Paper is not appropriate for the journal
    • The paper is in fact a term paper that has not been revised—you ought to have a senior colleague or a great person in the field to do it
    • It is difficult to find out what the contribution is: Be sure the contribution is clearly stated upfront
    • Methodology is problematic
    • The grammar is awful and the sentences are opaque. Readers cannot figure it out
    • The paper is much too long given the average length of papers in the journal
    • You have not credited previous work; you did not follow the recommended format for journal submissions; your Xeroxing is awful; there are missing pages



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”).





© 1996 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 1 September 2009