Improving Writing Skills: Memos, Letters, Reports, and Proposals


Arthur Asa Berger

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  • Survival Skills for Scholars

    Managing Editor: Peter Labella

    Survival Skills for Scholars provides you, the professor or advanced graduate student working in a college or university setting, with practical suggestions for making the most of your academic career. These brief, readable guides will help you with skills that you are required to master as a college professor but may have never been taught in graduate school. Using hands-on, jargon-free advice and examples, forms, lists, and suggestions for additional resources, experts on different aspects of academic life give invaluable tips on managing the day-to-day tasks of academia—effectively and efficiently.

    Volumes in This Series

    • Improving Your Classroom Teaching

      by Maryellen Weimer

    • How to Work With the Media

      by James Alan Fox & Jack Levin

    • Developing a Consulting Practice

      by Robert O. Metzger

    • Tips for Improving Testing and Grading

      by John C. Ory & Katherine E. Ryan

    • Coping With Faculty Stress

      by Walter H. Gmelch

    • Confronting Diversity Issues on Campus

      by Benjamin P. Bowser, Gale S. Auletta, & Terry Jones

    • Effective Committee Service

      by Neil J. Smelser

    • Getting Tenure

      by Marcia Lynn Whicker, Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld, & Ruth Ann Strickland

    • Improving Writing Skills: Memos, Letters, Reports, and Proposals

      by Arthur Asa Berger

    • Getting Your Book Published

      by Christine S. Smedley, Mitchell Allen & Associates

    • Successful Publishing in Scholarly Journals

      by Bruce A. Thyer

    • Teaching from a Multicultural Perspective

      by Helen R. Roberts & Associates

    • Planning a Successful Conference

      by Cynthia Winter

    • Dealing With Ethical Dilemmas on Campus

      by Marcia Lynn Whicker & Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld

    • Chairing an Academic Department

      by Walter H. Gmelch & Val D. Miskin

    • How to Make Effective Presentations

      by Elizabeth P. Tierney

    • Getting an Academic Job

      by Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld & Marcia Lynn Whicker


    View Copyright Page


    To my Minnesota mentors, David Noble, Mulford Q. Sibley, and Ralph Ross


    Unlike Jay Gatsby, who sprang from a platonic conception of himself, most of us who work in universities and other academic institutions write ourselves into existence. (Or, at the very least, we write ourselves into folders in filing cabinets in various offices.)

    We are asked to write many different kinds of documents: letters of recommendation for students, memos to colleagues, proposals and reports to administrators—the list goes on and on. And like Sisyphus, it often happens that as soon as we finish one document we are asked to write another one.

    Each document generally has a specific format and contains certain kinds of information. This little guide discusses some of the more important kinds of memos, letters, reports, and proposals; offers many suggestions about writing them effectively; and describes the formats for each kind of document in some detail. It also deals with such matters as readability, collaborative writing, the process of writing and rewriting documents, and layout and design.

    Effective Business Correspondence and Academic Success

    For most of us who teach in colleges, universities, and other academic institutions, the ability to write good memos, letters, reports, and proposals (as well as other kinds of documents such as minutes for meetings) is crucial. This kind of writing will probably play a larger role in our careers and have more to do with our success than the scholarly research that many of us were trained to conduct and write about. Many of us, perhaps even most of us, are not at high-powered research institutions where the so-called publish-or-perish (or publish-and-perish, in some cases) rule applies.

    Academic institutions exist to educate students and support professors who conduct research, but these are only some of many university and college functions. They also need to provide numerous services for their students and faculties. Running an academic institution, like any organization that may have thousands of workers (in this case, faculty and staff members and tens of thousands of students), requires a great deal of work, for there are decisions to be made about all kinds of matters.

    Under the Iceberg: Memos, Letters, Reports, and Proposals

    Because universities are self-governing (at least in principle, if not always in practice) they form committees to take care of the things that need to be done: from making budgets to looking after emergencies, from reforming the general education curriculum to making departmental curriculum changes. There is often a good deal of disagreement (at every level and among different parties) about the curriculum, personnel decisions, and other matters. This means that faculty members (from instructors to professors) and administrators (from department chairs and associate deans to presidents) spend a good deal of time and energy writing memos and letters, preparing reports and proposals, and sending these documents to one another.

    Curiously, graduate students are not generally taught very much about how to write effectively as members of educational institutions, just as they often do not take any courses on teaching. The theory is, I would imagine, that if you are intelligent enough to get an advanced degree, then you should be smart enough to figure out how to teach and how to write good memos and letters on your own.

    Teaching is what you Do when you are Not Writing Memos

    It often seems as if teaching and research get lost in the shuffle as professors and administrators crank out memo after memo. Teaching becomes what you do when you are not writing memos. (And becoming an administrator often means abandoning research and spending years writing memos, letters, reports, and proposals and attending meetings to discuss these documents.)

    So it will be useful to learn something about writing good memos, letters, reports, and proposals—to make life easier for yourself and to help you with your career.

    Remember, the written word lives—and you will live and, I hope, prosper if you are careful about the words you write. To a great extent, your fate is in your own hands.

    A Few Words about your Guide

    This is the second book I have written on writing. I have taught writing for radio and television for many years and recently decided to write my own book on the subject because I did not like any of the other books that were available. So I wrote a book called Scripts: Writing for Radio and Television that is used in many institutions. It deals with the basic formats used in writing radio and television scripts and also has material on style and comedy writing. I also have written many articles and books on media, popular culture, semiotics, and humor.

    A Final Note

    I assume that you are a good writer. But every writer can benefit from a bit of advice from time to time, which is one reason why there are editors and copy editors. It also is convenient to have a book that provides detailed information about the contents of the various documents that you will be writing and that offers hints about everything from collaborative writing to sending E-mail. I hope that you will find this little book useful and that it will help you write better memos, letters, reports, and proposals.

  • Appendix 1: Checklist for Writers

    Focus. Is your document:

    • focused narrowly enough?
    • directed at your target audience?

    Organization. Is your document:

    • logically organized, with one section leading to the next?
    • designed so that the structure “shows”?
    • coherently written, making use of transitions?
    • based on change over time or comparisons and contrasts?

    Title. Have you:

    • given your document a title?
    • made your title specific and not generic?
    • used a title that conveys information about your document?

    Mechanics. Have you:

    • numbered the pages?
    • underlined the names of books and magazines?
    • put the titles of articles or reports in quotation marks?
    • used information graphics and other visuals when possible?
    • used quote marks when using other people's language?
    • paraphrased material when using other people's ideas?

    Grammatical problems. Have you avoided:

    • sentence fragments?
    • run-on sentences?
    • faulty pronoun reference?
    • errors in agreement?
    • spelling errors?
    • incorrect use of commas and punctuation?
    • improper use of adjectives and adverbs?
    • improper division of words (syllabification)?
    • wrong verb tenses?
    • faulty end punctuation?
    • spelling errors?

    Writing problems. Have you avoided:

    • awkward writing?
    • unclear writing?
    • repetitious sentence structure?
    • overly complex sentences?
    • incoherent writing?
    • inappropriate or inconsistent tone?
    • wordy writing?
    • inappropriate diction (slang, etc.)?
    • trite phrases?
    • jargon and overly technical language?
    • lack of emphasis?
    • lack of conclusion?

    Revisions. Have you:

    • printed out your first draft and made your revision on “hard copy”?
    • left some time between writing and revising?
    • asked others to proofread your document?
    • used a spell checker and a grammar checker on your document?

    Design. Have you:

    • paid attention to the visual look of your document?
    • used wide enough margins?
    • double-spaced the copy when appropriate?
    • made use of subheads to break up the copy?
    • not used too large a face for text (making document hard to read)?
    • not made headlines and subheads too large or heavy?
    • kept design simple, avoiding numerous typefaces and ornaments?
    • used “display” to highlight important concepts, passages, and soon?
    • used a laser printer, if possible, or a dark enough face on a dot-matrix printer?

    Appendix 2: Computer Aids for Writers

    The computer has revolutionized many different aspects of life in the United States. Computer chips are now found in all kinds of places, and computer technology is used in our automobiles, television sets, various machines, and many other places. In essence, a computer is a device that can be used to do any number of different things depending on the program that is running the computer and harnessing its power. Word processing programs are among the most important and most widely used kinds of programs for computers, but many others, such as data bases and spreadsheets, also are available. Several programs that aid writers have been developed, and we will briefly examine them also.

    This discussion of computers and writing covers different kinds of computers, word processing, aids to writers, and printers.

    Computer technology continually changes (new models with new capacities), and the programs that run computers also evolve rapidly, so this discussion deals in generalities. If you know the principles at work, you can understand everything else.

    Using Computers to Write

    A good deal of writing that is done in organizations (and by individuals) is done using computers, which are replacing electric and electronic typewriters in many offices. Strictly speaking, we do not write with computers but with word processing programs that these computers operate.

    Two computer “environments” are dominant: (a) IBM and IBM clones (also known as “personal computers”) and (b) Apple Macintoshes, both of which are used for word processing and desktop publishing, among other functions. Other kinds of computers such as Atari, Amiga, and NeXT (and workstations that use UNIX) also are available, but for all practical purposes these two kinds of computers are the ones most often found in businesses and organizations.

    The number of word processing programs that can run in the IBM and Macintosh environments is extremely large. Existing programs are continually updated, and new programs are frequently released. (By far the most popular programs are WordPerfect and Microsoft Word.) The main advantage that Macintosh computers had over personal computers was that Macintoshes were simpler to operate, because they used “icons” (images) rather than verbal commands to operate their programs. With the development of Microsoft's Windows software and other programs such as IBM's OS/2, IBM-type personal computers now can run icon-based software programs; the differences between the two environments is much less significant now, at least for word processing.

    There are many programs that allow members of organizations to communicate with one another, swap files, collaborate, and so on, and these programs, along with word processing, have had a major impact on the way organizations are run.

    The Most Important Aspect of Word Processing

    Let me use an analogy to characterize advanced word processing programs such as WordPerfect and Microsoft Word: They are enormous mansions with more than 100 rooms. Each room represents something the program can do: make footnotes, endnotes, outline, merge files, correct spelling, print, and so on. But most people only use 5 or 10 rooms, and the most important room in the house—the room that makes all the difference—is the one in which we actually do the writing of our documents.

    In the case of our word processing program, this “room” allows writers to save what they have written on a disk (or some other storage device), call this material back for revision, save the revision, call it back, and on and on. This is extremely important: As almost every writer will attest, the most important thing about writing is rewriting. Very seldom do writers get things right the first time. You always have to revise. Before computers, you would write something, type it out (or have a secretary or someone else type it out), revise it, and then give the revision back to the typist for retyping. This is no longer necessary. With the development of computers and word processing programs, many writers have seen their productivity rise 30% or 40% because they have eliminated the need to wait for one or more retypings.

    It is now possible, even with the simplest word processors to (a) type the first draft of a document, (b) save it on a disk or hard drive, (c) print it out, (d) make a revision on hard copy, (e) replace the original file and call back the revised file, (f) print it out, (g) make other revisions, and (h) save the document with the new revisions.

    I find that I often make four or five revisions, sometimes more. Thus we can argue that computers make it possible for writers to do better work, because revisions are so easy. Writing at the keyboard is most efficient—that is, type your first drafts directly into the computer—but even if you write your first drafts out in longhand, being able to type a first draft, save it, and then revise it without having to retype the whole document is what is crucial. (For those who have problems typing or writing at the keyboard, there are many excellent and inexpensive computer programs that teach people how to touch-type and write “at the keyboard.”)

    Notice that I suggested that revisions be made on hard copy—that is, on material that has been printed out. Most writers agree that it is better to make corrections on hard copy than on a computer screen. For some reason, seeing the material in print and being able to cross out words or lines and make corrections in pencil or ink works better than making revisions directly on the computer screen.

    Many people do not need a really powerful word processing program. That is why many software manufacturers now offer programs that do not have all the bells and whistles of full-powered programs. These “cut down” versions have all the important features the ordinary writer needs and are considerably less expensive than the full-power models. An example is LetterPerfect, a scaled-down version of WordPerfect 5.1.

    But even if you have the use of a full-powered word processor, you probably will find that you only need to learn how to do a half dozen things: starting the program; formatting the page; deciding on spacing; learning to underline, use various typefaces, and use full capitals; saving what you write; and editing your document.

    Computers allow us to do many other things, such as create multiple versions of the same document, collaborate with others in writing and other projects (even at a great distance), and communicate with others around the world, for example, through electronic mail and fax transmission.

    Other Aids for Writers

    If you have ever looked at a computer magazine, you will have discovered that software writers are ingenious in coming up with new programs. But there are only a few program types, or what we might call “program genres,” such as word processing, spreadsheets, and data bases. But other programs can organize your life, figure out your income taxes, draw, compose music, and so on.

    For writers, a few kinds of software are of particular interest. Notice that I write in rather general terms here; as I mentioned earlier, it is important to understand the principles at work in these programs, and it is both impossible and unnecessary to cover all of the different programs and their various features. Programs that might be of interest, depending on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, are:

    • Spelling and grammar checkers. These programs check your writing for grammatical mistakes, stylistic infelicities, and so on. They cannot catch all of your mistakes, but they can determine whether you are writing in an overly simple or overly complex style and whether you have made some grammatical errors, and so forth. They “read” your writing, find errors, and offer suggestions to help with clarity, awkwardness, and other problems. Among these programs are Grammatik, RightWriter, and Editor.
    • Outliners. Many word processing programs come with their own outliners, and other programs will also help writers organize their ideas and put them in outline form. Outlining programs vary from relatively simple ones that offer little more than the outlining done by good word processing programs such as Microsoft Word and WordPerfect to programs that help writers think up, organize, and logically assemble their ideas. An example here would be Max-Think. Some programs help people get ideas and often have queries and other features that stimulate thinking as well as aid in conducting research.
    • File-description programs. One problem with many word processing programs—especially older ones—is that only 11 spaces—8 spaces, 1 period, and 3 spaces—are available for file names; this makes it very difficult to remember what is in a given file. This is a serious problem for people who have a large number of files. However, some utility programs for personal computers such as Dirnotes allow writers to use as many as 32 spaces to describe a given file. For example, I save this file in my word processing program as “computer.bus.” But with my utility program I can write a much longer description of the file, such as “Appendix: computer aids.” Some newer versions of word processing programs also allow writers more space to describe their files.
    • Indexing. This feature enables writers to prepare indexes from their documents. All that a writer need do is indicate which words he or she wants to include in the index and the program will generate an alphabetical index. There is also an excellent program, Indexx, available from the Philosophy Documentation Center at Bowling Green University that enables you to make indexes from hard copy (such as page proofs); the program is very helpful for writers who wish to make their own book indexes.
    • Design and layout programs. Many programs enable computer users to perform rather sophisticated layouts for newsletters, brochures, booklets, and even books. Some of the more important “high end” programs are Aldus Pagemaker, QuarkXpress, and Ventura Publisher. Many drawing programs—such as CorelDraw!, Adobe Illustrator, Harvard Graphics, and Aldus Freehand—also can be used. (If you are serious about desktop publishing, you can subscribe to publications devoted to the subject such as the newspaper Typexvorld and the magazine Publish.) The more powerful word processing programs now incorporate many desktop publishing features, and the line between desktop publishing programs and word processing programs is becoming fainter and fainter.

    Even if you do not have a desktop publishing program, it is important to think about the look of your document. Printers play an important role here. There are two dominant kinds: dot-matrix and laser (and laserlike “page”) printers. Dot-matrix printers work by having tiny metal pins form letters, some at very high speeds. Dot-matrix printers generally can print in several typefaces and at different speeds, depending on the face used. In “draft mode,” there is relatively low dot density, so these printers often print at more than 200 characters per second. In other modes, with much higher dot density, the printers are much slower: At near letter quality (NLQ), they often print at approximately 40 to 50 characters per second. This is remarkably fast compared to typing but quite slow when compared to laser printers, which often print six to eight pages a minute.

    Laser printers and laserlike page printers that generate between four and six pages per minute are now available for less than $1,000. They generally have a print density of 300 dots per square inch and look much better than dot-matrix printed material. Many organizations now have laser printers, which should be used when presentation values are important, because they create documents that look much better than those prepared on dot-matrix printers and also are much faster.

    Ink-jet printers, such as the LaserJets manufactured by Hewlett Packard, have a print density of 300 dots per square inch and are almost as good as laser printers. These popular printers sell for as little as $400. They are also much quieter than dot-matrix printers.

    It is possible, men, for relatively little money, to get a printer that will produce visually appealing text and graphic material.

    Appendix 3: Books and Periodicals on Writing

    If you are interested in further exploring the subject of writing—not only memos, letters, reports, and proposals but also general prose—then you might wish to consult the following books.

    Barthes, R. (1975). The pleasure of the text (by R. Miller, Trans.). New York: Hill & Wang.

    This book is a philosophical study of writing and reading, written in Barthes's inimitable, subjective, and poetic style. Its collection of short essays of varying lengths is arranged in alphabetical order on such topics as affirmation, emotion, exactitude, obscurantism, subject, and voice and their relation to pleasure. As Barthes writes, “the text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).”

    Brooks, T. (1989). Words' worth: A handbook on writing and selling nonfiction. New York: St. Martin's.

    Although primarily written for journalists and people who wish to sell written material, the book has many instructive hints about what and what not to do when writing. It has chapters on such topics as leads, transitions, verb usage, using quotations, and voice.

    Cook, C. K. (1985). Line by line: How to improve your own writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Written under the auspices of the Modern Language Association, this book “focuses on eliminating the stylistic faults that most often impede reading and obscure meaning.” Such errors include needless words, words in the wrong order, equivalent but unbalanced sentence elements, imprecise relations between both subjects and verbs and pronouns and antecedents, and inappropriate punctuation. The book also has two glossaries dealing with the parts of a sentence and with questionable usage.

    Nicholson, M. (1957). A dictionary of American-English usage based on Fowler's Modern English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Nicholson's book is an important reference that offers definitive advice on correct word usage. Nicholson offers a most amusing quote from Fowler's original book: “It is perhaps, then, rather a duty than a piece of presumption for those who have had experience in word-judging to take any opportunity … of helping things on by irresponsible expressions of opinion.” Those interested in the subject of language and word usage also will find William Safire's columns worth reading.

    Piotrowski, M. V. (1989). Re: Writing: Strategies and suggestions for improving your business writing. New York: Harper & Row.

    This book deals with memos, letters, reports, and other business documents and covers everything from how to write to how to make documents visually appealing. It also has material on writing for electronic mail (E-mail).

    Strunk, W, Jr., & White, E. B. (1972). The elements of style (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan.

    This brief book—fewer than 100 pages—contains invaluable advice on the “elementary rules of usage” and the “elementary principles of composition.” It also contains material on style and on commonly misused form, words, and expressions. Elements is considered a classic and contains advice that all writers should heed.

    White, J. (1987). The grid book: A guide to page planning. Paramus, NJ: Letraset.

    This book contains excellent advice about what (and especially what not) to do when printing documents. It contains many illustrations and will help you avoid some of the errors people commonly make in formatting and in typeface usage.

    Zinsser, W. (1985). On writing well: An informal guide to writing nonfiction (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

    Zinsser's book grew out of a writing course he taught at Yale University and is a widely used text full of excellent practical advice. It deals with topics such as style, language, and the need for unity. It also contains material on professional and business writing and writing with word processors. For Zinsser, “rewriting is the essence of writing.…[P]rofessional writers rewrite their sentences repeatedly and then rewrite what they have rewritten.”

    Other resources include the newsletter Communications Concepts, which offers helpful hints on writing; discusses trends in writing, designing, and publishing; and reviews books on business writing. It is published by Communications Concepts, 2100 National Press Building, Washington, D.C. The company also publishes Writing Concepts, a newsletter devoted specifically to writing. Finally, Sage Publications' scholarly journals Written Communication and Journal of Business and Technical Communication (JBTC) may be of interest.


    Blanchard, B. (1954). On philosophical style. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
    Smelser, N.J. (1993). Effective committee service. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
    Strunk, W., Jr., & White, E.B. (1972). The elements of style (
    2nd ed.
    ). New-York: Macmillan.
    White, J. (1987). The grid book: A guide to page planning. Paramus, NJ: Letraset.
    Zinsser, W. (1985). On writing well: An informal guide to writing nonfiction (
    3rd ed.
    ). New York: Harper & Row.

    About the Author

    Arthur Asa Berger is Professor of Broadcast Communication Arts at San Francisco State University, where he has taught since 1965. He has published more than 20 books and written more than 100 articles as well as numerous book reviews. He also is an artist; for many years he drew cartoons and comic illustrations for The Journal of Communication. This is his second book on writing. His first is Scripts: Writing for Radio and Television (1990). His latest book is An Anatomy of Humor (1993).

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