of the Myth: CPAs Do Have to Write
Mark Chiurri and Anna Varaksina
MAY 2006 - The
importance of writing and communication proficiency in accounting
cannot be overemphasized. Most employers consider this skill
set to be crucial when hiring, often viewing it as more important
than a high grade-point average. Effective writing is vital
when dealing with customers, authorities, and other professionals.
The need for precise and clear language also serves as a response
to investors’ concerns about the ambiguity and complexity
of professional documents. Alan Reinstein, Thomas R. Weirich,
and Donald A. Nellermoe, commenting on an SEC ruling on simplifying
the language of financial language, in “Implications
of US Securities and Exchange Commission Rule #33-7380 in
the Improvement of Accounting Students’ Writing Skills”
(Managerial Auditing Journal, December 1999), said:
“The SEC, denouncing dense writing styles, legal jargon,
and repetitive disclosures in various prospectuses, issued
Rule #33-7380 entitled ‘Plain English disclosures,’
which requires registrants to use ‘plain English’
in a prospectus’s cover page, summary and risk factor
Michael Devlin, of Grant Thornton, and Paul Ferreira, of
Ercolini & Co., say they spend about three hours a day
producing documentation, and feel it to be an important
part of their professional lives. According to Devlin and
Ferreira, the primary written documents that most CPA firms
are involved with include:
Financial statements and other special reports, which
include a firm’s opinions;
correspondence with clients and firm personnel;
Workpaper review comments for follow-up by managers and
Various tax forms for tax authorities and clients.
SEC requires accountants to follow six principles when writing
voice. According to experts such as Elizabeth
Danziger (“Writing in Plain English,” Journal
of Accountancy, July 1997), verbs in the active voice leave
a stronger impression on the reader and remove possible
ambiguities. Devlin recognizes this as one of the biggest
mistakes in the writing he sees on a daily basis.
journalist Glenn Cheney (“Word Crunching: A Primer
For Accountants,” Journal of Accountancy,
March 1990), however, argues that sometimes the passive
voice is appropriate in professional writing. He says it
could be done to “make an accusation less pointed,
to avoid responsibility and to avoid implying personal relationships.”
sentences. Many experts say that long sentences
often confuse and overload readers, making them do extra
work to find the real meaning. Danziger suggests that each
sentence should consist of a maximum of 18 words. Devlin
advises accountants not to get too creative and to write
in a way that is easy for the reader to understand.
language. Reinstein states that “clearer
communications result when writers and readers use definite
and concrete words.” He also suggests using examples
to help break down information and make it less complex
for readers. Devlin strongly agrees, adding that it is especially
important in financial statements due to the “substantial
risk of ambiguity and inadvertent misstatement.”
presentation of complex material. This technique
helps to better organize complex information. Breaking it
down into subgroups by indenting and adding white space
also makes finding necessary data easier and draws readers’
attention to certain details.
legal jargon. Reinstein calls for “minimizing
legal jargon and highly technical terms.” Accountants
should not assume that readers are highly knowledgeable
about accounting. Cheney says that “the highfalutin
language of academia belongs in dissertations, not in memos,
reports and letters.”
multiple negatives. Avoiding multiple negatives helps
avoid possible misunderstandings in interpreting financial
a Better Writer
and Devlin offer suggestions for accountants striving to
become better writers:
Read on a daily basis, including not only professional
literature, but also editorials, such as those found in
the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
Do proper research.
Plan, edit, and proofread.
the role of accountants has gone far beyond number-crunching.
Accountants must be effective writers and communicators
to present their work to other professionals and authorities
in the proper manner. They also must use precise, clear
language to make documents easy to comprehend, avoiding
possible misunderstandings, embarrassment, or even litigation.
Chiurri and Anna Varaksina are accounting
students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass.