Verbal communication: solving the literal maze

Listen to this accountant offering some no doubt wise advice to a client:
‘The requirement that deductibility is contingent on expenditure being incurred
for the purpose of gaining or producing assessable income is common to the
provisions relating to both registration and other expenditure.

‘It does not mean that there must be assessable income arising from the
business. All that is required is that the business must be put to use for the
ultimate objective of producing assessable income.

‘However, where expenditure is incurred for purposes that include the purpose
of producing assessable income, deductibility will only be to the extent that
producing assessable income is the purpose for incurring expenditure.’ Got that?

As an accountant, you can probably find your way to the centre of this verbal
maze given enough time. But that’s not the point. The client couldn’t. He’d
asked for advice and after he’d read this letter he would be none the wiser.

We’re all agreed that accountants are hot stuff when it comes to handling
numbers. The trouble is that, when it comes to writing, some of them are lost
for words. The result is letters, memos – even whole reports – which read as
though they’ve been written by a Dalek.

But bad writing is bad business. Partly, that’s because the writing is the
business. When you send a proposal to a client, a letter of appointment to a
prospective employee or even an e-mail apologising for a mistake, the words
define your intentions. If the words are unclear so are your intentions.

Bad impression

But bad writing also gives a poor impression. When customers, suppliers or
partners read something that is badly written, they can be forgiven for asking
themselves: should I be doing business with these people?

So it’s not surprising that many accountants want to raise the standard of
their written output. But that’s not easy at a time when there are claims that
general standards of literacy are lower than for many years – and falling.

Earlier this year, the House of Common’s Public Accounts Committee published
a report (Skills for Life) which revealed that 12 million employees have
literacy abilities no better than an 11-year-old. ‘The low level of literacy and
numeracy in the adult population is bad for national productivity and bad for
those individuals who may struggle to cope with work and daily living,’ noted
Edward Leigh MP, the PAC’s chairman.

The future looks even bleaker. Cambridge University reported, also earlier
this year, that the number of spelling mistakes in exam papers made by pupils
gaining A to E grades at GCSE had doubled between 1980 and 2004. Today’s
youngsters – tomorrow’s young professionals – are spelling one in every 50 words

Simple steps

There is no easy way to raise standards of workplace writing, short of
accountants and their support staff working hard to raise their own game. They
could do worse than apply a simple six-step approach when they have to write

First, think. Ask four simple questions about what you have to write. Why do
I need to write this? What is the most appropriate form for it, such as a
letter, memo or report? Who am I writing it for? And what information will they
expect me to provide?

Second, gather information. It’s much easier to write clearly if you have a
solid grasp of all the information you need before you start pounding your

Third, plan. It’s worth spending a moment planning what you intend to write
even if it’s only a brief e-mail. With longer writing assignments, such as
reports, planning enables you to define the overall structure of your document.

Fourth, write. Use plain English words rather than jargon. Generally, keep
sentences short – although you should vary their length to improve readability.
Write in direct rather than indirect English. For example, ‘I’ve sent you the
budget report’ is easier to understand than ‘the budget report has been sent to
you by me’.

Fifth, review. Read through what you’ve written to make sure you’ve given all
the information your readers expect. Look at what you’ve written from their
point of view. Will they understand what you’ve written, or will they be
confused by jargon or technical terms?

Sixth, revise. Taking time to improve a document often delivers exponential
benefits in readability. That’s because you should improve the very parts that
would otherwise cause a reader difficulties.

It’s no use pretending writing well at work is easy. It requires commitment,
a desire to learn and a willingness to accept constructive criticism. But with
those three, there is no reason why any accountant should be lost for words.


The top five mistakes

1 The roving pronoun. ‘Jon Brown has discussed the paperwork
with Tom Smith and he will deal with it. ’Who is ‘he’? Brown or Smith? If it’s
Brown, write ‘Brown has discussed the paperwork with Smith and will deal with
it. ’If Smith, ‘Brown has discussed the paperwork with Smith who will deal with

2 Subject-verb confusion. ‘The budget report shows sales are
falling and has not improved since the beginning of the year. ’Because it’s the
sales which have not improved – not the budget – the verb needs to be plural,
‘have’ not ‘has’.

3 Word order muddle. ‘The managing director was asked to
deal with petty theft in the office by the board of directors. ’Kleptomaniac
directors? Not on this occasion. The sentence should read: ‘The managing
director was asked by the board of directors to deal with petty theft in the

4 The Is have it. ‘Janet Snipe and me will be going to the
meeting. ’When you’re the subject of the sentence, you should be ‘I’. When
you’re the object of the sentence,you should be ‘me’.

5 Aberrant apostrophes. Once a rarity, now a plague in
sentences like: ‘The 1990’s were the year’s in which several businesses’ felt
the recessions impact on their sale’s. ’Every apostrophe is wrong.
But there should be one between the ‘n’ and ‘s’ of ‘recessions’.

Related reading