Debits, Credits, and…Edits?

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By Sarah Malcom

July 9, 2013

As accountants, we know the significance of numbers.  But in the process of balancing our debits and credits, it is easy to forget the significance of words.  Although it’s important to develop and maintain our skills in spreadsheets, calculations, and analysis, our writing skills are just as important.

Take for example an audit engagement: the audited financial statements may be (materially) mathematically correct, but if the accompanying report contains grammatical mistakes, poorly-constructed sentences, or ambiguous language, then the audit report suffers as a whole.

Another example is an accountant’s expert report in a fraud investigation.  The calculation of fraud losses becomes ineffective (and the expert may lose credibility) if the report is confusing or puts the jury to sleep.

Just like anything else, good grammar and effective writing require practice and the occasional “refresher” course.  Having some go-to resources and easy rules of thumb readily accessible makes the task a little less daunting for those of us who typically have numbers on the brain.

Here’s a checklist of some simple grammar “ground rules” to keep in mind as you’re writing:

  • Be concise – Don’t use thirty words where ten will do.
  • Use active verbs – Whenever possible, construct your sentences with a subject, a verb, and an object, in that order.
  • Avoid passive verbs that make sentences too lengthy.
  • Substitute short words for long words when possible – Long words aren’t necessarily better or more impressive.
  • Don’t nominalize – Adding suffixes like “ity” or “tion” to adjectives, verbs, and nouns bogs down sentences and can make the report dull.  (“Investigate” becomes “investigation” and “intense” becomes “intensity”.) 
  • Use audience-appropriate language. 
  • Avoid jargon.
  • Explain technical terms and terms of art.
  • Use bulleted or numbered lists instead of paragraphs when appropriate.
  • Run spell check – This won’t catch grammatical mistakes, but it can alert you to misspellings that you may have missed.

Before issuing anything in writing, always do a final read-through for anything listed in the checklist above.  Reading through a report at least once just for grammar reveals mistakes that you may not have seen when you were focused on the content.  And of course, have someone unrelated to the report read it through as well.  They may catch something you didn’t!

For more tips, visit the Plain English Campaign website.  If you want a fun way to test your writing style, check out The WritersDiet Test online and see if your writing is “flabby” or “fit”!