Writing Skills for Accountants: Avoid the "Top Ten" Writing Errors

Article excerpt

Accountants lose credibility with their clients when their writing betrays a lack of clarity of thought. Writing skills are learned - they do not come naturally to most people. Accounting professionals must recognize where they are most likely to commit writing errors, and then they must train themselves to avoid those mistakes. The authors examine the most commonly committed errors found in a large sample of writing exercises. They recommend that accounting professionals dedicate themselves to improving their writing skills throughout their careers.

Accountants are criticized daily for their shortcomings as writers. Sometimes poor writing betrays a lack of clear thinking, but other times it merely indicates that the writer has not developed his or her writing skills to a professionally acceptable level. This article addresses the latter problem and recommends means by which an accounting professional can improve his or her written communication skills. Professional writing offers a unique set of challenges to both reader and writer. But in a competitive professional environment, one's career success may be best predicted by his/her ability to express ideas and persuade others in written form. By avoiding the common writing errors presented in this paper, accountants can significantly improve their presentation of information to clients and other users of financial information.

Background

In 1989, the Big Eight accounting firms published their now famous "white paper" on proposed improvements in accounting education.[1] In this position paper, the firms expressed their concerns about the future of the accounting profession and the skills necessary for their new employees. In the firms' opinion, the educational system must produce college graduates who have a broad array of skills and knowledge for both the accounting profession and for business. The three skills listed were communication skills, intellectual skills, and interpersonal skills. These skills are not mutually exclusive and cannot be considered in a vacuum. They concluded that the accounting and business curriculum must support all these skills. They called on universities quickly to address these needs or their students would be unable to compete successfully in the professional workforce of the 1990s and 2000s.

The first skill mentioned for success in public accounting was communication. The white paper stated that "practitioners must be able to present and defend their views through formal and informal, written and oral presentation." The implication of this charge is that accounting students and professionals do not currently write in an effective manner. Many factors may have contributed to this problem including the students' preparation in public schools, the influence of television, and the perceived lack of need for writing skills by accounting majors.

Since writing for a business or accounting audience may be seen as more of a craft to learn rather than an art,[2] identifying the most common problems of accounting students could lead to the development of a practice aid that could guide accounting professionals, and current and future students in identifying and eliminating these common errors. The White Paper focused on changes in teaching writing to students, but current as well as future practitioners need to sharpen their communication skills. Using a controlled sample of completed writing products, we can highlight problem areas and recommend both general and specific improvements for those in the practice.

Error Identification

This study attempted to identify the most common writing errors made by accounting majors in the graduate accounting program at San Diego State University. In the 1996-97 academic year, we carefully graded graduate students in a seminar in tax research on their written assignments. Our team included accounting professors who have for several decades developed students' technical skills, and a professional writing specialist dedicated to this project and to the improvement of writing techniques. …