In the last edition of the Audit Writer’s Hub, we focused on audit content in six strategies that streamline audit issue writing. Good content is necessary, but ensuring that good content is written well is another experience on its own.

This week, let's dive into three areas that improve sentence flow: topic sentences, transitions, and filler phrases.

Write a good topic sentence

A good topic sentence lets your reader know what to expect from the rest of the audit issue. In literary writing, it’s called a thesis statement. But for audit issue writing, let’s call it an issue topic sentence.

In audit reporting, you have a lot of information to share, and little time, or room, to write it. As such, sometimes auditors jump right into the deep-end of an issue, leaving the reader gasping for air asking, “Wait ... what are you talking about?” The following is an example of a too-deep topic sentence. 

 From July – December 20xx, the manager submitted expenses totaling $150K for both himself and his team.

Audit-Report-Editing-Tips-MainIf you start the audit issue with straight-up evidence, your reader has to piece through the rest of the sentences to figure out how this sentence applies. Although the above sentence is a good sentence, it’s in the wrong place. Instead, introduce the evidence in a topic sentence, like this:

Unclear expense guidelines have created confusion within local management.

Make sure your topic sentence is impactful to the audit issue as a whole. Think about how newspaper headlines hook the reader. A good topic sentence will create interest in the rest of the issue.

Picture1Try this

If you’ve already written your audit issue, highlight your first sentence, and affirm that it provides a brief overview without getting into specifics. If your topic sentence needs revision, try the following:

  1. Locate your evidence. If you have a lot of evidence, circle your most important piece of evidence.
  2. Locate your risk or root cause. 
  3. Combine the evidence and the risk or root cause into one sentence.
    [Root cause] led to [evidence].
    [Evidence or conclusion] has increased [risk]. 

That’s a quick start to a topic sentence, but give it a try and see how you do.

I like sentences that perform double-duty. Topic sentences that look at the most important parts of an issue (like the examples in step 3) are my favorite because I can reuse those sentences for other audit materials (i.e., quarterly summaries, issue follow-up, other reports, and presentations). 

Use transitions to connect thoughts

Now that you have a perfect topic sentence, it’s time to keep the pace with good sentences that follow. As a cardinal rule, your reader shouldn’t have to reread to understand the current sentence. The issue should just flow.

One word: Transitions.

We all learned in grade school how to write a simple paragraph. It began with a topic sentence, followed by three supporting sentences, and ended with a closing sentence. My 2nd grader brought home the perfect example a few weeks ago (note the highlighted transition words): 

[Topic sentence] I had a good morning. [Support] First, I woke up. [Support] Second, I put on my clothes. [Support] Then, I went downstairs and ate breakfast. [Support] Finally, I caught the school bus. [Closing sentence] It was a good morning. 

He is learning the structure of a paragraph, just like we did. And transitions are one of the first elements we all learned because transitions guide the reader through a thought.

Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you can stop using transitions now. You just get to graduate to more descriptive transitions.

Sometimes just a word or two can completely change the purpose of a sentence. For instance, in auditing, you describe the symptom in terms of background, evidence, and conclusions – all very different information. The following sentence is either background or conclusion from evidence, but we don’t know what it is yet.

Year-end totals were reported in Q3. 

If the sentence is vague, like the example above, then your reader will have to reread the previous sentences to understand the purpose of the sentence. As background information, the sentence might be better written like this: 

The guidelines state that all year-end totals must be reported in Q3. 

However, the sentence above is not background at all. The sentence is evidence, but we would never know that (nor will your reader) without a transition.

Introducing transitions can completely change the way your audience receives the sentence. The following examples show three different ways to use transitions for clarity.

Transitions provide contrast:

However, year-end totals were reported in Q3 instead of Q4.

Transitions create impact:

 More importantly, year-end totals were reported in Q3 instead of Q4.

Transitions change subject:

 As for Q4, year-end totals had already been reported in the previous quarter.

So, to be both specific and interesting, transitions will get you there. No longer will you be complacent with first, second, and third. Make your transitions count for clarity. 

Picture1Try this

Go through your audit issue and circle transitions. Make sure each successive sentence builds upon the previous sentence. If the two sentences do not connect, insert a transition to guide the reader. Here is a list of other common transitions that you can use instead of “first,” “second,” “third,” etc. 

but

yet

however

nevertheless

still

instead

thus

therefore

meanwhile

now

later

today

subsequently

again

as a result

such as

regarding

finally

Get rid of filler

Filler information is the bumbling that we all tend to do at the beginning of the sentence while we ruminate through our thoughts. Here’s a frequent filler favorite:  

During the course of the audit, it was established that X causes the problem. (14 words)

Good gracious, I was on the edge of my seat all the way through that sentence! No, I wasn’t. I just started deleting. I am so glad to finally find out that,

X causes the problem. (4 words)

In the second example, we shaved off more than 70% of the sentence. If we edited this much filler information all the time, the report would be a finely tuned racecar engine that would speed people through the audit findings.

After 30 words in a sentence, you tend to lose your reader’s attention. As a simple rule, if you see a sentence going longer than 30 words, try to reduce the words by a third. Often, my first line of attack is deleting filler phrases. Here are some common filler phrases to omit freely and often, or never use at all. 

  • We found [discovered, surmised, etc.] that
  • Upon further review
  • On a [monthly, hourly, etc.] basis (use “monthly”)
  • In the event that (use “if”)
  • We discussed with the auditee and found that

These filler words are beloved by many auditors and hard to delete but delete them, and your report will flow so much better.

Once those filler phrases are cleaned out, you can see the meat of the issue (or lack thereof). Sometimes filler phrases just cover up the fact that not all information is presentable yet.

If you don’t know what to write, that’s okay. You might need more specific evidence, a stronger conclusion, or a better risk. You might have a sentence that got thrown in there that doesn’t impact the issue at all, and you can delete completely. Editing is fun. Say it again: editing is fun. Once more, with feeling: editing is fun! Much better!

Picture1Try this

  1. Search through the report and highlight and remove filler words like you see above.
  2. Rework the sentence, omitting filler phrases.
  3. Highlight any sentences that are longer than two lines (approximately 30-40 words or longer). Reduce the sentence length by placing the subject in the first section, the verb next, and the rest of the sentence after. 

These are just a few suggestions to try. Writing and editing is an organic process. Every bit that we learn and share can improve us as better writers and overall communicators. What have you found that works well in your sentence flow mojo?