Auditors can write and write and write without saying a whole lot. For example, this sentence came across my desk:
“Audit noted that this problem occurs due to the fact that...”
I’m not going to excite you with what really happened at the end of that sentence because we’re already lost in a forest of nothing words. None of these words serve to further the issue in the report.
Truth is, we’ve all been captains of nothing words, haven’t we? We start writing and writing and before we know it we’re deep in the forest of an issue. We’ll devote an entire essay toward writing how we found a segregation of duties problem. Instead, we could have stayed on the outskirts of the forest and simply written, “The same person performed conflicting tasks a and b.”
This week, I want to specifically tackle some of the pesky nothings – unimportant sentences, filler phrases, and negative phrasing – that creep into our writing and how to get rid of them.
As auditors, we might start rambling when we don’t know how to start or phrase the issue. We can get tripped up on the specifics of who did what and how we discovered the problem. This method leads to rambling audit issues. In the end, the audit issue might include important information, but it’s lost in a sea of unimportant sentences.
The truth is, too many words can diminish meaning (this is probably a metaphor for life, but we’ll stick to auditing).
In audit writing, excessive background information, trite examples, and the wrong words can water down the impact of the issue itself.
So decide on what information is most important to your number one audience and then cater every single sentence to that particular audience (refer to less important information via links or an appendix).
Audit tip: Limit your audit issue to less than five sentences, where the first sentence states the root cause or valuable conclusion of the issue. The second sentence states the evidence. The third sentence makes sense of the evidence for the reader. The fourth sentence communicates a high-level impact to the business – the risk. (The fifth sentence could be additional evidence or necessary background that helps the reader to understand the issue). Bam – you’re done.
Delete “All About Audit” Words
This might be painful to hear, so I’m just going to rip the Band-Aid right off: the audit issue is not about you, the auditor. It’s about what the audit client is or isn’t doing. But every time the reader reads “We conducted a test of...,” the subject of the sentence is we, meaning audit. And then the most important action in the sentence becomes what you did: conduct a test of [something].
In audit reports, these phrases are nothing words and water down the report. Below are more examples of nothing words:
- Our sample shows that...
- We discussed...
- During discussions, we noted...
- We noted that...
- It appears that...
And many more (you get the idea).
The best method here is to delete these words that help you get the idea going. Most of the time the end of the sentence is valuable, but unfortunately, you lost your reader in the first few words by talking about audit.
Audit tip: Make your sentences pack a punch with this five-step exercise: 1. Print out three pages of an audit report that include at least a couple of audit issues. 2. Using a pen, go through these pages and circle the subject of each sentence. 3. Then point to the verb (which should be after the subject, not before – that’s a passive sentence). 4. Determine if the subject focuses on the client (e.g., data, employees, management). 5. If the subject places emphasis on audit or what audit did, remove this section and rephrase the sentence if needed.
Substitute What Is for What is Not
Another common pitfall frequently seen in audit writing is phrasing issues negatively. When a report uses negative phrasing, the reader can become dissatisfied with being told only what is not. The reader wants to know what is. Here are some examples:
- Not honest
- Not important
- Did not remember
Frequently used words tend to fade into the background. I call them wallpaper words. We see them so often that we pay no attention to them at all. Using the word “not” over and over again becomes a wallpaper word and loses emphasis for the reader.
Instead, try focusing on making definite assertions. Not only do specific words improve the validity of your writing, but also these words make the sentence shorter.
If something or someone...
Then something is actually...
does not exist
absent or missing
is not important
unimportant, insignificant, or minor
did not pay attention
Audit tip: Do a search for “not” and “un” in your report. Look for ways to substitute with more specific words that describe what did happen (instead of what did not happen).
Writing too many words to explain a simple idea is just part of prewriting. Prewriting helps you get the ideas out and flowing. Editing helps you flesh out the nothing words until you have something. Don’t get discouraged but continue improving your editing techniques so you can help yourself and others. Then you’ll have a report that’s really something.