TO: PADM 620 Students
FROM: PADM 620 Faculty,
Helms School of Government
SUBJECT: The Administrative Memorandum
DATE: November 1, 2017
Good writing skills are essential to a successful career in public administration, law, or
public policy. Learning to write well is a life-long process, and while no single exercise, class or
project can transform you into a good writer, it is important to understand that writing is a skill
that one can master. Understanding the purpose of a given document, the audience’s needs, and
the generally acceptable format and best practices in a particular field are all necessary to
effective communications. Writing for public administration often involves drafting documents
such as budget narratives, public policy proposals, annual reports, press releases and a variety of
memoranda. The administrative memorandum is a ubiquitous and important part of public
administration practice. Dennis L. Dresang, author of The Public Administration Workbook
commented on the importance of the administrative memorandum and provided a good
introduction to the drafting of administrative memoranda by identifying what he called the
“ABCs of good administrative writing: accuracy, brevity, and clarity.”1
1 Dennis Dresang, The Public Administration Workbook. 7th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 70.
Administrative Memoranda Must Be Accurate
In practice, Public Administration is a detail-oriented, fact-specific field. When drafting
an administrative memorandum it is very important to exhibit accuracy in both content and form.
According to Dennis Dresang:
Good writing is accurate writing. This is true in two senses. First, the statements that you
make in your writing – the facts on which you rely – should be true. If you are writing a
report for the county office of social services and you note that last year its social workers
had an average caseload of 75 clients each, make sure this is a correct figure. Everyone
makes mistakes occasionally; good writers minimize them. Nothing causes the credibility
of an administrator to plummet as quickly as a reputation for error.
Accuracy is important in a second sense as well: Your spelling, punctuation, and
grammar all should be correct. There is an old saying: “You can’t expect anyone to take
your writing more seriously than you appear to take yourself.” If you draft a memo or
prepare a report that is sloppy, filled with run-on sentences or misspelled words, you
clearly have not taken your writing seriously. Others will treat it accordingly.
This rule is not hard to follow. One clearly does not need to have “natural writing talent”
to be careful in the use of facts or to use a dictionary.2
Administrative Memoranda Should be Brief
The modern practice of public administration often involves heavy schedules, tight time
constraints, and long lists of complex problems. As such, concise writing is extremely valuable
in all forms of public administration communications and particularly in the crafting of
administrative memoranda. While these documents should be detailed, complete, and
substantive, they should also be as efficient as possible. According to Dennis Dresang:
The best administrative writing is short and to the point. Administrators are busy people.
So are all the legislators, contractors, customers, and others with whom they interact.
Almost no one has the time or patience to wade through a memo that runs on like a Norse
saga. In many offices, the rule is that if a document is longer than three or four pages, it
2 Dresang, 70-71.
must have an “executive summary” attached to the front for interested parties to scan
quickly. You need to exercise judgment in following this rule of brevity, of course. If
your assignment is to write an evaluation of the major agency program, you likely will
need to say more than “this program has failed to meet its objectives.”3
Learning to exercise good judgment and balance the necessity of specific, accurate, detailed
information and the competing need to package that information in the briefest, most efficient
way that is reasonable for the circumstances is key to crafting useful, high-quality administrative
Administrative Memoranda Must be Clear
Finally, clarity is vitally important to the crafting of high-quality administrative
memoranda. Clarity includes proficient use of language, the effective structuring of sentences
and paragraphs, and logical organization of ideas. In the words of Dennis Dresang:
Good writing is clear writing. It is writing that takes the work – and the guesswork – out
of reading. When you write clearly, your audience knows exactly what you mean, and
that should be your primary goal.
To keep it clear, keep it simple. Too many people knit their words together as if they
were weaving an oriental carpet, producing awesomely intricate and ornamented patterns
of prose. Even if you think your readers enjoyed diagramming sentences in tenth-grade
English (a doubtful proposition, by the way), don’t construct your sentences as if they
were puzzles to be solved. For those who aspire to clear writing, there is no better friend
than the simple declarative sentence, arranged in subject–verb–object form (e.g., “The
Department of Transportation [subject] awarded [verb] 300 contracts [object]”).
Avoid unnecessary jargon and fancy words. Although you may be justly proud that you
have mastered the foreign language of your profession (Pentagon-speak, legalese,
accountingish, or whatever), don’t assume that all your readers are equally adept. The
great essayist E.B. White wrote more than 40 years ago, “do not be tempted by a $20
word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”
3 Dresang, 71.
Clarity does not come cheap. In fact, there is an inverse relationship between the ease of
reading and the ease of writing. As Hemingway put it, “Easy writing makes hard
reading.” Thus, it is a good guess that the crisper and cleaner the sentence, the longer it
took to write. The key is to rewrite, and then rewrite some more.4
4 Dresang, 71.
Dresang, Dennis. The Public Administration Workbook. 7th ed. New York: Routledge, 2016.