Peter J Wilcoxen > PAI 300 Economics for Policy Analysis

Quick Tips on Writing Policy Memos

Here are a few nuts and bolts suggestions on writing policy memos.

Core Principles

  1. Cover the important points
  2. The memo should present all of the key findings of the analysis.

  3. Be concise
  4. It should be no longer than necessary. Don't leave important things out but don't write a paragraph when a sentence or two will do.

  5. Identify the winners and losers
  6. It's very important to policy makers to know who would be helped and who would be hurt by a proposal.

  7. Focus on your results, not your opinions
  8. Wherever possible, the memo should include all the facts a policy maker would need to reach her own conclusions and should not emphasize your personal opinion.

  9. Evaluate means, not ends
  10. The main place where you can express your opinion is on whether the policy is a good means for achieving its goals. Does it work well or are there better alternatives? Avoid focusing on whether the goal itself is good or bad.


  1. Briefly summarize the current situation and proposed change
  2. Don't presume the reader already knows all the relevant details. The memo should be understandable to someone who hasn't been in the loop.
  3. Place tables and figures after they are first mentioned in the text.
  4. The reader shouldn't run into a table or figure until after you've let them know it's coming.
  5. Use tables
  6. A table can often be worth a thousand words. It's a much faster way to present a set of numbers than to include them in the text and it can be a lot easier for a reader to understand. That's especially true when you need to show results for different demographic groups.

  7. Consider using graphs to illustrate your numerical results.
  8. However, only do it if it adds something and isn't trivial: no bar charts with just one bar. Also, be sure to include a title, labels for each axis, and indicate any relevant units.
  9. Watch out for incorrect but correctly-spelled words.
  10. Be aware that spelling checkers won't stop you from accidentally using an incorrect, but correctly spelled, word. E.g., "loose" where you meant "lose".
  11. Write in 3rd person unless you really know what you're doing.
  12. Writing in 1st person can make a document more lively and readable but it has to be done carefully to avoid being confusing or condescending toward the reader. Under no circumstances use "we" unless you are part of the organization to whom you are writing (and in memos written for this class, you are not part of the organization -- you are an outside consultant).
  13. Be evenhanded
  14. Focus on stating the facts and try to avoid including too many adjectives that might overstate your case or suggest that small differences are more important than they are. For example, don't say a policy imposes "huge" costs or creates "enormous" benefits unless the costs or benefits really merit the adjectives.  


  1. Don't include equations.
  2. They generally aren't appropriate in policy memos.

  3. Don't use technical diagrams.
  4. Avoid technical diagrams. For example, in these memos you should NOT include a supply and demand diagram.
  5. Don't use 2nd person.
  6. Do not use second person ("you" or "your") in memos. It's only appropriate if you are intending to address each reader as an individual, which you are NOT doing here.


  1. Do label rows and columns in tables.
  2. Do number pages.
  3. Don't break tables across pages.
  4. Don't have large blank areas in tables.
  5. Avoid having tables with columns or rows that have really large cells for small contents. Usually that happens when one of your rows has very long contents that take multiple lines or your column labels are really long.
  6. Don't let tables or figures go beyond the left and right margins.
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Peter J Wilcoxen, The Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Revised 02/09/2023