In the Department of Accounting Writing Program, “Macro Skills” refers to issues of clarity and style that make your arguments more dynamic and your logic easier to follow. Often the proper use of these techniques means the difference between a Superior paper and one that is only Acceptable.
You may notice that the topics below conform to the issues listed on the department’s standard gradesheet.
Problems of clarity are harder to identify than mistakes of a mechanical or correct English nature. Often they slip by unnoticed during the initial writing phase. To avoid problems with clarity, you should be sure to prepare your writing project in advance.
If your paper meanders, if it goes off on tangents only marginally related to your central idea, then you might need to clarify your paper’s central theme more carefully.
One way to clarify theme is to write a strong thesis statement. The other is to write a strong outline that supports your central idea prior to sitting down to write. Following an outline while you write will help you avoid introducing unrelated material into your assignment.
When writing any kind of business document or paper, you want to include adequate backup for your arguments in the form of facts, studies, or statements from experts. Papers that lack supporting evidence for your central idea can seem vague, meandering, or ineffectual.
The PCAOB’s role is to help public companies build trust with investors. However, because the public has a negative perception of personal dealings between an auditor and a top executive of a public company that is a client of the auditor, you should not partake in dealings with the company auditor.
Where did the paper’s author get information regarding the negative public perception of personal dealings between an auditor and his client? A little supporting evidence here would have made the central argument in this paragraph stronger. Without it, the advice the writer gives in the last sentence—“you should not partake in dealings with the company auditor”—seems weak.
A strong outline will aid you in seeing what kinds of support you need for your central idea and how to organize them effectively into a cohesive whole.
Paragraphs aid the reader’s understanding of the topic by organizing sentences into coherent pieces. Usually they will begin with a topic sentence and move into the evidence that supports the topic sentence. For example, here is a possible topic sentence:
The need for corporate sustainability reporting (CSR) has several organizations already trying to piece together a common group of standards on which to report.
This sentence is simple, and it highlights what the paragraph will discuss: the ways in which some organizations will create standards for corporate sustainability reporting. The job of the rest of the paragraph is to support the topic sentence with specifics:
According to Brian Ballou, the main figure in applying regulations to CSR is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The GRI issues its latest guideline on G3 standards in October 2006. Ballou’s article states, “Enhancing the quality, rigor, and utility of sustainability reporting is the goal of the GRI.” There are arguments about the value of these reports and whether they provide a benefit relative to their expense. An article by Pete Engardio published in Business Week examined the topic of the need for CSR reports and the pros and cons associated with them. Engardio states the opponents of CSR reporting claim that companies use these reports merely as a tool for “polishing company image.”
In the above example, the fourth sentence—“There are arguments about the value of these reports and whether they provide a benefit relative to their expense”—introduces a new and different topic into the paragraph, that of the potential benefits of CSR reports and their overall expense to companies. In fact, this sentence is the topic of a new paragraph and should not be included in the prior paragraph, which was supposed to be only about the organizations that are creating CSR standards.
Writers usually run into trouble with paragraph breaks when they do not plan out their writing carefully in advance. A strong outline can help you organize your paragraphs in advance according to topic sentence. Following an outline while you write will help you break your paragraphs in logical ways.
Avoiding long or awkward sentences
Sentences that are overly long or awkward make your arguments difficult to follow and can muddy your good ideas. Often they contain extra words or employ complicated sentence structures when simpler, cleaner ones would do as well. For example:
There are arguments about the value of these reports between individuals as do they provide a benefit relative to their expense.
In this case, the writer’s use of “as do they” is complicating the sentence and muddying the logic. What he really means to say is, “There are arguments about the value of these reports and whether they provide a benefit relative to their expense.” The simpler word is the better choice here, shorter and more concise. In addition, the writer’s use of “between individuals” is unnecessary, because it’s clear from the context that individuals will disagree on the value of the reports. Certainly animals or plants won’t do so—therefore, the disagreement must be between people. In addition, the opening clause—“there are arguments”—is weak and passive. Simplifying the sentence clears up its meaning and makes it more active:
Experts argue about the value of these reports and whether they provide a benefit relative to their expense.
Here’s another example:
The reason is because the amount Ford was spending warranted a benefit for the company and others.
Here, the writer’s use of “the reason is because” complicates the sentence unnecessarily. Nothing in that part of the sentence is necessary to the meaning; the whole phrase could come out. “And others” is just extra verbiage and could also come out.
The amount Ford was spending warranted a benefit for the company.
Here’s another overly long sentence:
The IRS announced a voluntary disclosure program under which the IRS would waive any accuracy-related penalty assessed with respect to tax underpayments relating to questionable transactions so long as the taxpayers voluntarily disclosed all relevant information relating to the transaction, including the identity of the promoter, prior to April 23, 2002.
By the time the reader gets to the end of this sentence, he’s forgotten where he started! There are at least two separate ideas in this sentence that could be, and probably should be, broken into separate sentences, and any unnecessary words cut or condensed:
- The IRS announced a voluntary disclosure program under which the IRS would waive underpayment penalties relating to questionable transactions.
- This program would apply if the taxpayer voluntarily disclosed all relevant information relating to the transaction, including the identity of the promoter, prior to April 23, 2002.
Whenever you can omit needless words and simplify sentence structure, you can avoid awkwardness and wordiness in your sentences and paragraphs.
Part of successful business writing is knowing your audience. In a formal essay, your audience is the professor, but many of the writing assignments you’ll receive as a student in the Accounting Program are designed to give you practice writing to business colleagues, clients, or the business community in the form of letters, memos, and sample letters to the editor.
In all these cases, however, you should avoid using “informal language.” Words like “huge” and “major,” “total,” “like,” etc., which you may use all the time in everyday life, are not appropriate to the tone you want to set as a business professional.
Likewise, because your role in these papers is often the role of a teacher or a new expert on the subject matter at hand, you want to make your arguments and statements as clear as possible by not overusing jargon, even if it may be endemic to the industry. If you assume you know more than the person to whom you’re writing, your arguments and explanations will be as clear as possible.
Style issues are those that can differentiate a good paper from an outstanding one. They aren’t errors to avoid—they’re techniques that good writers use to make their meanings clearer, their arguments more dynamic.
Transitions are those words that connect ideas to each other. They are especially important between paragraphs, when you as the writer want to show a logical flow between one idea and the next. Transitions can be comprised of entire sentences, but often single words will suffice to show the logic between sequences of ideas. Words like “also” and “furthermore” are formal enough for professional writing. “However” and “in addition” are also useful transitional words, both at the beginnings of sentences and the beginnings of paragraphs.
However, watch out for “first,” “second,” and “third” or “firstly,” “secondly,” and “thirdly.” These words are often used as markers and transitions between ideas and paragraphs. Unfortunately, they’re both unnecessary and awkward, and they draw attention to themselves within the essay, which is the last thing any writer wants.
Firstly, there are several important issues at stake in the accounting profession since the corporate scandals of the early 2000s. Second, the business community needs to become more accountable to shareholders. And third of all, the shareholders need to understand the way the accounting profession works.
There are several important issues at stake in the accounting profession since the corporate scandals of the early 2000s, and because of those issues, the business community needs to become more accountable to shareholders. However, the shareholders also need to understand the way the accounting profession works.
A strong beginning means writing a dynamic introduction that both underscores the reason for writing and leads up to your thesis statement, which will then explain the topic you’ll discuss, what your central argument will be, and how you’ll support that argument. A strong conclusion is the place to underscore the points you’ve made and expound one last time on what you want the reader to remember after having read your paper.
Part of letting the reader know what your paper is about is establishing the essay's context, the frame within which you will approach your topic. For instance, in an essay or business letter about the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the context may be historical information concerning the writing of the act; it may be the increase in costs to auditing firms since the act was established; or it may cover the need for further legal action to continue to protect the investing public. In establishing the essay's context, you are also limiting your topic. That is, you are framing an approach to your topic that necessarily eliminates other approaches. Thus, when you determine your context, you simultaneously narrow your topic and take a big step toward focusing your essay with a strong, coherent thesis statement.
The true complexity of your idea will not emerge until your conclusion, but your beginning must clearly indicate the direction your idea will take and briefly outline the ways in which you will set about supporting your thesis. By the end of your introduction, readers should know what you're writing about, why it’s important, and why they might want to keep reading.
A conclusion makes you responsible for what you have claimed over the course of the writing assignment. Think of it as the opportunity to assert something about your topic that you could not have asserted before you presented your examples. Most writers find that they have made discoveries about their topic in the process of writing their essays—your conclusion is the place to highlight those discoveries.
The conclusion is not, however, the place to repeat what you’ve already said. "As I've just said..." is a poor way to begin any conclusion. It will not take your reader nearly as long to read your work as it took you to write it, and most readers can remember what they have just read. Repeating yourself unnecessarily undermines all the work you’ve just done to support your topic by making the reader think you don’t remember what you’ve written.
When you sit down to write your conclusion, think again about why you care about this topic. Without looking at the words you have written, write a draft of a concluding paragraph by starting a few sentences this way:
- "This approach to my topic is important because _______."
- "I now understand ______ about this topic, because _______."
- "I believe my topic is important because_______."
When you compose your final draft of this concluding paragraph, edit out these phrases and keep the assertions in the blanks.
"I believe the release of Ethics and Independence Rules Concerning Independence, Tax Services, and Contingent Fees is a positive step forward in maintaining auditor independence because it will manufacture trust in the minds of investors."
Final edited version:
"The release of Ethics and Independence Rules Concerning Independence, Tax Services, and Contingent Fees is a positive step forward in maintaining auditor independence that will manufacture trust in the minds of investors."
You remind your reader of your discussion, and you conclude with a well-founded claim. Expand in a few more thoughtful sentences, and you have your conclusion.
Varying your word choice can help make your writing more interesting to read. Repetition of words, especially when it’s unnecessary, makes for dull writing:
In his statement, Snow stated, “taxpayers and promoters could use these schemes with little risk of detection.”
In his statement, Snow said, “taxpayers and promoters could use these schemes with little risk of detection.”
The English language has an internal rhythm that is not unlike music—it has beats and timing akin to poetry. (Poetry, in fact, uses the rhythms that already exist in the language to its advantage.) Even in business writing, however, those beats and rhythms can become monotonous if you use the same sentence structures over and over. Many long sentences in a row can be dull to read, eye-glazing, which is the last thing you want in your writing. Using the same type of sentence (simple, compound, and complex) can do the same.
Based on the available information, we should proceed with caution. Under the current rules, several things would have to change to make the decision legitimate. After we study these rules, we should meet to discuss them.
This paragraph contains three sentences with the exact same type of sentence structure. It’s repetitive and dull, but it doesn’t have to be.
The information currently available suggests we should proceed with caution. Under the current rules, several things would have to change to make the decision to move forward legitimate, and we should meet to discuss the new rules once we’ve had a chance to study them.
In addition, many short sentences in a row can be choppy, and often they require repeating words unnecessarily. You want to vary your sentences to make reading your work easier and more enjoyable:
A boom in illegal tax shelters resulted in a loss of $33 billion in tax revenue. The $33 billion loss includes only tax shelters the IRS uncovered. The true amount likely accounts for a larger portion of the $250 to $300 billion gap between taxes owed and taxes collected.
A boom in illegal tax shelters resulted in a loss of $33 billion in tax revenue, but that amount includes only tax shelters the IRS uncovered. The true amount likely accounts for a larger portion of the $250 to $300 billion gap between taxes owed and taxes collected.
Passive voice is a problem throughout the world of business communication, but it is not one to which you must subscribe. Passive voice muddies arguments by making actions unclear:
- There is an improvement in the accuracy of information given to the audit committee by auditors.
- New rules regarding these tax services need to be implemented.
But who, exactly, is doing the action in these sentences? In the first sentence, the group of people doing the action is saved for the end of the sentence, after the action the group is performing, when the group could just as easily come before the action without altering the sentence’s meaning at all:
- There is an improvement in the accuracy of information auditors give the audit committee.
The new sentence is clearer, less wordy.
In the second sentence, the group of people needing to perform the action is even less clear. The writer is trying to urge an action, a change in rules, but without a clear sense of who should implement such rules, the call to action is weak and unclear.
- We need to implement new rules regarding these tax services.
- The IRS needs to implement new rules regarding these tax services.
Either construction is better than the original.
However, there are a few instances in which passive voice is a useful business tool. When you as a business writer are trying to diffuse blame for a mistake, for example, it may be less helpful to say, “we made a mistake” than to say “mistakes were made.” In discussion of taxation law, for another, it would be wearisome to any writer (and reader) to read “the IRS will tax companies” or “the IRS taxes individuals” over and over again. In this case, the use of passive voice—“companies are taxed”—is acceptable usage.
Omit needless words
“Needless words” refers to redundant, throat-clearing language that can and should be cut to get to the topic at hand. Stretching material to reach a desired paper length is another example of needless words. Wordiness complicates sentence structure and requires more work on the part of the reader to tease out the writer’s true meaning.
- Engardio states the opponents of CSR reporting claim that companies use these reports merely as a tool for “polishing the company image.”
- The reason is because the amount Ford was spending warranted a benefit for the company and others.
The first example is trying to attribute the information to Engardio’s article, but the writer unnecessarily does so by adding extra words when proper citation format would do the trick without overcomplicating the sentence. The second example includes “throat-clearing” words the writer should have omitted once he had managed to state what he really thought about Ford’s spending. “The reason is because” constructions are almost always unnecessary to your meaning and can come out. “And others” adds nothing to the sentence’s meaning because it’s too vague to be useful.
- Opponents of CSR reporting claim that companies use these reports merely as a tool for “polishing the company image.” (Engardio, 2007)
- The amount Ford was spending warranted a benefit for the company.