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The Memo-Based Writing Strategy: Helping students write large-ish (>2,500 words) assignments

I found a request on Twitter by a professor on how to help students with “large N word” assignments (3,000 words, 5,000 words, a thesis). This is something I have thought about frequently because contrary to what people may think (with all the writing I do), I am actually not verbose. I hate having to comply with a certain number of words, because frequently I’ll find myself at odds with the target. How can I write that many words, if I am so concise in my writing? Therefore, I spent some time reflecting on this issue and pondering a potential strategy for this professor so she could use it in her teaching.

Along the same line of thinking. I recently taught for the second time my full-fledged, 40 hours course on “Strategies of Academic Writing and Empirical Research Inquiry”.

This time, I reversed my pedagogical approach.

Highlighting, scribbling marginalia, reading, writing

Before, I used to teach my students how to ask a good research question, how to narrow from a broad topic to a simple, researchable question.


You see the problem here, right?

This strategy works well either teaching They Say/I Say (Graf & Birkenstein) style of argumentative writing first and THEN a repertoire of reading strategies (starting with my trusty AIC method) or teaching argumentation in tandem/parallel with reading strategies.

The Memo-Based Writing Strategy is incredibly helpful for people like me, who are not verbose, and who struggle to PRODUCE words. If you are rather verbose and have the lucky ability to just vomit words, more power to you. I am not able to do that.

Focusing on memos HELPS.

I helped my students decompose THEIR ENTIRE DISSERTATION in memorandums, and put them into a Gantt chart. Once we went through the exercise, they realized that writing a thesis is not as major as one would think.

Think about getting ONE memo, 75-125 words, 15 minutes DONE.

memo review of the literature

A brief memorandum reviewing the literature on homelessness.

If your students are worried about a 3,000 words assignment, perhaps the best way to think about it is a 2 week (10 days worth of work) assignment with 150 words per day. This could possibly be manageable.

That’s how I deal with my own writing: one memo at a time.

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  1. Melanie K. Batista says

    Hello Dr. Raul,
    Thank you very much for sharing your experience, your posts have helped me a lot already (particularly dealing with literature!). Your note on the exercise of splitting the entire dissertation into memoranda caught my attention, as I’m approaching the final stage of my PhD studies.. Can you share any strategy I could follow to try to do this? Thank you in advance!

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