Professional focus: business writing for accountants

For accountants, effective writing skills can be as important as the ability to crunch the numbers. Your professional development and competitive edge depend as much on your ability to communicate what you’ve found as the findings and recommendations themselves.

So what are some of the key writing challenges accountants face when trying to do this?

Explain and present research

Your ability to clearly present and explain research is vital, whether you’re writing an accounting memorandum for a client, an analysis of business performance for management or a report on financial analysis for non-accountants.

Resist the urge to cram in absolutely everything you know or have found out, regardless of its relevance to your reader or to the issue at hand. You’ll get no points for including superfluous information for the sake of showing how much research you’ve done. Faced with an overload of seemingly irrelevant information, your reader is more likely to give up – or at least miss the point you’re trying to make.

The best way to avoid this is to plan. Free your mind by getting away from your computer and picking up a pen. Write the topic in the middle of a page and brainstorm every who, what, when, where, how and why; then group ideas according to relevance and cross out anything that doesn’t concern your reader. Use appendices for non-essential information or full versions of tax codes you make reference to.

Unambiguous writing will not only make your explanations easy to follow and understand, but is also important if you are one of multiple contributors to a document. Whether someone else will be continuing your research or reviewing it, the issues should not be open to interpretation. One way to ensure this is by keeping sentences short and simple: around 15 to 20 words on average. Another is by using the active voice whenever possible.

Finally, use subheadings to further guide and interest your reader and make it easy for them to return to particular sections later. Don’t use vague and generic headings such as ‘Our experience’; something like ‘40 years in business’ is better. The subheads alone should provide an overview of the full document, and clearly signpost the reader’s way through it.

Persuade and influence

In much of what you write, you’ll be aiming to influence your reader to take some kind of action. Whether you’re asking an external investor for funding or convincing colleagues to get budgets over to you, persuading your reader to reach the same conclusion as you means guiding their thinking in a logical way.

A good way to do this is to use the 4Ps structure:

Position

Start by explaining where you – or they – are now. Showing you understand how things are should get them nodding in agreement.

Problem

Next describe the problem or issue that demonstrates that something needs to change.

Possibilities

Now you prove your expertise by showing you’ve already come up with possible solutions. Make the pros and cons of each clear – including the option of doing nothing. (If there is only one possibility, skip straight from ‘problem’ to ‘proposal’.)

Proposal

Finally, state which course of action you recommend, as well as what the reader needs to do next.

For business plans and reports, use this format for the executive summary, too – just write less for each part. Remember: your readers are as busy as you are, and the summary may be the only part they have time to read. Make sure, then, that it contains real information.

Use the active voice – in other words, put the performer of the action before the action itself. Doing so makes cause and effect more explicit, and calls to action more obvious. Compare ‘Please review your department’s spending’, which directly requests the reader do something, with ‘it is necessary for a thorough review of departmental spending to be carried out’, which doesn’t.

Writing for different audiences

How you write should always be influenced by whom it is you’re writing for: not everything will be intended for financially minded people. Be ready to adapt your writing’s content and style accordingly.

So, rather than alienate your reader, ask yourself the following questions before you begin any document and adapt your writing accordingly:

Who will read what I’m about to write?

How much do they already know about the subject?

What do they absolutely need to know?

How important is the subject matter to them?

What are the important numbers?

Would some of the information be better presented in a graph or table?

When you write for fellow finance experts, jargon and abbreviations can be a great shortcut to total clarity. But for people outside your profession, terms such as ‘below the line’, ‘variance analysis’ and ‘pro-forma’ or abbreviations such as LIFO and GAAP [EBITDA is my favourite – Ed] could be meaningless and off-putting. Try to find everyday alternatives. Or, if using certain terms is unavoidable, be sure to explain them on the first use.

Text stuffed with numbers can also be alarming and difficult to process for the uninitiated. Instead, put figures into graphs and tables and refer to them in the text. Be sure to explain what they mean for the reader.

Putting it into practice

It can seem like an uphill struggle to change your working habits, especially when you have clients waiting for reports, but try applying these techniques every time you write. Soon enough, not only will the process begin to feel more natural, but you’ll also find you’re using your time more efficiently. When everything you write counts, everyone benefits: you, your fellow accountants and, most of all, your clients.

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