The Art of Report Writing

 

Today is the last installment in what has turned out to be a rather lengthy response when asked about report templates. Monday I talked about the use of jargonYesterday I talked about structure. And this time...well this time it all gets a bit touchy-feely.
 
And one other thing. Even though I mention it below, I want to make sure we're all clear on one thing. I am not coming out against "formats"; I am speaking specifically about "templates." There is a difference.
 

Let me share with you a joke that has been around for quite a while. For her 90th birthday, Grandma Mabel's grown grandchildren took her to the Art Institute of Chicago. They toured the building, had a nice lunch in the cafe, and, as was the main purpose of the trip, saw an excellent collection of the world's greatest art. The grandkids noticed that Grandma Mabel seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to spend time with them, but did not seem particularly impressed or enthralled with the art itself. Eventually they found themselves standing before Grant Wood's "American Gothic." They quietly absorbed the simple beauty of the painting. Finally, Howard, the oldest of the siblings, turned to his grandmother and said, "Pretty impressive, wouldn't you say so, Grandma?" Mabel stared at the picture a little longer and finally let out a noise that was the closest thing to a raspberry a prim older lady might allow. "I don't see what all the fuss is about," she said. "Your Uncle Herbert painted that same picture a few years ago and all he had to do was follow the numbers."

And there, in the wise and not-so-generous tones of Grandma Mabel, you have the problem with using any template in preparing an audit report.

Writing audit reports is not a science. You cannot fill in the blanks. You cannot come up with one size that fits all. You cannot derive a formula that will tell you where every verb and noun and comma and period should be placed for the greatest impact. As much as we may wish there were exact rules to be used in all situations (we are auditors — we like very specific procedures), it will not work.  

It took me more than a few years to realize this. But time after time, and training after training, and rewrite after rewrite has taught me one extremely profound concept ...

Audit report writing is an art. 

Good audit report writing is an exhibition of the skills necessary to develop a perfect blend of syntax and vocabulary and grammar and phraseology and (yes even) jargon in such a way that the reader is transported into a full and complete understanding of what has occurred, what will occur, and what actions should be taken to ensure the most successful results.

No template can do that. At best, you can only have a basic format. (Think of it the same way an artist is limited by their choice of media.) And from there, it is calling on the training and skills and overarching desire for a certain communication that drives success.

Let me make sure there is no confusion.

I believe almost all templates are folderol and codswallop. I believe that people who are looking at templates as a solution to their reporting problems also believe due dates are more important than quality; surface audits actually provide value; quality trumps quantity, get-rich-quick schemes work; and that the Nigerian Prince is really going to come up with cash. I believe there are no easy routes to good report writing.

And here are some more "I Believes":

I believe that, just as a musician must learn scales and a painter must learn color and a dancer must learn basic steps, auditors must learn the tools necessary to actually write any report. I believe that the only way to learn to write solid reports is to write. I believe that auditors need to practice their craft to develop their ear — to be able to read or see or hear a sentence and understand that it gets to the point or it drifts or it has no point or it is the most beautiful collection of words ever devised. I believe that auditors, to become good writers, should write any time and every time they can.

I believe that any time auditors write they have to focus on the quality of that writing. I believe that auditors miss innumerable opportunities to practice their writing in that way. I believe that auditors do not recognize how something as simple as a workpaper provides them unparalleled opportunities to practice good writing. I believe that, by ignoring the rules of good writing, by ignoring the need for proper syntax and punctuation, by ignoring something as simple as complete sentences and complete thoughts, by ignoring a focus on ensuring others understand the message being sent — I believe that by ignoring all these things when they write workpapers and memos and emails and any other documents or correspondences — auditors miss out on untapped opportunities to improve their writing.

I believe that such practice will help make every auditor an audit report writing artist. And I believe that artist exists in every one of us — not just a report writing artist, but also an artist at conducting internal audits.

I believe that good report writing is art.

And I do not believe in templates.

Posted on Oct 9, 2013 by Mike Jacka

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  1. Mike. The problem with being an auditor is that we're expected to be perfect, because people think that we expect them to be perfect. Since the report is the end product of our work that must be perfect. The attitude of auditees (if I'm allowed to use that word) is that the quality of our report reflects the quality of our audit. So if we produce a poorly written report, or even one with a misplaced apostrophe (we in the UK have the greengrocers' apostrophe - as in 'apple's £2 a lb') the whole audit will be considered to be of poor quality. You are right, a well written report is essential. Not only must an auditor practice good writing but they must read good writing. (Does that mean the internal audit library should include classic writers?). One technique I used was to have other auditors read the report before it was issued. They would proof read it for typos and also check that the report was understandable and that the conclusion achieved what the original scope of the audit set out. As the reviewer, I tried not to rewrite reports in my own image. If I was unhappy about the style or content I would talk this through with the auditor and get them to rewrite the sections involved. One template you haven't mentioned is the audit program(me), frequently used in compliance auditing. I believe these to be worse than report templates. Although they are easy to use, don't require skilled staff and allow easy time budgeting, they risk audits being carried out with no deep understanding of the processes and risks involved. Consequently, underlying weaknesses in the systems are not uncovered. I do not believe in audit program(me) templates.
  1. David, you have covered a lot of valuable and important territory in your reply.  Let me start with how much I agree with what you have to say.  And then let me elaborate a little:

    1)  Spot on with the idea that one error can drag down the reader's perspective of the auditor, the audit, and the department.  Not everyone is a grammar geek like me.  But I confess that, if I see a glaring error (they're for their, irregardless, irregular punctuation) I start to have grave doubts about the quality of the work.  It is wrong to assume that, but it does show one of the main reasons we have to be meticulous.

    2)  Also with you 100% on how reports should be reviewed.  My rule of thumb (and the rule of thumb I gave every manager, supervisor, and auditor who worked for me) was - if I can't explain why a change is needed, then no change is needed.  The phrase "it just doesn't sound right" is not sufficient.  Neither is actually rewriting it.  Instead there has to be direction on how it will clarify, how it will make it more concise, or how the grammar needs to be corrected.  (Everyone who worked for me also understood what I meant when I said "parallel construction.")

    3) Finally (and there are really more - but I'll stop here), there is a wealth of discussion that can occur around the concept that, because we are auditors and seem to expect perfection, we have to exhibit perfection.  I think it is the cause of a lot of paralysis in internal audit - in getting testwork done, in getting reports issued, and in expanding how auditing does its job.  Ultimately, it is one of the destructors that inhibits our ability to use creativity to drive us to the future.

    Great comments on your part (of course they are great - I agree with them) and quite a bit of food for further thought for everyone out there.

    Mike

  1. Mike, I wholeheartedly agree with your views on report writing but don't know that blaming the template is right.  Maybe we have a different understanding or picture of what a report template looks like.

    To my mind there's nothing wrong with having a template in order to provide the layout and structure of the report, but the need to be an artist in filling in the detail under the various headings and sections.  For all the column space that's been devoted to better report writing over the years I struggle to see a relative improvement in the quality of audit reports.  To me it's a personal mindset around doing a De Bono and putting on a different hat when reviewing what you've written: ie looking at the report from the perspective of the reader.

    I share your frustration at poorly constructed sentences/misuse of grammar and I think the following paragraph of your article is particularly poignant:

    "Good audit report writing is an exhibition of the skills necessary to develop a perfect blend of syntax and vocabulary and grammar and phraseology and (yes even) jargon in such a way that the reader is transported into a full and complete understanding of what has occurred, what will occur, and what actions should be taken to ensure the most successful results."

    Loved the article and will be sharing it around our team.

  1. Michael,

    You bring up a very good point and, to be honest, I may have been a bit too heavy handed in my approach to the concept of templates.  But this is a reaction to seeing so many auditors who use it as a crutch to be used in stead of thinking.

    And, I want to spend  a few more words on the subject.  So, I'll be trying to put something together for this Friday (tomorrow as I write this.)

    Mike

  1. Brilliant! The best article I have read in ages! Thank you so much for sharing! Magda

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