Whas'up with Your Team's Writing?
The Root of Writing Problems
"What kind of writing issues does your staff have?"
When a potential client calls to ask me to conduct a writing seminar, this is one of my first questions. It was my first question when I was asked to be an editor and writing coach at the Texas State Auditor’s Office.
Invariably, the project manager, manager, or director with whom I am chatting says, "My staff just doesn’t know how to write! They need help!"
So I dig a little deeper.
"Are they unable to write clear sentences?"
The response is usually, "No, they can write sentences. I end up having to fix a lot of their sentences, but they can write sentences."
"Is the problem grammar or spelling?" I ask.
"No, not really. That is easily fixed."
"Is it that the concepts are unclear or disjointed? Do the reports make any sense?"
"I think that is the real problem. The staff doesn’t seem to be able to focus on what is important about an issue, and we go round and round and round trying to distill what the main issue is. It takes us way too long. Sometimes it takes us over a month to get a report out."
Are you laughing to yourself right now? You may be thinking:
- A month! I wish we could get our reports out that fast!
- A month! What are those people thinking? We take a week at the most.
- Yes, a month is how long it takes us, and that is ridiculous.
Would you believe that some audit teams only take a few days to issue a report? Would you believe that some audit teams take six or more months? Yep, it’s true. I have been in the profession for over 20 years and have worked with a variety of audit shops and firms, and I have seen the gamut.
And what I found, both as a writing coach and as a writing instructor, is that all of the problems with writing usually stem from a few simple problems:
On the front end, the powers that be are not clear about what they expect the audit report to look like. The reporting process is broken. The powers that be are control freaks who won’t allow the staff to have their own voices.
Did you notice whom I was holding accountable for problems in those bullets? The directors, managers, and project supervisors call to ask me to fix their staff, when it is really the director, manager, or project supervisor that is causing the problem! Not convinced? Hang in with me as I use the guidance of the Yellow Book (Government Auditing Standards) to help us out of this quagmire!
Four Criteria for Good Business Writing
Many moons ago, I read a great book titled The Basics of Business Writing by Marty Stuckey. She really hit the nail on the head when she listed four criteria for good business writing.
I adapted them to make them sound more audit-y. Here goes:
Principle #1: A Good Audit Report Engages the Reader’s Attention
Let’s face it: we have a challenge before us. Audit reports aren’t well known for being engaging or entertaining. To make our reports appealing, we have to create user-friendly formats, meaningful titles, and enticing content. Yes, enticing content!
Principle #2: A Good Audit Report Persuades the Reader That Change Should Occur
All statements lead to the recommendation! Your recommendation is the core of the report. It is the reason clients pay you. They want to know what they need to do better. And you’d better tell them clearly and convincingly.
Later in this text, we are going to talk about the elements of a persuasive argument, also known in the Yellow Book as the elements of a finding. Each element is designed to support the recommendation.
Some folks think that the purpose of an audit report is to inform. I disagree. Information without action is boring and unhelpful. As a professional, take the additional step and advise the client what should be done to mitigate the risks you uncover.
Persuasive audit reports have a clear purpose: to elicit change. Only audit reports with clear, feasible recommendations have the potential to elicit change. Otherwise, everyone is too confused to act!
Also, to persuade a reader to change, the recommendation must be supported by good, logically organized evidence.
Principle #3: A Good Audit Report is Mercifully Brief
Because audit reports are not an enjoyable mystery novel or a juicy magazine, the best way to make them tolerable is to cut their length.
Good business writing makes its point and leaves the reader alone to take care of other business. We will discuss the length of audit reports in Chapter 3.
Principle #4: A Good Audit Report is Clear and Well Organized
The best audit reports have a clear, logical structure. One of the best ways to ensure good organization is to use a structure.
Reporters answer the questions: Who, What? Why? Where? And How? And auditors usually spell out the condition, effect, cause, criteria and recommendation—all elements of a good persuasive argument.
Writing without a structure is messy and will cause you to ramble on and on in a disjointed fashion.
How the book is organized
No doubt about it, the clearer you are about what you want, the more likely you are to get it! As my mama always said, "You can’t get what you want until you know what you want!"
This book is divided into four sections. This first section focuses on general business writing and issues that need to be addressed before we begin the writing process. Next, in Section 2, we review the standards for writing audit reports. In the third section, we discuss the nine-step writing process, and the final section covers how to coach writers to improve their writing.
In order for your report to have any impact at all, it has to be written so that your intended audience can digest it. And to do this, you have to follow some basic rules of writing etiquette.
In the first chapter of Section 1, we looked at some basics of good business writing. Chapter 2 clarifies the importance of the audit process in writing the report and discusses ways to improve the audit process. And in Chapter 3, we help you determine whom your audience is and how to remove those hurdles that you set up for your reader. We also discuss different tones you can use in your reports and the effects they have on the audience, and how long your reports should be.
Next, in Section 2, we look at what the audit standards say we have to do. First, we review the basics of audits and the standard-setting bodies, discuss how the standards work together, and contrast the Yellow Book standards and AICPA standards (Chapter 4). Then, our focus is on the various reporting standards for financial audits in Chapter 5 and turns to the reporting standards for performance audits in Chapter 6. The last chapter in this section discusses the IIA standards and the AICPA standards for audit reports.
At this point, we have a much clearer idea of what we want. The next question is, "How do we get it?" So that is the topic of Section 3. Here we cover a step-by-step process for creating the audit report of your dreams … okay, that is taking things a little too far. We learn how to create an audit report that someone is compelled to read. This section is divided into four chapters that correspond with the major aspects of the nine-step process: planning, drafting, editing, and formatting.
Then, our last section discusses coaching techniques and tips to help you help your team improve their audit reports. In general, writers are very self-conscious about and protective of their writing. Men and women who normally exude self-confidence turn into nervous schoolchildren when they have to talk about their writing. And Chapter 12 provides guidance for coaching to make these experiences less painful—for you AND the writer!