CPA toolkit: Steps for improving your writing skills

By J. Carlton Collins, CPA

Q. Many of our new hires seem to lack the ability to write, spell, or use grammar properly. I'm wondering if this is partly the result of today's digital communications, in which abbreviations, incomplete sentences, and misspellings are commonly accepted in email and text messages. What can be done?

A. There, they're, their ... everything's going to be OK. I agree that writing standards today seem to be lower than when I entered the CPA profession in 1982, and today's loose writing styles probably do translate to more poorly written formal letters, reports, and documents. I believe this is a serious problem because most CPAs' duties often include drafting letters, proposals, contracts, and reports. Poorly written documents can reflect poorly on the individual as well as your organization. If you share my concerns, here are corrective measures you might consider.

  1. Multiple reviews. Good writing isn't written, it's rewritten. Few among us possess the ability to craft a first draft that reads like a final draft. Even the most casual writings (memos, text messages, and email messages) should be reread by the author before sharing or posting. However, as the importance of the document increases, so too should the efforts to ensure it reads professionally.
  2. Independent review. As a standard practice, all professional correspondence should be independently reviewed by at least one other person in your organization. Some leeway can be applied to memos, casual emails, and text messages, but even so, I tend to judge people negatively on their inability to communicate professionally — maybe that's just me, but I suspect I'm not alone.
  3. Draw the line. Don't accept subpar writing. Sloppy work should be resubmitted for correction, else the poorly worded documents will likely continue. Take the time to critique poorly written verbiage and hold your employees to a higher standard. Have your employees edit and refine their writings until they are acceptable, and hopefully, their standards and writing ­abilities will improve.
  4. Emphasize the company's reputation. Teach new hires that the quality of their writing is a direct reflection on the quality of the work produced by them and your company or firm. Explain that while misspellings, poor grammar, and typos may be acceptable to them, these errors are usually not acceptable to their recipients.
  5. Training course. It may be helpful to have a writing expert deliver an in-house CPE presentation on the importance of professional writing. As another option, some free writing courses are available online, such as those offered by Purdue University (see the screenshot below), the University of Michigan, or Stanford University, as summarized in an article by Study.com at study.com.
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About the author

J. Carlton Collins (carlton@asaresearch.com) is a technology consultant, a conference presenter, and a JofA contributing editor.

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