Please enjoy this excerpt from “Audit Reporting:Yellow Book Style“
Chapter 8: Overview of the Writing Process
- Order the steps of the writing process
Now you know what the standards say and you can see that you still have plenty of flexibility. You have a range of options. You can:
- define what good writing means to your shop
- design your own audit and audit report writing process
- choose which elements your report will contain
- define your audience and how best to serve them
- decide what tone your reports will take
- decide how long and detailed your reports will be
I get to see plenty of interesting reporting habits in my job. CPAs in public practice, or external auditors, tend to write very short reports. The less said, the better, seems to be their motto. They often leave out several elements of the finding — commonly the effect and the cause — because they don’t do the extra work to uncover these elements.
Governmental agencies tend to go on and on and on, using the elements and throwing in a ton of other information, such as background information, methodology, and other stuff they think the reader might need.
In the summer of 2007, I taught writing classes to two different groups back-to-back: one, a CPA firm in a northern state, and another, a federal agency. With both teams, I said several things that stuck in their craws, but what upset them was different.
The CPA firm didn’t want to hear that they should develop all of the elements and go do extra work to back up each of the elements.
The CPA firm did not like hearing that the GAO cared about the quality of their reports and that their reports should be designed for maximum readability by the client.
The federal agency didn’t like hearing that their findings were way too long (most went on for four pages) and that the users were very likely to lose interest. They felt that every paragraph was necessary.
The federal agency did not like hearing that I could not follow the logic of their reports and that most of their users would probably enjoy a shorter version. I didn’t even bother to tell them about my philosophy regarding half-page executive summaries. Their executive summary was eight pages long. That is longer than any CPA’s whole audit report!
Who is right here? Well, I am of course! Wait . . . that isn’t true. The Yellow Book doesn’t tell you how long reports should be or recommend a particular format. As we have already seen, the GAO tells us which elements should be included but doesn’t tell us the order of the elements or the length.
This is all stuff you are going to have to make up for your team and all agree to follow. You should document what you expect from a report and your team should refer to the document during report review. Anything that the document does not cover is not fodder for discussion. If you did not set it up as an expectation, it is unfair to pick on someone for it. Do everything you can to be clear about what you want and be consistent in your application of your expectations.
Before you reach the planning phase in writing your report, you should consider ways to make the process move quickly. Let’s look at ways to streamline the writing process.
3-8-1 Streamline Your Writing Using the Nine-Step Process
How long does it take you to get your reports out? And how painful is it?
Have you ever seen a fat doctor eating a bacon cheeseburger, drinking a scotch, and smoking a cigarette? Disturbing, isn’t it?
Have you ever seen an audit shop with crazy, mixed-up,inefficient processes that don’t make any sense? Even more disturbing!
Physician, or auditor, heal thyself!
No one knows better than an auditor that most crazy processes grow crazier over time. Someone adds a step here and a step there, and before you know it you have a dozen silly steps that take three months to do.
In order to reduce the pain of the reporting process, you need to spend a little time now thinking about what you are doing and why. That will lead to ideas for streamlining your reporting process.
I recommend that you sit down with key members of your team and administrative staff and put each step of the reporting process on its own sticky note. Then stick all of the steps of the process on the wall, in order. Then ask the team to come up with ideas for streamlining the process.
The nine-step process will guide you in covering all of the bases. The nine-step writing process actually has 4 phases:
In the planning phase, you decide what you are going to say. In the drafting phase, you create full sentences to fill in your plan. In the editing phase, you hone your document to perfect it. And in the formatting phase, you make your document visually appealing.
In our nine-step process, the first three steps are the planning phase. Steps 4 and 5 make up the drafting phase. Steps 6 through 8 are the editing phase, and step 9 is the formatting phase.
- Outline an initial objective, scope, and methodology section
- Outline the detail section
- Get your thoughts on paper
- Fill out the finding form
- Evaluate and reorganize
- Evaluate evidence gathered
- Outline an initial executive summary
- Draft the objective, scope, methodology, detail section, and executive summary
- Draft the remaining pieces of the report
- Edit the entire report for organization
- Edit the entire report for readability
- Edit the entire report for mechanical correctness
- Enhance the format of the report
Ideally, you spend about 45% of your total writing time in planning, 15% in drafting, 35% in editing, and 5% in formatting.
Here’s another way of looking at the writing process:
- Gather information
- Freak out
- Flesh out
In this six-step process, gathering information occurs in the audit phase (see Chapter 2), while freaking out and organizing take place during the planning phase. Fleshing out your outline is the same as drafting your audit report. And after you tweak, or edit, your document, you need to beautify, or format, the report.
3-8-2 Tips for Using the Nine-Step Process
3-8-2A Make it Easy on Yourself: Do Each Step Individually
Treating each of these steps as separate and distinct will help you write faster and help you create more logical documents. It is also a lot more fun.
If you combine any of the phases together, you get chaos and frustration.
For instance, if you plan what you are going to write as you draft it, you end up rambling on; you start one place and end up another. This makes editing excruciating!
If you edit while you draft, you may never finish. You may write the same sentence four times. And usually after that much rewriting, you need a coffee break . . . and then you start again, and break again, and start again. . . . At the end of the day, you have finished a whopping whole paragraph. EW!
Each phase in itself is manageable and contains a little bit of fun. Do each task individually, as the nine-step process recommends, and the process will be much easier.
3-8-2B Delay Creating Full Sentences for as Long as Possible
This is one of the biggest time saving tips of all time! Don’t rush to the concrete. Once you write a sentence, you become married to it, and you may not be able to see its flaws. You have spent time and effort choosing each word and arranging the words intelligently. Woe be it to the jerk that puts a red pen to your masterpiece!
What I often found in my role as editor at an audit office is that whole paragraphs would disappear after I had come to a big-picture understanding of the piece. Talk about PAIN. Whole families of sentences would get wiped out!
Eventually, I figured out that if I asked the team to submit an outline of their report or finding to me before they wrote full sentences, we minimized the pain considerably. No one cares much if you move a single phrase around or eliminate it and replace it with something else. There isn’t that much attachment to the phrases in the outline; the staff is still flexible at this point.
In our step-by-step process, I recommend that you show a reviewer an outline (STEP 2) before you draft (STEP 3). By planning first and drafting and editing later, you allow yourself and your reviewer more flexibility.
Don’t you just hate it when someone rewrites your sentence? Don’t give your reviewer more than a few chances to do that. First, show them a rough sketch outline and hold off showing them your draft with full sentences until they have agreed to the logical organization of your document.
To reiterate, get agreement from staff, supervisors, managers, directors, and the client at the outline stage before writing full sentences. Try it, you’ll like it!
3-8-2C Get Buy-in Along the Way
Turn in deliverables to your reviewer or supervisor as you go. This way, you reduce the possibility that the supervisor will be surprised or displeased with the final product.
At a minimum, you should present the following items for approval before you proceed to the next step:
- objective, scope, and methodology
- finding form
- outline or draft of the executive summary
- outline or draft of the standard letters
- outline or draft of each detailed issue
3-8-2D Share with Others
You shouldn’t go this alone. As scary as it is to share your ideas and your writing with others, it always helps to clarify your thoughts and improve your message. Before you draft, find someone whose opinion you respect, and let that person read your outline. Ask:
- Do you like my approach to this finding?
- Do you think the recommendation is sound? Is this something the client will implement?
- Should I be happy if the client implements this recommendation? If the client does what I am asking, would I be able to leave them alone about this issue on the next audit?
- Can you think of another effect for this issue? An effect that may have more impact on the reader?
- What changes do you suggest?
- Do you think I am ready to proceed to creating full sentences for this issue?
You might be surprised by what you hear because the longer you work with your reports, the less objective you become.
3-8-2E Create the Executive Summary First
You can create the executive summary BEFORE the outline of the entire report. You can think of the executive summary as a highlight of the essential points you want your report to convey. You can use the executive summary to dictate the issues you develop in the detail section. We will discuss the executive summary to a greater extent in the next chapter.
The executive summary can actually be done BEFORE you develop the findings. The elevator speech you want to make can often shape the findings that you develop to support it.
If you did a good job writing the audit objective and if the answer to the audit objective is compelling and interesting, then the elevator speech will be easy — as will the executive summary.