​​A Lesson for Report Writing From the World of Fiction

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​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 aud​itors 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?

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