In response to my blog post last week about the flexibility of language and the need for innovation, I got an interesting comment from Josh Shelton. "Every other year it seems one of the big firms produces a list of good/bad words to use when documenting work papers. For example 'noted' is a word that's used all the time. IA noted this...IA noted that. Whenever I see the word 'noted' I often pause for a moment and think 'what other word would be acceptable to use in place of noted' because it sounds rather magoo to me. That being said I'd love to know your take on 'Words to use/not to use' when documenting work papers."
First, let me say that, if Josh is looking to me as an authoritative figure, he may want to seek professional help. (Take two IIA Standards and call me in the morning.) But, with that out of the way, here's my thoughts on the subject.
I believe there is a bigger issue here than noted vs. saw vs. identified vs. whatever word du jour is floating around at this moment.
I once heard a comedian tell the story of the author who, while writing the Great American Novel, spent immeasurable time deliberating over a word choice – in the bed, on the bed, in the bed, on the bed. After days of torment, sleepless nights, and the overall disintegration of his health as he wrestled with achieving the perfection he so vehemently desired, he made his choice. Then, along comes a reader who has taken the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Course and blows through without ever seeing the bed.
And that is the way I feel about workpaper documentation. I really don't care about the particulars – the choice of words, the niceties of mood, the infinite details that bog down report writing. All I ask is that, as a reviewer, can I read them and do they support the conclusions that have been drawn.
I have watched managers/supervisors/leads ask for rewrites and corrections because of spelling errors or grammar mistakes or using the word "noted" when "identified" was supposed to be used. And I marveled at the investment/waste of time. Really...Who Cares!!!
Don't get me wrong, the workpapers have to be readable/legible/understandable. But, in spite of my legendary campaign against the mangling of our language, I don't get too het up about syntax, grammar, and spelling within workpapers unless I cannot figure out what is being said. Similarly, if the errors are so bad they literally distract me from the content, then I will insist on a do-over. (Yes I have seen workpapers that bad. Yes I made the auditor go back and clean it up. Yes I made that issue an integral part of the auditor's subsequent development program.)
But, with that previous discussion in mind, words are important. And debates about which words to use (noted, conducted, reviewed, findings, issues, ad infinitum) are important because they help us understand the underlying message we are sending.
And that leads to my second response: I see no reason for the term noted or any variation thereof to be used. The minute such words make their appearance the focus moves from the work to the person doing the work. Their inclusion is far too often superfluous.
Let me explain through example. Imagine the following in a set of workpapers. "The auditor noted that forty of the fifty documents reviewed were not approved. The auditor further noted that the signatures were missing because the individuals did not exist. From this, the auditor noted that the lack of controls allowed the establishment of nonexistent people."
Let's all hear it for the auditor! What? There was a finding? I kind of lost sight of that with all the talk of the auditor noting things.
These are the auditor's workpapers. Isn't it already apparent that the auditor is the one "noting" all this? By including the auditor and the phrase "noted" the emphasis is on the auditor, not on the work that was accomplished.
Here's the example rewritten. "Forty of the fifty documents reviewed were not approved. The signatures were missing because the individuals did not exist. The lack of controls allowed the establishment of nonexistent people."
And this is just as true for audit reports. The report is coming from auditing; there is no need to reference what auditing did. (That is the purpose of the objective and scope.) By constantly referring to Internal Audit, the emphasis is on the department, not the work that was done.
Final lesson, I feel this falls in the category of phrases that we include because it feels like something we should do – because it feels like the kind of business speak we need to include. And such writing just hides the messages we are trying to send. (You can find more of my thoughts on this subject here.)
In summary: You can call it noted, you can call it identified, you can call it saw, you can call it seen, you can call it Ray, you can call it Jay, you can call it RayJay, but you doesn't has to call me Johnson. (Sorry...carried away as usual.) You can call it anything, but best may be to call it nothing at all.