Have you ever had a conversation when you say one thing and the person you are talking to hears something completely different?
As an AAT tutor I have to consider not only the words and phrases I use, but how they’re received and understood, in order to ensure that I have communicated effectively and accurately. Written words require the same contemplation and in many respects more deliberation than spoken words, as they are a permanent and often public record of thoughts and ideas that cannot be questioned or clarified.
Accountancy is as much about words as it is numbers, requiring numerous exchanges of information between colleagues and clients. As it’s also a profession, there are expectations about the quality of that communication both in terms of content and the style of its presentation.
Here are three areas to consider when writing reports in a professional style, which can be applied in the workplace or taken into consideration when preparing for your assessments.
Everyone has a background context they apply to what they read. So before writing a report, consideration should be given to the reader’s perspective, especially if some action is required from them afterwards. Students are expected to have looked at the assessment criteria and structured their draft to cover all the requirements. Peter Sleigh, a Level 4 tutor at Tameside College, says ”that way, I can support students with their analysis and content right from the start, rather than having to cover the basic format, which AAT has already specified.”
Nichola Coles, a partner at Hallidays has similar expectations of her team members. “I want to be able to focus on the content of a report that has been written for a client without having to correct the format or style. Everyone at Hallidays is expected to write professionally as clients can form their opinions about the firm based on the quality of the reports we produce.”
To help writers accommodate their reader’s perspective, companies often have style guides that include rules such as prohibiting the use of exclamation marks, emoticons and text speak, acronyms and contractions. They may also have templates for common business documents to ensure consistency. Using the correct templates and abiding by guidelines, will ensure the reader’s focus is on the content of the report rather than being distracted by an inappropriate style or layout.
The formality of the language used will also influence the tone of writing and effect how clearly the content is communicated. As the purpose of a professional report is to objectively communicate relevant information in a clear, succinct and logical way, it requires a style that is easy to read but should not be friendly or too familiar. Whilst the use of third person may be too formal, it is not appropriate to address the reader or use the first person. “Writing as we speak comes naturally and is a good way of getting initial ideas down on paper,” says Sleigh. “However, it needs formalising as a report progresses, and constructing sentences that don’t use ‘I’ or ‘you’ takes practice.”
Edit and polish
Significant investments in time and effort are usually made in researching and preparing the content of a report. Once that is complete, more endeavour is required to write up the information using meaningful sentences to present it in an accurate, objective and coherent way. The thought of then proof-reading can often be too onerous. However, it is an essential part of professional writing as there is nothing like a spelling mistake to instantly undo all previous efforts. Sleigh observes, “Learner’s frequently use text speak and mistakenly rely on the computer to auto correct their work.”
It goes without saying that reports should be free from spelling mistakes and punctuated correctly, but ensuring that the content flows and the sentence construction is interesting yet concise is another matter. Planning the compilation of a report to ensure adequate time is put aside to research, write, edit and polish is essential at each stage and often neglected in the last two. A break between completing the first draft and then the initial proof-read is helpful, as it allows time for the author to forget what they wrote and therefore read what is written rather than what they think they wrote.
The initial proof-read should focus on the big picture:
- Is the subject and purpose clear?
- Does the report stay on topic, conveying the information required?
- Is the structure logical and an aid to the reader’s understanding?
- Does the report flow, with points that are introduced, expanded and then concluded?
The details should be polished on the second proof-read:
- Cut out unnecessary words – descriptive words such as “very”, “rather”, “certainly” may be expendable.
- Check for mixed tenses, double negatives and inappropriate capitalisation.
- Be wary of words that are correctly spelt but incorrect – ‘where’ when it should be ‘were’.
- Write in positive language – ‘The proposal will not be considered until the report has been submitted’ could be re-written as ‘The proposal will be considered once the report has been submitted.’
- Use active voice sentences – ‘The proposal was considered by the team’ could be made clearer, less wordy and therefore more active by turning it around and stating, ‘The team considered the proposal.’
- Avoid colloquialisms – because whilst “the devil is in the detail” if there are no devils in the report then they should not be referenced.
The third proof-read is best done by someone else as long as confidential information is not being disclosed. Choose someone with knowledge of the topic who will be able to give constructive criticism and will examine the report carefully.
The final scan should ensure that the report is easy to read. If the reader’s perspective has been taken into account the report will accurately communicate its topic as the style of writing will emphasise the reader’s needs instead of the writer’s.
Accounting professionals are usually more comfortable calculating rather than writing. However, when those calculations need to be analysed and explained to others, maybe from non-financial backgrounds, taking care to write in a clear, unambiguous and well-structured way will ensure a professional delivery of accurate content.
Read more on writing skills;
- 9 Writing tips to help you through your studies
- The most common writing mistakes accountants make (and how to avoid them)
- Why students fail assessments
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Gill Myers is a self-employed accounts consultant. She has taught AAT qualifications since 2005 and written numerous articles and e-learning resources.