With the words ‘credit’ and ‘crunch’ hot on the lips of most people, being
frugal has never been more fashionable. For most workplaces, frugality means
carrying out tasks efficiently. And effectively managing writing skills is one
area that can literally pay dividends.
The figures certainly add up. In fact, it’s been suggested that UK businesses
lose £6bn a year because of poorly written letters. Other research has shown
that the Ministry of Defence managed to save itself around £350,000 simply by
revising its claim form for travel allowances. Writing it in clearer English
reduced the time spent completing it by 10%, the processing time by 15% and the
error rate by 50%. Bad writing is clearly a money and time drain. So, it’s not
surprising that leading firms such as Deloitte, Ernst & Young and Grant
Thornton have commissioned specialist writing training programmes.
Explaining figures with clarity is a craft that can be learned. And it is
especially important when dealing with non-accountants. HR professionals and
sales directors, for instance, will not necessarily have a great deal of
technical knowledge. They simply want written documents that are clear and easy
to understand. Your writing should express the information in a persuasive and
instantly understandable way. Whether you’re working on an internal memo, a
report or a financial statement, you shouldn’t have to orally explain what you
mean after delivering a document.
Writing is as important as technical knowledge. Once you have the skills good
writing costs nothing, but its effects can be priceless. Changing the way you
and your organisation write is a smart investment for the future. So take charge
of your words, and follow these dos and don’ts for becoming a more efficient
Focus on your reader
The first thing is to think carefully about who you’re writing for.
Anticipate the questions and objections your readers may have, and address them
in your work. Increasingly, accountants are being called on to work in business
support roles, dealing with people without a background in finance. Ask yourself
what you really want your readers to take from your writing and make sure you
discuss issues on a level they will understand.
Don’t dump your ideas on the page
If you’re writing a report and you’ve done a lot of research, it’s tempting
to put all the information in to give the reader ‘value for money’. However,
pruning down your ideas and making complex, technical information
reader-friendly is a much better bet. Think critically about the issues and then
decide on a point of view. Don’t forget to plan.
‘Spidergrams’ (writing down the main theme in the middle of the page, then
branching out from there) work well. But if they’re not for you, try writing
down absolutely everything you want to say in your document in any random order.
Then go through and group ideas together that have things in common. Then decide
which order these groups of things should go in. You’ll soon have an effective
Clarify your main message
Know what you really want to say. For instance, do you want to give practical
accounting advice, a round up of accounting theory or your predictions for the
future? The words what, where, when, how, why and who are a useful prompt for
further organising your ideas. Remember, it’s easy to lose credibility with
clients if your writing suggests fuzzy thoughts.
Don’t use flowery phrases
When it comes to money, wordy writing can make clients suspicious. Cut out
any long-winded phrases, and avoid clichés and jargon. It almost goes without
saying, but tired phrases like, ‘it’s a game of two halves’ are best left to the
Use active language
Traditionally, accounting writing has been institutionalised and formal.
Although using the active voice and expressing an opinion can seem like
dangerous ground, it’s likely that your clients will see it as refreshing. So
say ‘we suggest implementing a new financial structure’ rather than ‘a new
financial structure should be implemented’.
Don’t ignore grammar, punctuation and spelling
It can be such a relief to finally finish a document that you forget to weed
out typos and other mistakes. Don’t forget that how you present your work is
vital to how it’s received.
Robert Ashton is chief executive of business-writing
How writing skills training worked for the Big Four
The knowledge services team of our accountancy client had to write reports
explaining current and future industry trends and showing how these trends will
affect the firm and its clients. The problem was that these reports were
overwritten, vague, filled with jargon and offered no definitive viewpoint.
They found it difficult to write clearly about material that was both
complex and technical. This meant that many of the reports were written in a
flabby style without a clear opinion or conclusion.
Emphasis designed a training programme focusing on how to write in a clear,
succinct style that expresses a strong opinion and influences readers. The
training included techniques for creating an attention-grabbing introduction and
a concise, powerful executive summary, and guidance on translating technical
information for a non-technical, strategic audience.
The training showed the accountants how to communicate technical issues clearly
and express an opinion. The reports now offer real strategic insight and genuine
market knowledge in a way that is easily accessible to both colleagues and
To date, over 1,000 people – from graduate trainees to senior partners – have
participated in the training programme, which is driving a cultural change in
writing throughout the firm.
Everyone understands that their writing needs to make an impact and show the
clients how to compete in a changing market, rather that just present a piece of
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