Here’s the truth about editing: editing is vital to producing a good audit report. It’s also tricky and time-consuming.
Editing includes content changes, proofreading, grammar, wording, format, structure, and multiple revisions. So. Many. Revisions. And hopefully, while you’re editing an audit report, you’re providing ways to improve the skills of the writer (so you don’t have to keep editing audit reports).
Maybe you think it would be best if the auditor would just write better. And while the auditor can revise their own work, that’s not the same as editing. Think about it: it’s pretty difficult to edit our own work because we naturally understand our own writing. This is why an editor is so valuable.
If editing is so vital to the success of an audit report, I’m flummoxed as to why more audit teams don’t have a dedicated editor who understands audit and can offer valuable content suggestions. Instead, the editing role often falls to a small few on the audit team (i.e., an audit manager or director) who have competing priorities.
It would be so nice to spread out the laborious task of in-depth editing. Let’s kick around some ideas that could help you mentor better writers on your team.
Write Consistently as a Team
Every company communicates their audit reports differently—from format (PowerPoint vs. Word) to content (how to phrase the risk, what to include in the title, how to write the root cause) to delivery (printed vs. electronic delivery). While there’s a lot of ways to communicate, there’s no perfect way to communicate audit findings.
Chances are auditors on your team have dabbled in a few or all of these communication methods. Moreover, they might be unclear about your company’s writing expectations and they resort to using bad habits in their writing.
It may be that they have fallen into bad habits, but it might also be a communication gap in writing expectations. Here’s where good report writing training can help.
Whether you do your own in-house writing training or bring in a trainer, writing refreshers can only help. A good audit report-writing trainer can help you set clear writing expectations and direction for your audit team. Each writing trainer will have a different way to teach the same information, so try a few on for size.
Be Specific with Sentence Construction
The hardest part about writing is crafting a good, informative, and concise sentence. Yet the audit issue formats that many companies use provide no real direction for how to write the sentence. In my experience as a consultant, companies will often show me an audit issue layout that broadly outlines cause, effect, and recommendations. This may generally cover what you want the issue to say, but it doesn’t cover how you want to say it.
So be specific in what you expect your auditors to write (see 6 Strategies that Streamline Audit Issue Writing).
For your auditors who struggle, tell them exactly what type of sentence you want to see as the first sentence, second sentence, third, and so forth. You can even set length parameters (e.g., 20 words or less per sentence, 70 words or less per paragraph). Here’s an example.
Outline for an Audit Issue or Finding
Issue Title: Newspaper headline
[Tips: do not use negative words, choose something interesting from the issue and summarize in less than five words]
Sentence #1: Describe the issue
[Tips: state what you want readers to conclude from your evidence; sentence must be less than 20 words; do not begin with “there is” or “there are”; make sure the verb is an action verb]
Sentence #2: State background or criteria information
[Tips: condense information into one sentence 15-20 words; make sure background is relevant to the issue]
Sentence #3: Write the evidence
[Tips: begin with an elaborating transitions, e.g., , , ...; keep evidence short and high-level; limit bulleted lists to four points or fewer].
Sentence #4: ...
As mentioned previously, there is no perfect way to write, but this example shows how to be more specific. Some auditors will recoil at such a stringent outline while others will be so grateful because they’re given a formula—and formulas make some people (accountants) very happy.
Provide Instructional Comments
Every time you edit the text for your auditor, you assume the auditor’s writing responsibilities. After a while, the auditor may come to rely on your changes to make their document complete. This position (where the auditor relies on you to fix their mistakes) is not where you want to be—it’ll eat up your time.
Editing is thorny like that—you make changes only to end up making more and more changes. Often you are correcting the same errors over and over.
To avoid correcting repetitive errors, rewrite the text the way you would expect to see it and then include a two-part comment: first, educate the writer about why you made the change, then provide tips for how the writer can make the change, too. When the error pops up again, refer to the tips and have them edit their own writing.
I realize that editing with comments takes longer. At least, it will take longer initially. But ultimately, you’re saving yourself time as you teach audit report writers to improve their own writing (before you ever even see a draft!).
Try Peer Reviews
Since part of the goal is to relieve the editing burden on the select few, try instituting peer reviews on the team. I’ve had clients who tried peer reviews only to discontinue them because the reviews weren’t helpful at all (e.g., ending with a “No problems at all” note, a smiley face, and an hour billed to the project). Rather than throw out the idea completely, perhaps the peer review process just needs some tweaking.
You may be able to resurrect peer reviews after a good writing course so everyone can practice their new skills. You could also try pinpointing a few good writers on the team and filtering audit reports through these auditors.
Additionally, consider creating an editing list the peer reviewer uses during their edit. An online search for “editing checklists” will yield a small army of examples that you can use to create a personalized checklist. Make sure to include content requirements specific to your team.
Set a standard that the smiley face and nothing’s-wrong-looks-great comment are not helpful to anyone. The end-goal here is to avoid editing bottlenecks in the report release process and issue a well-written report sooner rather than later.
Final Tip: Know when to leave the report alone
We all know that the longer it takes to release a report, the less validity the report has. Audit groups can easily get entrenched in a never-ending editing cycle as reviewers make pet-peeve corrections that neither improve nor enhance the meaning of a sentence. (For example, I will substitute use for utilize any chance I get, but does it really matter? Is it worth delaying the release of the report to change a few words?)
So know when to stop. Every day you could find something to change in the report, but there has to be a moment when it’s good enough. Remember, there’s no perfect way to communicate audit findings. You have to find the way that works for your company and train your team to write that way.
But, good grief, don’t lose sleep over it.
... don’t lose sleep over editing.
... don’t edit your sleep to get better reports.
But good grief, try not to edit your sleep for the sake of a good report.
... for the sake of a perfectly edited report.
... perfectly edited audit report
... (or article).