Governance

How to take and write minutes

Competent minute writing is a skill which contributes significantly to the efficiency of committees and the University as a whole.

Good minutes distil for their readers what happened and why, and greatly facilitate the efficient progress of business through the University system.

For many people, the task of taking and writing minutes seems horrendous. It can indeed be challenging to take minutes through a long, complicated, and perhaps heated meeting. And facing numerous pages of untidy handwritten notes the next day can certainly bring on a bad attack of writer's block.

But the good news is that minute writing is a skill which can be learned, and even thoroughly enjoyed! There can be great satisfaction in producing a succinct, accurate summary of what happened at a meeting, and thereby enabling others to see the wood for the trees. Few meetings are actually tidy and orderly in their discussions. The minute writer's task is to produce as tidy and orderly a record of the meeting as possible, while still reflecting accurately what happened. (You can look on it as a kind of transformational magic, whereby you make a silk purse from a sow's ear!)

If you're relatively new to taking and writing minutes, the following notes will give you a start. As with agenda writing, repeated practice and experience should teach you the rest. Read through the notes and then perhaps use them to refresh your mind before you start taking and writing minutes, until you're comfortable with the procedures.

  1. The first steps
  2. Understanding the functions and importance of minutes
  3. Understanding what you are writing about
  4. Knowing the agenda
  5. Recording attendances, apologies, invitees
  6. How to take minutes
  7. Counting and recording votes
  8. Reading through your notes after the meeting
  9. Keeping your notes
  10. When to write your minutes
  11. Where to write your minutes
  12. Estimating the time needed for writing the minutes
  13. The style of minutes
  14. Massaging the minutes
  15. Item headings and file references
  16. Ordering the items
  17. Numbering the items
  18. Using the right tenses
  19. Getting over writer's block
  20. Writing complex items
  21. Varying the vocabulary and structures
  22. Avoiding unnecessary Latinisms
  23. Keeping the points impersonal
  24. Checking back with speakers
  25. Using resolutions
  26. Getting resolutions in the right format
  27. Writing good resolutions
  28. Using Executive Officer's notes
  29. Ownership of the minutes
  30. Sending the minutes out
  31. Putting the minutes on the Web
  32. Filing the minutes and attachments
  33. Follow-up action
  34. Sending the minutes to the right people
  35. Minutes examples
  36. Guidelines for typing minutes

The first steps

Familiarise yourself with Rule 11 of the University's Rules for the Operation of Committees that relate to minutes. Keep them in mind in the preparation of any set of minutes.

Understanding the functions and importance of minutes

If you understand and recognise the functions and the importance of minutes in the University's business, you are more likely to accept the value of developing skills in the taking and writing of minutes.

Every set of minutes can have some or all of the following functions:

  • providing an accurate record of decisions taken, which are then the official authorities for specific actions (at various levels of the University)

  • providing an accurate record of recommendations made and of the principal points made in the discussions preceding them, to be used as part of the information on which other bodies base decisions.

  • making information available to members of the University community and others (via the Web)

  • providing the University's official formal record of what took place at meetings (for use by present and future staff, and for the Archives)

Given the functions of minutes in the University's business, especially those related to the recording of recommendations and decisions (which may ultimately have major impacts at discipline, school, faculty or institutional level) it is clear that they are an important element within the decision-making processes at many levels of the University's operations. It is therefore critical that minutes at all levels provide an accurate record.

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Understanding what you are writing about

The sections on "Understand clearly what you are writing about" and "The benefits of understanding the issues on the agenda" in How to Prepare an Agenda stress that an Executive Officer must fully understand the issues in order to write a good agenda. Clearly the same applies to the minutes. If you've written the agenda yourself, from a basis of full understanding of the issues, you'll have few problems following the discussion at the meeting, understanding the points made and then writing your minutes.

If you've written an inadequate agenda, without fully understanding the issues, you'll almost certainly struggle to understand the subsequent discussion at the meeting, and will be unable to write good minutes.

If you're taking the minutes for a meeting for which another person has written the agenda (for example, as a leave replacement) read the agenda carefully and ensure that you fully understand the issues. If you don't, seek help from an appropriate staff member before the meeting.

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Knowing the agenda

It's a good idea to refresh your memory of the agenda by reading carefully through it shortly before the meeting. Not only does this remind you of the issues, but also it helps to remind you of the details of the layout and contents. This can be useful if the Chair or a member is searching for something in the agenda which they cannot immediately locate ("I know it's there somewhere!")

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Recording attendances, apologies, invitees

The standard format for the preparation of minutes template provides the correct lay-out of attendances and apologies in your minutes. 

Record any apologies received in advance of the meeting, and advise the Chair of these before the meeting starts.

Record attendees either by ticking them off against the list of members on your agenda, or on an attendance list. Be careful about this relatively easy task - members can be very sensitive about being left off the list of attendees, and about their titles and names being absolutely right!

Record the names of any invitees to the meeting and indicate which item/s they attended for.

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How to take minutes

The most important skill in taking minutes is listening carefully to what is said, and mentally sorting the wheat from the chaff as you take notes. (that is, recording only points of substance). You'll have to do this mental sorting sooner or later, so try to train yourself to do it in the course of the meeting. If you tape-record the minutes or take them down verbatim in shorthand to avoid the mental sorting at the meeting, you'll effectively have to go through the whole meeting again before you can do any sorting (potentially very time-consuming)

As you listen, write down briefly all points which seem to have substance. If you're well prepared and understand the issues, you'll find it easier to recognise these points. If you're in doubt, as inexperienced officers often are, err on the side of caution and record the point. You can then decide later whether it needs to be included.

Use initials of speakers (as far as possible) to identify who made the point. While you won't normally use names in the minutes you may occasionally wish to refer back to a speaker for clarification of a point made. It can also be useful if there's any dispute later over who said what.

By all means use your own form of shorthand in making notes, to reduce the amount of writing you have to do - initials, short forms of words, symbols and the like, as long as you'll understand after the meeting what you've written.

Keep careful track of any motions moved during the meeting, as you may be asked to remind members of them by reading them out. If a member moves a motion which is longer than you can readily record, ask that he/she give it to you in writing to ensure that you get it right. If a motion is amended, keep careful track of the new motion. It's useful to record motions in CAPITALS and perhaps to highlight them in colour, so that if you have to flick back several pages of notes you can quickly find them.

If you miss a point, don't panic, or you may miss even more points as the meeting moves on! If you have a vague grasp of the lost point, you can always ask the Chair or the speaker after the meeting.

If you don't understand a point made, despite having listened carefully to it, ask through the Chair for clarification. Chances are that others won't have understood it either.

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Counting and recording votes

Depending on the nature of your committee and of its business, you may be required to count and record the number of votes for and against a motion (and perhaps abstentions) This is more likely to happen when the vote is on an important issue and there's clear disagreement in the discussion leading to the vote.

If the Chair decides that the votes should be counted, take your time counting hands. If necessary ask that members raise their hands clearly. In a big meeting (like the Academic Board) it saves time to have two or more people counting, covering different sections of the room.

Numbers for a motion which was passed should be recorded as follows:

RESOLVED (60: 34)

If a motion is put and lost, this should be recorded in the text of the minutes-

For example, The motion was put and lost (20: 4)

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Reading through your notes after the meeting

Some Executive Officers, particularly those with appalling handwriting, find it useful to have a quick read-through of their notes soon after the meeting. If your writing tends to be bad, or if it deteriorates as meetings progress, it's much easier to identify the words which those illegible scribbles represent while a meeting is still fresh in your mind!

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Keeping your notes

Keep your notes at least until the minutes of the meeting have been confirmed at the next meeting, as you may have to refer back to them in the event of any dispute.

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When to write your minutes

You need to write the minutes while the meeting is still fresh in your mind and while your notes still make sense to you. Many people find that leaving the minutes until the next day clarifies the mind wonderfully - a bit like the quiet settling of the snow in those snowstorm shaker toys!

It's not advisable to leave the writing of the minutes much beyond the day after the meeting - experience tends to show that the longer you leave them after that the poorer your recall (and therefore your minutes) will be. If you really have to delay writing the minutes for good reason, make it a rule that you must have finished at least the first draft within five days of the meeting.

Bear in mind that having the task of writing the minutes (especially of a long complex meeting) hanging over you for any length of time can have an adverse impact on your other work. And of course the longer you leave them the larger the task of writing them looms in your mind! The best solution is to make a commitment to write the minutes on the day following the meeting if you possibly can (put it in your diary as a formal booking) and stick to it.

You're required to distribute the final version of your minutes to members within 10 University working days of the meeting (See Rule 11) You must allow time for writing, typing or formatting, checking, adjustments, reference to the Chair within this framework.

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Where to write your minutes

Most Executive Officers find it very helpful to be able to write their minutes in one fell swoop, away from interruptions. If you possibly can, write the minutes at home or in a place where you won't be interrupted until you've finished them. Talk to your supervisor about the virtues of doing the minutes this way. The Executive Officers of the Senate and Board have been doing this for many years now, and will vouch for the fact that writing minutes in these conditions is easier, more enjoyable, much more efficient and less time-consuming than trying to fit them between other tasks.

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Estimating the time needed for writing the minutes

The amount of time needed to write minutes varies a lot, depending on the nature of the business and on your level of experience. For example, if your minutes are simply a record of decisions taken in relation to higher degree results or candidate admissions, they will be relatively simple and quick to write. However, if you're dealing with complex issues on which there was substantial debate, a good rule of thumb is that writing the minutes will take a reasonably experienced officer about twice as long as the discussion lasted. If you're inexperienced, it could take considerably longer.

Good minute-writing is a much misunderstood and under-appreciated skill, and it often surprises those new to the task how long the process can take. You should be prepared to explain when necessary what takes the time (and perhaps refer doubters to this website!). There's no need to be apologetic about taking a reasonable time to write good minutes! It's often the case that the time taken to write good minutes at the outset saves a lot of time for the organisation in the longer term.

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The style of minutes

In terms of Rule 11 your minutes should "contain a summary or precis of events, in dot form wherever possible, rather than a detailed account of every contribution." Rule 9 states that all documentation for committees "should be written precisely, accurately, clearly and succinctly. The level of formality and detail is matched to the purpose and readership of the document."

The message here is clear. Be as brief and concise as possible within the context of the purpose of your minutes. Think about the purpose of the minutes - who will read/act on them, and what will they need to know? In general, items which end at the level of your committee can be briefer than those which will go on to another level for consideration. Other committees to which you forward items will need to know some detail of what your committee discussed and concluded. If your minutes don't record adequately what was discussed, the other committee may assume that no discussion took place and may either refer the issue back or have the discussion again from scratch. Either outcome would be inefficient.

Your minutes can be a mix of brief narrative and dot point form. For example, in an item in which a proposal for a new course was discussed, you might set the scene in a brief narrative paragraph (often using a section from the agenda, with tenses changed) and then summarise arguments made for and against in dot point. Use dot points wherever possible and practicable. You'll find that reducing arguments to dot point form forces you to clarify the points made and to put them into a logical order.

When using dot points try to ensure that the contents of each point are parallel in terms of their grammatical structure.

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Massaging the minutes

This isn't what it might seem! Occasionally it's legitimate for an Executive Officer to "massage" a minute to make sure that it's balanced. This never involves reporting something which didn't happen. It may involve using some material from the agenda to balance arguments made at the meeting. An example will best illustrate this. In large committees like the Academic Board it's quite common when a motion is put for all those who oppose it to speak against it while those who support it largely remain silent. A minute item which listed at length points made against the motion, then listed hardly any for the motion and concluded with an overwhelming vote in favour of the motion would look very odd. The Executive Officer could legitimately massage the minute to better reflect the ultimate outcome of the meeting by introducing something like the following before briefly summarising the main arguments against the motion:

The agenda had noted the following points in favour of the motion -

  • ..

  • ..

  • ..

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Item headings and file references

See Item headings and File References in How to prepare an agenda. If you've given an appropriate heading and the correct file reference to each agenda item, as outlined there, you'll be able to use the same headings and file references in your minutes.

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Ordering the items

If there's nothing to dictate an alternative order of items for your minutes, stick to the same order as the agenda items. However, if your committee is in the formal Senate/Academic Board/Faculty system, you may need to organise the items so that those going to other committees in the system are grouped together under appropriate headings such as "Items for the attention of the Academic Council." This makes it easy for the Executive officers of the committees concerned to pick out the items intended for their committees.

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Numbering the items

All minute items should be numbered from 1 onwards for each meeting. Occasionally you may wish to group several items under one main heading - in this case use the legal numbering system - i.e. 1. 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 These can if necessary be further sub-divided - 1.1.1, 1.1.2 and so on.

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Using the right tenses

Minutes report what happened at a meeting which is now past, and the standard tense of their verbs is therefore simple past. For example:

  • The Chair invited comment.

  • Members made the following points:

However, it's frequently necessary within a set of minutes to refer to something which had already happened before the meeting took place. It's then necessary to use the pluperfect (or past perfect) tense. For example:

  • The Chair reminded members that they had deferred consideration of this issue from the last meeting.

  • The Chair drew members' attention to the document which the Executive Officer had circulated before the meeting.

  • You may find it tricky at first to get the tenses right. It might help to read a few examples of good minutes, so that you get the feel of the variation of tenses. Bear in mind that what actually happened in the present at the meeting becomes the simple past in the verbs which report it (members spoke, expressed views, commented, disagreed etc) and that anything which had happened before the meeting uses verbs in the pluperfect (Members had noted in the agenda, members had previously supported, the Academic Council had referred the proposal to the Faculty .)

  • It really isn't a disaster if you don't get all the tenses right at first - it just looks a bit inelegant!

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Getting over writer's block

You may find that when you sit down to write your minutes, particularly those of a long and complex meeting, you have a kind of writer's block. You really don't want to do these minutes! In these circumstances it can be helpful to start with one or two really simple, mundane items (even if your assistant might normally do these). Just start, and the very act of starting on something will help to get you going.

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Writing complex items

Read through the agenda item again, read through your notes and try to establish a framework for your minute item. You'll probably find that discussion was relatively untidy, perhaps with pros and cons for a proposal scattered throughout your notes. You may find that different speakers made much the same point, perhaps with a slight variation in each case. You can tidy up and re-order the points made, as long as you accurately reflect in your summary the gist of the main points made. Sometimes this will involve amalgamating points made by different speakers, and often it will involve bringing together points made at different times in the meeting. That's fine! Remember that your minutes are a precis; they're not required to give a blow by blow account of precisely what was said at each stage. You can use your own words if they better convey the gist of a point made in slightly different words at the meeting.

Many minute items which relate to specific proposals can be put into a framework such as -introduction to proposal, points made for, points made against, resolution - but some are more difficult to organise. Look for an appropriate structure before you start to write - often a skeleton structure will emerge once you start to group the points in your mind.

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Varying the vocabulary and structures

If you want your minutes to be reader-friendly, learn to use a fairly wide vocabulary of "committee words" and vary your sentence structures.

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Avoiding unnecessary Latinisms

In general, avoid Latinisms where there is a perfectly satisfactory English alternative. For example, don't use "inter alia" when you can use "among other things". While you might personally like using Latin phrases, they can make your minutes sound over-formal. In addition staff who have never learnt any Latin may not understand them.

If there is no English alternative to a Latin word and the Latin word has become part of the English vocabulary (for example, quorum), then it is of course fine to use it.

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Keeping the points impersonal

Rule 11 formalises the practice of depersonalising the points made at meetings - "In general the names of individual speakers should not be recorded." This practice is consistent with providing a precis or summary of events rather than a detailed account of every contribution.

You do, however, use the titles of those who are speaking in an ex officio capacity. For example, if the Chair provides an introduction to an item, you'd record that -

In introducing the item, the Chair made the following main points:

Similarly, if the Vice Chancellor attended your Committee or the Chair of the Health and Safety Committee attended, you'd use their titles when recording the points they made.

If an individual asks that his/her dissent from a resolution be recorded, you would in that instance record the member's name.

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Checking back with speakers

Occasionally during a meeting you may miss a point made which you think may be important, or you may find when you read your notes that you can't make sense of a point. Don't hesitate to ring the speaker to ask tactfully for clarification (for example, "I'm not sure I fully understood the point you made about.in reply to the point made by Dr X ..perhaps you could run through it with me again?") It's easier to check back at this stage than to have to correct your minutes at the next meeting. Most people are happy to elaborate on key points they've made.

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Using resolutions

Those new to committee work are often confused about when to use a resolution. In general, meetings use resolutions to record important decisions arrived at via a vote. Such decisions may be recommendations to other bodies or may be final decisions of a body. In many cases the decision/resolution will be the authority for later action within the University.

A few examples may help:

  • A committee would not need to resolve to note that the University's Open Day was a success; the minute item would just note this briefly. However, if the committee agreed to recommend a change to the procedures for the Open Day to the relevant authority, this would require a resolution :

    For example;  RESOLVED - to recommend to X that with effect from 2005 the University's annual Open Day be held in September.

    The resolution provides a formal authority for referring the business to the relevant authority, and is easily picked up when checking for follow-up action from a meeting.

  • The Senate does not need to resolve to note that a meeting is the last for a retiring member. However, it would resolve to approve the Annual Budget proposal for the coming year, since this is the University's authority for acting on the approved Budget.

  • A committee must always resolve to approve the minutes of the previous meeting, as they have been presented or in amended form, since this formalises all decisions taken at the meeting concerned and is the authority for taking any actions based on resolutions of the meeting.

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Getting resolutions in the right format

Resolutions are often written in a format using the subjunctive form of the verb. To some it seems old-fashioned, but it provides a consistent and tidy format.

For example: RESOLVED: to recommend that the Senate approve the University's Admissions and Quota Policy for 2004. (approve rather than approves)

Getting the format wrong is not a disaster as long as the content of the resolution is precise, comprehensive and unambiguous, but it can appear unprofessional to some readers.

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Writing good resolutions

A good resolution is self-contained, precise, comprehensive and unambiguous. The reader of a resolution, today or in 20 years time, should be in no doubt about the precise nature and extent of the decision which a committee made, and be in a position to locate any documentation to which the resolution refers.

For example, the following resolutions are insufficiently precise:

RESOLVED - to approve the proposal. 
RESOLVED- to approve the Budget. 
RESOLVED - to endorse the introduction of the proposed new course.

They may make sense within the context of the complete minute item, but they are meaningless as stand -alone resolutions, and could not be used by other bodies except with a lot of additional explanation (or the use of the full minute)

The following examples show some good resolutions:

  • to approve the Faculty of XXXX proposed Budget for 2004, as detailed in Attachment A of the agenda.
  • to approve the new units and deletion of units from 2004 as set out in Attachment F to the agenda.
  • to approve the establishment of the Western Australian Centre for Semiconductor Optoelectronics and Microsystems (WACSOM) as a UWA Centre, located in the School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering for a period of five years from the date of execution of the State Centres of Excellence in Science and Innovation Funding Agreement of 25 November 2003
  • to recommend to the Academic Board that the paper entitled "Postgraduate Research Studies: The Way Forward towards a Postgraduate Research School" be endorsed and that appropriate implementation mechanisms be put in place.
  • that the establishment of the Institute for Regional Development as a Category A Centre within the Department of Geography be endorsed and referred to the Senate for information;
  • that notwithstanding Council Resolution 22/96, any student who embarks on and successfully completes a Continuing Education unit at the Albany Centre in 2000 may be permitted, if successful in obtaining subsequent admission to a degree course, to credit up to 48 points on the basis of that unit and other Continuing Education units passed in that year or subsequent years.
  • that the proposal to rename the Master of Science (in Mathematics) as the Master of Mathematical and Statistical Science and transfer administrative responsibility to the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics be approved, subject to final drafting of the rules by the Legislative Committee.

Don't hesitate to split the resolution into sub-sections if this makes it clearer and easier to follow, as in:

  1. to recommend to the Senate that it approve the introduction in 2013 of theMaster of Mining Economics

  2. to endorse the proposed rules for the course subject to any final drafting; and

  3. to endorse the proposal that the course be available to fee-paying international students, at a fee to be determined.

When framing a resolution, ask yourself whether you've included all the necessary detail of the decision. If the resolution is a recommendation to another body, will the Executive Officer of that body be able to quote your resolution in the agenda without having to annotate it to cover missing information?

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Using Executive Officer's Notes

Occasionally you may need to use the minutes to record some information which was not available at the meeting. This can be done via an Executive Officer's Note, sometimes placed at the end of the minute item and sometimes in brackets at the relevant point in the minutes.

For example:  The agenda had invited members to submit nominations for the award of honorary degrees to the Registrar for the attention of the Honorary Degrees Committee by Monday 4 October. The Chair advised members that the Committee was moving towards a practice of selecting candidates in a number of designated areas. (Executive Officer's Note: The Registrar has advised that, tentatively, these areas are: Community and Public Service; Private Sector Work; International Links; Academic Achievements; Contribution to the University; Contribution to the Arts.)

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Ownership of the minutes

While the agenda belongs to the Chair, the minutes ultimately belong to the Committee. However, in the period between the meeting and confirmation of the minutes at the next meeting, they belong to the Executive Officer (as the person whose main function during the meeting is to listen to, and record, what happens). It's good practice for you to invite your Chair to read your draft minutes, to give careful consideration to any changes the Chair suggests, and to make any changes which you agree are improvements. However, in the event of a dispute with the Chair over what happened or how to record events, you're not obliged to change the minutes. They may of course be changed when presented to the meeting if the meeting agrees that anything you've recorded is inaccurate.

If an individual contacts you with a criticism of your minutes, ask that he/she provide you with a proposed amendment in writing before the meeting, which can then be considered by the committee when the minutes are to be confirmed. This gives you time to refer to your notes before the meeting and consider whether you agree with the proposed amendment. You may also wish to circulate the proposed amendment to members before the meeting. You may be asked (or can ask through the Chair) to state your view at the meeting, but ultimately the meeting itself will decide on the final wording based on members' recollections of what happened.

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Sending the minutes out

Rule 11 requires that minutes are distributed to members within 10 working days of the close of the meeting. This is an important principle whether your meetings are held monthly or at much longer intervals. Timely dispatch of minutes ensures that they are received while members still have reasonable recall of what happened at a meeting, and are in a position to dispute the minutes if they disagree with them.

The 10-day time limit is a maximum - if you can send your minutes out earlier, that's even better. There may also be occasions on which you have to write one or more sections of your minutes urgently after the meeting so that they can be incorporated in the agenda of another committee. If you have an item or items which have to go urgently to another committee, discuss deadlines with the Executive Officer of that committee so that you know the time-constraints well in advance.

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Putting the minutes on the Web or on a Sharepoint site

Arrange to have the minutes put on the Web or on a Sharepoint site.

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Filing the minutes and attachments

Ensure that you or your assistant adhere to current policy in relation to the filing of all documentation from your committee. If your committee is in the formal Senate/Academic Board/Faculty structure, there are specified procedures for filing. If you're not already aware of these, check the Central Records Advice Sheet No 9

If your committee is outside this structure, it is still important that your documentation is filed appropriately, so contact Records for advice.

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Follow-up action

It's good practice to take any required follow-up action as soon as possible after the meeting - that is, before the minutes are finalised.

However, in a case where a minute item is an essential attachment to a letter/email to be sent, send out the letter/email as soon as the minute item is final.

It's useful to run through the final set of minutes to double-check that you've taken all the necessary follow-up action.

If there's an issue in the minutes which will continue at a future meeting (that is. Business in Progress) you might want to put a copy of the item in the relevant agenda folder as a reminder to yourself.

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Sending the minutes to the right people

Check the distribution list of the minutes regularly to make sure that new members have been added, and that those whose period of service has ended have been deleted. From time to time check the lists of those who receive agendas for information to make sure that those who receive it really need it, and those who need it get it.

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Minutes examples

Academic Council minutes illustrate many of the points in this section. You can access them through the Committees page.

While the style of these minutes may be too formal for some committees, they demonstrate the kind of good practice which should be of help to anyone new to writing minutes.

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Guidelines for typing minutes

The standard format for the preparation of minutes template provides guidance on typing minutes. 

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