One of my favorite books on writing is Draft No. 4 by John McPhee, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and teacher of nonfiction writing at Princeton University. Good nonfiction writing is within the purview of every internal auditor, but so often, audit reporting fails to convey the importance of auditors' work effectively. It would be wise for us all to take a page from McPhee's book.
In Draft No. 4, McPhee describes an editing process called "greening." For those like me who live and work in Florida, the term greening is probably most associated with the disease that is ravaging the Sunshine State's precious citrus groves. But McPhee wasn't writing about citrus greening — a funny coincidence because in the book he also recalls composing a 40,000-word article for The New Yorker about oranges.
The greening McPhee refers to is an editorial technique he encountered at Time magazine in which an author takes a green pencil and marks enough words in his or her article to equal the lines of text that need to be removed for it to fit into the magazine. Needless to say, after weeks — or more — of information gathering, prewriting, writing, editing, and rewriting, it can be daunting for a writer to look at a piece he or she considers finished and then try to identify words that add no value.
But McPhee believed in the value of this skill enough that he continued to impart it to his nonfiction writing students at Princeton, providing them copies of the Gettysburg Address, for example, and challenging them to "green" three lines without damaging the content, tone, or style.
According to The IIA's Practice Guide, Audit Reports: Communicating Assurance Engagement Results, the idea of editing one's own writing for the economical use of words is recommended practice. The guidelines state: "Wording that is simple and relatively free of technical jargon should be used, and sentences should be short and to the point."
IIA Standard 2420: Quality of Communications, meanwhile, calls for concise communications, described as "avoid[ing] unnecessary elaboration, superfluous detail, redundancy, and wordiness."
There are several possible reasons internal auditors don't always heed these guidelines. Sometimes they want to soften the blow, choosing diplomacy over directness.
Other times, they may want to impress a skeptical stakeholder with technical jargon. Or maybe they rely unconsciously on habits they developed earlier in their careers.
Regardless, in business writing, it isn't length but rather clarity and persuasiveness that measure quality. So, the next time you are about to submit an audit report, send an email, or post a message, do yourself — and your reader — a favor and take a little time to go green.