​​The Art of Report Writing

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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.​

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