In the last Audit Writer’s Hub, we talked about crafting gourmet audit issues instead of yucky, mass-produced, dollar-menu issues. Specifically, we zeroed in on one aspect that cheapens your issue: passive voice. This week, let’s look at mumbling words, dump-truck lists, and long-winded sentences.
When we speak, we often retreat to certain familiar words while we mentally regroup and begin or continue our thought. These sounds or words include uh...um...okay...like. You could call these words placeholder, stalling, or mumbling words that you employ while you get to your point.
Just like we might mumble when we speak, we also tend to mumble when we write. Auditors mumble by writing to themselves while they figure out what they want to write. Ever read an issue that started out something like the next example?
✗ We [audit] noted that employees have accrued excessive vacation time.
The example above is the written equivalent of verbal mumbling. As we learned in the last article, the first noun and the first verb are supposed to be the most important. However, by making the main subject, “We [audit]” and the main verb, “noted,” then you lost your reader without even getting to the point. To fix, delete the mumbling words at the beginning of a sentence and keep the rest:
✓ Employees have accrued excessive vacation time.
From the first six words of the sentence, you could never have guessed what specifically would have been the problem. So, keep everyone happy and take out your mumbling words. Here are other mumbling words you can delete:
✗ Based upon [discussions, reviews, data]...
✗ It appears that...
✗ We noted that...
✗ We concluded...
Auditor tip: The next time you edit, highlight all the times you or your writer uses one of the above mumbling phrases or a specially crafted mumbling phrase. Count them up for novelty. Then delete all of them. You’ll have immediately improved your issue.
Dump Truck Lists
Sometimes in reports, an issue will contain long lists that look like a brain-dump of the workpaper. These “dump truck” lists often (but not always) serve as another example of auditors writing to themselves:
✗ Based on the review of 25 employee files, the following observations were noted:
- Two instances where job descriptions were not current
- One instance where documentation on changes in employment was missing
- And another instance
- A small item no one cares about but looks good on this list
- The name of my dog and favorite vacation spot
- More findings. Much, much more, my friend. Do you have the time or patience?
This looks like a workpaper. It’s a list of everything that was found while reviewing the files, but it doesn’t tell the audience what you want them to conclude.
In other words, this dump truck list either says, “I did a ton of work – check it out,” or “I’m too tired to make business conclusions from this list. Maybe you [the reader] can.”
You might argue that the full list is to prove your point to the auditee; however, the auditee is not your end audience. The end audience is your executive or equivalent. If it’s too detailed for the executive, then it probably needs to be removed.
Moreover, the list above presents a moral conflict. Audit issues that make it to the report are supposed to be really important. Bulleted lists are used for scanning, which intuitively, makes the reader only scan rather than ingest the finding. Too many bullet points could actually detract from the issue’s significant message.
Bullet points are great, and they have their place in a report and an issue (e.g., outlining a quick process or listing significant evidence). However, a report is meant to synthesize information for the reader, not just list audit findings for the reader.
Next time, instead of the long bulleted list, break down the information and put it back together in a way that provides the reader with the conclusions that can be drawn from your analysis.
Auditor tip: Think 4x4. A common practice is to limit bulleted lists to four bullets and limit each bullet point to four words. Information should be important at a high level. Sometimes an overall summary of the finding is just as effective as the specifics. For example, “Employee files are missing information in 10 out of 25 files reviewed.”
Variety is the Spice of Reports
Aside from mumbling words and dump truck lists that distract a reader is boredom.
Audit reports aren’t supposed to be necessarily exciting, but they can at least be written well. Part of good writing is paying attention to sentence and paragraph length.
For example, find a non-audit article that you find interesting (or even a well-written audit issue). Count the words in a good sentence. Most likely, the sentence length is close to or less than 20 words. Then count up the number of words in a line and multiply it by the number of lines in the paragraph. Normally, the paragraph will be at or under 70 words.
Now step back a bit and look at the variation in sentence and paragraph structure. A good writer varies the weight of the issue. Some paragraphs will be five lines long. The next paragraph will be three lines long.
Sometimes a paragraph can be a single (yet significant) sentence.
Even if your company has a very controlled template, you can dictate how you vary your sentence and paragraph length. For instance, you can place the topic sentence in its own paragraph at the beginning of the issue to set it apart from the rest of the issue (and help your executive locate the crux of the issue faster).
Auditor tip: Grab a highlighter. First, highlight every other sentence in your issue. Use a different color to highlight the sentences that weren’t highlighted. Now, take notice which sentences are longer. Edit the longer sentences (over 25 words) by either rewriting the sentence or splitting the long sentence into two shorter sentences.
It’s easy to become a boring, mumbling dump truck while working out what to say or write. That’s okay because this process is called the “prewriting [draft] stage” for a reason, right? So go ahead, mumble and dump all you want for now. But when we get to the final report, let’s leave behind the mumbling words and dump truck lists and remember to vary the weight of our sentences and paragraphs.
And also check back with Internal Audit Insights for the next edition of the Audit Writer’s Hub for more tips to improving those reports and audit issues.