Writing Guidelines
for Engineering and Science Students

Correspondence


Correspondence consists of memos, letters, and electronic mail. In engineering and science, correspondence is an effective way to make requests, submit changes to a job, and deliver specific information. Unlike telephone conversations, correspondence presents the audience with a legal contract that is dated and can support a claim in court. This section presents formats for memos and letters. Because electronic mail usually has a built-in format, no format is assigned here for it. In addition, this section provides helpful links for job letters and résumés.

In your correspondence, you should concentrate on being clear and precise. Because audiences tend to read letters and memos quickly, opt for shorter sentences and paragraphs than you would use in a formal report or journal article. Also, in correspondence, you should consider carefully the tone. Tone is difficult to control in correspondence. For instance, in a job application letter, how do you talk about your accomplishments without sounding boastful? Or in a letter complaining about faulty workmanship, how do you motivate the reader to repair the damage without alienating the reader? The answers are not simple. Often, engineers and scientists lose control of tone by avoiding simple straightforward wording. When some people sit down to write a business letter or memo, they change their entire personality. Instead of using plain English, they use convoluted phrases such as "per your request" or "enclosed please find." Because these phrases are not natural or straightforward, they inject an undesired attitude, usually arrogance, into the writing. For more information about the style of correspondence, see Chapter 12 of The Craft of Scientific Writing. To gain practice in identifying common problems in correspondence, perform the following exercises.

Memos

Typically, you write memos to people within your place of work, and you write letters to people outside your place of work. One major difference between memos and letters is the title line found in memos. Because readers often decide whether to read the memo solely on the basis of this title line, the line is important. Another difference between letters and memos is that you sometimes write memos that serve as short reports. In such cases, the format for the memo changes somewhat. For instance, in a memo serving as a progress report for a project, you might include subheadings and sub-subheadings. Notice that people who are mentioned in a memo or are directly affected by the memo should receive a copy. Included here is a sample memo format and a sample memo. Also included is a sample memo report

Letters

Formats for letters vary from company to company. For instance, some formats call for paragraph indents; others don't. Included in this section is a sample format for letters. Also included in this section is a sample job letter and a sample thank-you letter written by someone after a job interview. In this letter, notice how the writer gets to the point in the first sentence of the first paragraph. Notice also the simple and straightforward salutation ("Sincerely"). As with a memo, people who are mentioned or directly affected by the letter should receive a copy.

E-mail

Electronic mail is a less formal version of memos and letters. Electronic mail is relatively new and is changing in terms of sophistication in format and expectation by audience. The principal advantages of electronic mail over other types of correspondence are its speed and ease of use. For instance, in minutes, you can send out information to many recipients around the world. Included in this section is a sample e-mail format.

One disadvantage of electronic mail is the crudeness of the format. Many electronic mail systems do not allow such things as tabs or italics. For that reason, the look of the message is not as attractive as a memo or letter that has been printed on letterhead paper. Because the message does not look formal, many people mistakenly adopt a style that lacks the "appropriate formality" [Markel, 1996]. For instance, these people include needless abbreviations (such as "BTW" rather than "by the way").

Another disadvantage of electronic mail is also one of its advantages: its ease of use. With letters and memos, you must print out the correspondence before you send it. That printing out allows you to view the writing on paper--a step that makes it easier for you to proof for mechanical mistakes in spelling, usage, and punctuation. With electronic mail, though, you are not forced to print out on paper before you send. For that reason, electronic messages often are not as well proofed as regular correspondence. Remember: Because most networks archive electronic mail, you should take the same care with electronic mail as you do with printed correspondence. That means using the appropriate formality in style and carefully proofing your message before you hit the "send" button.

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