A Lesson for Report Writing from the World of Fiction

 

If you are like me, you had not heard of Elmore Leonard until last week when he passed away at 87. And, if you are like me, you knew of his work, even if you didn't know the name. Mr. Leonard was an extraordinary writer of Western and Crime novels whose work included "3:10 to Yuma", "Hombre", and "Get Shorty" among many others. He also received the Mystery Writers of America's highest honor, the Grand Master Edgar. And, in 2009, he received lifetime achievement awards from both the Western Writers of America and PEN USA.
 
Not too shabby.
 
We are diminished by his passing. And those of us who had not heard the name – who had not experienced his books – have a void that needs filling. I've taken steps to go out and find some of his work and start reading. I don't care if it is fiction, non-fiction, essay, science, science fiction, kiddie lit, chick lit, classical lit, or the latest copy of the Junior Woodchuck's adventures with the Beagle Boys - you learn to write better by reading the best.
 
Which leads to the discovery I made while exploring Mr. Leonard's work. In 2001 he wrote a piece for the New York Times titled "Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules for Writing". Here's just one link to the material.
 
His rules are specifically geared toward those who are writing fiction. However, in at least one instance, he speaks directly to auditors. (And, no, I don't mean the first rule "Never open a book with weather". Although, I think it is still a pretty good idea for auditors to listen to this advice. I'm willing to bet no report should ever start "It was a dark and stormy department.")
 
Elmore Leonard's Rule for Writing # 10: "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip."
 
I love it when a famous writer agrees with me.
 
For those of you who have been following along on this blog for a while, Mr. Leonard's rule may sound a little familiar. But it bears repeating again and again. In fact, I think I will make it my first rule of report writing. "Leave out the parts your readers tend to skip".
 
Let me give you some advice based on that first rule: Your reports are too long.
 
And the corollary: Nobody really cares about all that stuff.
 
Here is what I beg of you. Go to your customers – the board, execs, directors, managers, supervisors, customers, fellow auditors – and ask them the following. "What part of the report do you actually read?" Then ask, "What can you do without?" And then ask the question you should have been asking all along, "What do you really need to see in the report."
 
Then, use that information to pare, trim, slice, reduce, gut, eradicate, eliminate, illuminate, and make your reports a concise accounting of what has happened and what needs to happen – a document that will be read completely and effectively.
 
I've got a feeling there are a few more rules of report writing out there. I'm not sure what they are, yet. I'll have to ruminate on that one for a while (or maybe go and steal from some other great authors.) But, until then, take serious, concerted action to eliminate the waste your audit reports currently contain.
 
And also take a moment to share with all of us. What are your rules of report writing?

Posted on Aug 26, 2013 by Mike Jacka

Share This Article:    

  1. Lots of white space. Oh, wait, that's PowerPoint. Mark Twain is another of many brilliant writers and he says this: “Anybody can have ideas—the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.” I may have used that quote when I had to defend my comprehensive exam in grad school when I was told that they thought I was too brief in my written responses.
  1. A great quote.  Mark Twain is another one who has a great set of quotes on writing.  A piece worth looking at is his essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" which includes the 18 literary rules Twain feels Cooper violated.

    And, early on, I gave up defending my writing.  It stinks.  I'm fine with that.  I'll take my "C" and move on, thank you.

     

    Mike

  1. Hey Mike, just thought I'd stop in & per usual have been rewarded.  Funny you mention Leonard - same goes for me & has led to my buying Kindle version of "La Brava," which I'm enjoying.  Imagine writing up dialogue between Audit & Management ala Leonard in place of "Management agrees with these findings" in our reports.  Just imagine the mayhem.  I feel a Jacka authored Leonardesque article coming up. 

    On a more serious note, have you, yourself, come up with what you think might be a worthy report writing template, one in which just the facts, the bare facts, ma'am, are stated in such a way that Management gets what it needs & knows what it needs to do without having been hit by a ton of unreadable auditese?

    Take Care! 

     

  1. Hi Rick.  Always good to hear from you.  And a very interesting question about templates.  In fact, so interesting, I may have to go into length on the subject in a future post.  (I will probably try for something next Monday.)  But the short answer is two-part.

    1)  No, I've never found a template that I thought really worked.  In fact, any time I've seen something that was a "template" I felt it actually restricted the ability of the auditor to report what was actually happening. 

    2)  I think anything close to a template has to be driven by the individual audit department's customers.  So, what is successful for one department won't necessarily be successful for another.  The key to any success in report writing is determining what the customer wants.

    And, as always, even in a short response I've managed to go on for a while.  Again, great question I think I'll dig into more deeply next week.

  1. Hi Mike I have only recently started reading your blog, and it is a favorite part of my procrastination-practices! ;-) Just thought I had to comment on this particular post, as Elmore Leonard is one of my all-time favorite authors. He had a writing-style like no other, his characters came to life through their (often extremely sharp and witty) dialogue and thought-processes. He followed his own rules to a T, never letting himself get in the way of the story. I think he would have enjoyed your writing-style as well :-) Keep up the good work! Kind Regards

Leave a Reply