Audit Narrative Editing

Today, we’ll be cleaning out the metaphorical “auditor’s closet.” The auditor’s closet comes stashed with a variety of documents that identify, document, record, and communicate specific controls for both you and whoever needs to review these controls in the future.

Some auditors have nice, clean audit closets with well-written flow charts, narratives, and workpapers. Other auditors’ closets resemble a cacophony of stuff (i.e., extraneous evidence, long process descriptions, misspelled words, poor sentence structure) reminiscent of a hoarding show.

Just like your closet at home might be full of last decade’s t-shirts and movie stubs just waiting for a second breath of glory, you might have poorly written documents in your audit closet that you hope to revisit one day and rectify. We all know that neither your t-shirts nor your poorly written document will be resurrected, and your time to revisit either is limited.

If you’re going to write something, write it right – even when it’s a commonly used document, like a narrative.

In narratives, internal auditors identify the controls, risks, and weaknesses of what they are going to audit. The narrative can be written so well that it becomes valuable and used over and over again – like a classic shirt – or the narrative can be so painstaking to read that the document is used once and forgotten.

Narratives are fairly intuitive because you’re just writing a description of “things.” However, some internal auditors struggle with organizing a concise narrative. Sometimes the less secondary items overtake the more important elements that make the narrative valuable.

Below is a list of suggestions to keep your narratives tight and on track.

Turn your narrative into a science

Narratives have a certain formula to them. Initially, the narrative describes a process, but sometimes that process can get lengthy. Make a list of the specifics that should be present in the narrative. The following elements may be pertinent to the topic and thus should be included in the narrative:

  • Facts
  • Sources
  • Locations
  • Time periods
  • Relevance
  • Results
  • Risks
  • Controls
  • Conclusions

If you find that your writing becomes tangential, allowing secondary items (i.e., opinions or lengthy descriptions) to muck up key items, take a moment when you’re finished to go back and highlight each sentence, attributing one of the above elements to the sentence. If the sentence is not a fact, but an opinion that doesn’t cover results, risks, or controls, then delete the sentence. You’re writing a narrative to describe a process so you can go back and identify key areas where risks or root causes might exist.

Narratives may also reveal potential audit issues. Refer to this article on how to keep explanations concise for audit issues. 

Maintain consistent flow of ideas

Good companions to narratives are flowcharts, where you use the narrative for fuller descriptions that can’t be covered in the flowchart. Divide the narrative into smaller “chunks” that can pull the reader from one idea to the next. Two good ways to maintain the flow are visual cues and transitions.

Visually, use paragraphs to create bite-size chunks for your reader. A long paragraph will deter your reader from ingesting the ideas in the paragraph. Keep your paragraph within five to eight sentences.

Make sure the paragraphs aren’t all exactly the same length either. A little variation can make the narrative interesting to your audience and highlight key items.

Another visual cue is maintaining a consistent formula. Narratives outline processes, risks, and weaknesses, so keep the idea flow consistent. Describe the process, the risks, and then the weaknesses in that order. You can separate these three ideas into three separate paragraphs. Use a sidebar or a bold-faced word (i.e., Risks or Weaknesses) to highlight the subject of the paragraph.

Transitions are other items that also get overlooked in narratives. Transitions are small, but mighty. You don’t ever want your reader to read a paragraph and then backtrack to figure out what the paragraph was about. Use a variety of transitions that will guide the reader through the narrative (e.g., however, furthermore, along with, but, despite, and many more). Use the transition, and then lead into your next thought.

Watch out for poor grammar

Perhaps you are just rehashing a process as fast as you can, but pay attention to your sentence structure. Keep sentences to 20 words or less. Your best words of a sentence will be your first noun and first verb, so make them count. In the example marked with an “,” the writer threw away all their good words.

Management indicated that the fire extinguisher is in a separate room (the living room) from the kitchen.

The fire extinguisher is located in the living room, instead of the kitchen.

In the second example, the writer focused on the subject (the fire extinguisher) and its location.

Pay attention to your word choice. Notice that the writer could have written, “The fire extinguisher is in the living room.” However, using the word “in” would’ve been both vague and dull. The word, “located,” is a better descriptor and adds some color to the narrative. Plus, audit narratives need all the color they can get!

Spell check your narrative

Too often a writer looses all credibility when they misspell a word (hmmm, if you find a typo in this article – don’t shoot the messenger). So, do a quick spell check on your document before saving.

You can also proofread. Proofreading isn’t necessarily about reading for content, but rather glancing through to make sure the flow and the words look correct. If you’re a visual person, proofreading is probably easier for you (and if you’re a visual person, you’re probably good at spelling, too). Nevertheless, everyone makes spelling mistakes (i.e., Brian somehow becomes Brain). A quick spell check or proofread from you or someone else can be that extra step to making sure the document gets used again.

Just like your wardrobe, you have okay items, better items, and the best items, but too many “okay” items can overshadow the “best” items. It can be painful to remove sentences or full sections of information, afraid you might be leaving gaping holes in your narrative logic. If you stay true to the elements outlined above, you can have more confidence that you’re conveying the best information instead of the okay information.