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Technology Tip of the Month

June 2001: E-memo Writing

by Deborah Healey

A lot of email these days is highly informal, filled with initials such as BTW for by the way, F2F for face to face and with other typing shorthand that has its origin in the fast typing done for chat rooms - i c yr in skool (translation: I see you're in school). Misspellings are also prevalent. When students are writing to each other or to a generous teacher, none of this matters. The focus is on fluency, rather than on form.

Business writing, however, is far from informal or forgiving. Teachers of English for Business spend considerable time talking about formats of memos and the register - the "tone" of business letters. With more and more communication taking place on email, Business English teachers now need to add e-memo writing to their syllabus. This Tech Tip is designed to help in that endeavor.

Print Memo and E-memo Format

Standard print memo format is pretty basic:
FROM: (name plus signed initials)
This is followed by the message body. The message can be a quick one-line informal response, such as "Thanks - got it!" or "Good to see you last week," or a short message in full sentences. The memo may end with encl. if there is an enclosure or cc: plus names of parties receiving a copy of the memo at the very bottom.

A sample may look like this:

TO: Jane Miller
FROM: Deborah Healey DH
RE: Last week's meeting
DATE: June 9, 2001

Thanks for the information at the meeting last week. We'll talk about the points you raised and get back to you sometime next week with a response.

A business e-memo format will have some of the same features. There will be a recipient (TO) and the email program will add the sender and the date automatically. However, the Subject line can be substantially different from the typical print memo. The email program will automatically add RE: for a reply or FW: for a forwarded message. More importantly, the subject line is often used to communicate the major point of the e-memo message. For example, a memo about a meeting on Monday, June 25 at 9:00 in the conference room would have that information as its subject line:

Subject: Mtg Mon June 25, 9am in conference room
Note the abbreviated format of the subject line. The information would be repeated in the message text, spelled out more completely and with any added information:
[message text]Our next meeting will be Monday, June 25, at 9am in the conference room. Please bring your notes from the last meeting with you.
Deborah Healey,
ELI, Oregon State University
While the salutation (Dear __) may be missing from this type of message, a name is at the bottom. There may also generally be a signature block attached (the part under the =========== in the message above), though the signature is less likely with a message to one's colleagues than to someone less well known. It's polite in general to keep the signature block relatively short - no more than four or five lines, usually. Telephone and fax numbers are much more important than a cute quotation. When the signature is longer than the message, it's definitely a problem.

E-memos to people you don't know very well will be more formal than those to colleagues. The subject line should still be as informative as possible, so the reader can tell at a glance what kind of attention it requires. A salutation (for example, Dear Ms Smith, or Dear Sam,) is typical with these more formal memos. Some people start with "Hi" or "Hello" as the salutation in order to have a somewhat less formal tone when talking either to people they don't know very well or to a group of people at once. The signature block is a very good idea in this case, as well. A sample memo about a new product might look like this. It assumes that Bill and Deborah have communicated before.

Dear Deborah,

We have a new software program for saxophone players that you may be interested in seeing. A demo is at our website, If you would like more information, just let me know.


Bill C. Linton,
333 F Street, New York, NY 10001
Tel: 202-555-1111; fax: 202-555-1112

A caution about marking messages as being of high importance - while most email programs will let you mark the importance of a message, it's wise to use the "high importance" mark as rarely as possible. Do use it when immediate action is required, such as a deadline today or tomorrow. Overuse is abuse, and busy readers will not forget it.

Formatting and Fonts

Some people enjoy using different font faces and sizes and bold and italics for highlighting in word-processing documents. While this works in word-processing, it is a bad idea in email. There is nothing more frustrating than getting an email message that is unreadable because the print is too large or too small, looks like the source code of a web page, or is full of formatting commands and no format. For best results, keep it simple. Use only the most widespread fonts, such as Times and Helvetica. While AbstractCurlique may look great on your screen, it will look terrible on everyone else's. You can't risk it in a business memo. Some email programs let you set a graphics file as "letterhead" to create a background to your message. Make sure that this file is as small as possible so that it doesn't create a problem for your reader's email program. When in doubt, avoid it.

Try It

Here are some sample situations. Write a regular memo and an e-memo, and look for the differences. Make sure you think about the subject line, the salutation, the closing, and the signature file in the e-memo.
  1. You want to remind Ms Maria Rodriguez, your travel agent, about your room reservation next month. You need a double room with bath at the Marquis Hotel. Make sure you give the dates you will be staying and your arrival and departure times.
  2. Your company has just reduced the price on its new product by 20%. You want to tell your regular customer, Mr. Charlie Park, about it. Make sure you say what the product is and what the new price will be.
  3. You have changed your address, and you want to tell people you do business with about it. You have a mailing list for these people.

See sample answers

Use of email in business is growing rapidly, so the conventions are still in process. These are suggestions, not absolute rules, based on extensive business correspondence. For more ideas about memo and email writing, check the following websites:

Memo-writing from the Online Writing Lab
Memo writing (Engineering Writing Center)
A memo about memo writing (Emily Thrush)
Business memo-writing information (Donna Shaw)
Formats in business writing
Writing effective email

Please feel free to email me with questions and comments -- and suggestions for other tech tips -- at

Happy emailing!

See Other tech tips

If you have questions, comments, or for more information, contact Deborah Healey, dhealey AT uoregon DOT edu
Last updated 26 June, 2009