Fix your Memo: Business Writing in Fire Service Promotion Exams

Drawing of a psychadelic skeleton fire fighter sitting at a laptop computer and typing chaoticly.

Weak written language skills cost people promotions.

You’re already aware that in your upcoming promotional exam, nothing is likely to cause more movement in the ranking than reading (multiple choice exam) and writing. Other activities (tactical exercise, interview, role play, etc.) don’t seem to have as much scoring variance. In other words, one of the best things you can do to dramatically improve your outcome is get better at writing.

Keep in mind that promotional exams are a surrogate for personal development. During the promotional process, the intent is that members will become more valuable (whether they successfully promote or not). And writing is one of the most important areas for improvement. When all members of the fire service begin to treat the art of communication in written word with the same respect as the glamorous disciplines in the operations sector, the fire service will be better, more adaptive, and more effective.

But that’s not really what this article is about. In this article, I want to lay out a specific algorithm that you can apply to a writing exercises in an assessment center. The goal here is to help you improve in just a few days. (But promise me you’ll keep improving your writing even after the assessment center.)

The overall process is simple and you need to memorize it. There’s three steps that are designed to keep you from getting stressed, distracted, or aimless. Let’s get started!

Make quick fixes by using a consistent method.

Step One: Find the hidden theme.

Every department has a stated mission and list of values. Invariably, the values are things like accountability, courage, honor, professionalism, and service (this list is from Colorado Springs Fire Department).

So if the assignment is something like:

A citizen has complained to you about an ambulance crew in a near by station being rude while on scene; write a memorandum to your captain explaining how you handled the event.

don’t just start writing. Start by addressing which of the values are in question. I would say professionalism is the theme here. At some point, explicitly state:

One of our fire department’s values is professionalism.

This step is more important than it might seem. Don’t get baited into writing firefighter level content. Consider this assignment:

You notice that one of your firefighters skipped several important safety steps while raising a ladder during training. Write a memorandum informing your battalion chief how you plan to correct the issue.

The theme is not ladders (or even training). Don’t go on and on about how much you know about ladders. The theme here is accountability. So write what you know about that and why it matters to the department.

Step Two: Write the major parts of [every] memo.

Admittedly, this step is pretty common sense. But if you can break the memo into 3 parts, you will find it easier to keep focused.

Imho, these are:

  1. Problem and Context
  2. Solution (Methods)
  3. Follow up & CTA

If you can remember this, long provocative questions will be less likely to throw you off. I won’t describe in detail what each of these things should be; if you want more detail, lmk.

CTA stands for call to action, btw. Start with a generic one and develop it as necessary. It might be something as simple as:

Please contact me at fixyourmemo@chocktalk.com if you have any questions or comments.

Step Three: Proof read at least twice.

The process of scanning your work for errors should involve one repetition with major edits and one repetition with only minor edits. Here are some key tips that will clean up the most common grammar problems.

Cut every sentence into its simplest parts.

Look at this sentence:

Although these members begin their careers with good intentions, after five to ten years, the stress of the job leads not just to avoidance issues, but even integrity problems.

It sounded great inside the writers head. But this type of complex structure causes unnecessary confusion for the reader who cannot hear the tempo and tone that the writer intended. So anything that can be made its own sentence should be. As with all fire service communication, clarity is everything. Instead:

These members begin their careers with good intentions. But after five to ten years, stress from the job leads to avoidance issues and integrity problems.

Btw, apply similar principles to every other component of your writing:

  • If you can use a simpler word (or less words), do.
  • If you can use simpler punctuation, do.

Properly format bulleted and numbered lists.

Inevitably, every memo has a bulleted (or numbered list). I recommend them. Assuming that your memo does, let’s do some quick checks to make sure it won’t cost you grammar points.

Is the list ordered or unordered?

If you could change the sorting of the list and it would still make sense, the correct list type is bulleted. If the list needs to stay in order (such as chronological), use a numbered list.

Are the list items complete sentences?

They don’t necessarily have to be. If they are, use punctuation. If they aren’t, don’t. Whichever route you take, be consistent. Every item in a list should be formatted the same. A list with periods terminating some of the items but not others is likely a syntactical flaw.

What is the tense?

Be consistent in how each list item is tensed. This is best explained with an example. See if you notice anything awkward in this list:

The fire department has been successful in these risk reduction efforts:
• Full-time certified fire inspectors and fire fighters conduct thousands of fire-safety inspections annually.
• Our highly-trained professional fire fighters spend much of their time in the local schools as well. They help to conduct fire drills to help make certain that students evacuate safely and efficiently.
• Increased the number of Advanced Life Support units available during peak times by 40%.

Unlike the first two items, the final item in the above list is past-tense. Additionally, it is not a complete sentence. Both problems make this distracting to read.

Alternative punctuation choices might signal doubt in your writing.

Be careful with anything that isn’t a period or a comma. Inserting hyphens, quotes, underlines, colons and semicolons where they don’t belong is a mistake.

If you’re not quoting someone, don’t use quotes. Quotes are not a way to excuse the fact that you are using the wrong term, slang, or inappropriate jargon. The following sentence is an attempt to use quotation marks to lazily convert slang into formal text, I consider this bad writing:

The Commander has attempted to be more collaborative by regularly requesting feedback from “the boots on the ground.”

Exercise: Clearly, there must be a better term than “the boots on the ground”. How would you fix this sentence? Answer in the comments.

Grammar is a journey. Learning the rules of writing shouldn’t end in grade school. This is for a few different reasons. Namely: the rules change, which rules you should follow will change as you mature as a writer, and there are a whole lot of rules in the English language.

Step 4: Breathe and read. The mistakes are hiding.

After you think you are done, read your work. Come to this step with the expectation that it is perfect and no more changes are necessary. If you find problems and need to fix them, that’s fine. But that means you are on step three, not step four. The reason I say this is because many mistakes are resultant of last-minute edits. Fixing one part of a sentence might render another part of a sentence ungrammatical.

Your final read-through should involve no editing.

Great writing solves problems.

Once you have memorized and practiced this process, you are one moment closer to taking on a leadership role in the fire service. Therefore, it is now even more important that you constantly improving yourself for the sake of your department and community.

Rather than starting this article with the heading “Weak written language skills cost people promotions,” I should have started it with “Weak written language skills cost people their lives.” Obviously, that would be unnecessarily forceful for an article about writing. But it’s true. Because the quality of the service we provide is reliant upon the ability of our leadership to strengthen and adapt the complex public safety systems within which we operate. And our business is saving lives. The point is that I’m offering a mandate to every fire fighter: get good at writing.

Which is well outside the scope of this article. Because great writing requires vision. And the development of vision is a wholistic process. Writing is more than just a way to convey a message. It is a way to develop a thought. So good writing suggests sound thinking.

I hope this helps. Please feel free to let me know in the comments or on social what you think of this article. And good luck in your assessment center!

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