Writing in accounting
Accountants spend one third of their time writing, according to a survey conducted by Nellermoe, Weirich, and Reinstein (1999, as cited by Cleaveland & Larkins, 2004). They must document processes, clarify issues, and propose actions for both internal and external audiences. Beyond a corporate setting, accountants who wish to sit for the professional accounting exams must also polish their writing for time-constrained writing scenarios.
Why effective writing matters
Perceptions of competency are often tied to effective writing. Accountants with stronger written communication skills than their peers are associated with greater job satisfaction, faster career advancement and higher performance evaluations (Cleaveland & Larkins, 2004). Therefore, it is beneficial for accounting students to build a strong writing foundation now to meet the expectations of business writing in their futures.
Clear, concise, correct
Regardless of how much an individual might know, poor presentation of their research and analysis damages their credibility. Disentangling the meaning of sentences or reading through irrelevant information can waste an audience’s time. Correct reporting with both words and numbers is at the basis of the accounting discipline. This resource highlights the common writing issues of accounting students and the impact these issues have on the audience.
Wordiness can be seen in ineffective use of passive voice, nominalization and unnecessary words. While these issues are technically grammatically correct, they prolong the message without conveying any additional relevant information.
Example: As a strategic shift for the company, the decision that the operations would be stopped, the factory would be sold, and the selling process would be initiated was made by the company’s CEO.
Issues with wordiness:
- Passive voice: Since the subject (the CEO) is unknown until the end, the doer of the action is unclear for most of the time spent reading the sentence.
- Nominalization: Compared to the action verb “decided,” the nominalized version “decision” is weaker and wordier; it requires the additional verbs of “was made” to make sense.
- Unnecessary words: The phrases “for the company” and “the company’s” are extraneous, given the context of strategic shift, operations, factory and CEO.
Revision: As a strategic shift, the CEO decided to stop operations and sell the factory, initiating the selling process.
In the revision, the subject is clearly understood from the beginning, the action verb immediately follows the subject, and each word is relevant. The audience can follow the message in nearly half as many words.
Punctuation can help separate unlike ideas, group like ideas, and provide logic between concepts. Insufficient punctuation use can confuse and exhaust an audience.
Example: The cost of the group of assets acquired must be allocated based on their relative fair values without allowing for goodwill as this was presented in the FASB Accounting Standards Codification (ASC) topic 805-50-30-3 (Business Combinations) above, this is not a business combination situation the company must allocate the total cash consideration of $1,000,000 among the assets.
Run-on sentence punctuation issues:
- There are not enough periods to separate the unlike ideas.
- The commas lack coordinating conjunctions to grammatically group like ideas.
- Using different punctuation and rearranging the phrases could clarify how the ideas connect.
Revision: As this was presented in the FASB Accounting Standards Codification (ASC) topic 805-50-30-3 (Business Combinations) above, the cost of the group of assets acquired must be allocated based on their relative fair values without allowing for goodwill. Because this is not a business combination situation, the company must allocate the total cash consideration of $1,000,000 among the assets.
After our revision, we have two sentences with logically presented ideas. The first sentence summarizes the ASC guidance, and the second sentence analyzes how this guidance applies to the situation.
When citing the codification as support for an accounting stance, the writer must integrate the codification within the context of their scenario. Merely quoting the codification and stating something to the effect of “the company shall record the event in consideration of the guidance above” is not enough. It is unclear to the audience, particularly if they lack accounting knowledge, how they should interpret and apply the guidance.
Questions to ask about proper codification integration:
- If my audience had zero knowledge of how to interpret the codification’s definition/explanation, what would be important for them to understand from the provided codification quotation? (Proper summary.)
- Have I discussed how the codification applies to specific parts of the situation? (Proper analysis/application.)
Though challenging to spot at first glance, faulty modifiers are common grammatical errors that cause ambiguity and misunderstanding. Stout and DaCrema’s article (2004) on faulty modifiers provides an example of such an issue.
Example: “When preparing financial statements, GAAP must be adhered to.”
- The sentence is suggesting that GAAP is preparing financial statements (GAAP is the word being modified).
- By including the actual preparer of the statements, the sentence’s meaning becomes clear.
Revision: “When preparing financial statements, we must adhere to GAAP.”
Sentences beginning with an “...ing” word or phrase usually have a faulty modifier (such as our example with “preparing”). Another way to catch faulty modifiers is to double check that the modifier is placed beside the noun that it is intended to modify.
How we can help
You do not need to do this alone! As a student, you have access to the consultants of the University Writing & Speaking Center. These consultants are trained to address these issues and more, discuss audience impact, and consider alternate phrasing options. Synchronous online or in-person appointments are highly recommended for revising accounting letters, memos and other accounting writing assignments.
- For faulty modifiers: Appendix A (pages 314-318) of the Stout and DaCrema article (2004).
- Information on clarity and concision
- Information on nominalization
- Infomation on run-on sentences
Ashton, R. H. (1998). Writing Accounting Research for Publication and Impact. Journal of Accounting Education, 16,(2), 247–260.
Cleaveland, M. C., & Larkins, E. R. (2004). Web-based Practice and Feedback Improve Tax Students’ Written Communication Skills. Journal of Accounting Education, 22, 211–228.
Stout, D. E., & DaCrema, J. J. (2004). A writing intervention for the accounting classroom: dealing with the problem of faulty modifiers. Journal of Accounting Education, 22, 289–323.