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CPAs, Raise Your Standards!

Carrie wrote to me this week with a complaint about the writing at her accounting firm. She said:

"I proofread most of the mailings that the firm sends out. I often point out run-on sentences, only to be told 'It's industry standard language' or 'That's business writing.' My point of view is that proper grammar should be used at all times when writing . . . and that business communications are not exempt. Am I wrong on these points?' "

No, Carrie, you are not wrong. Your accounting firm needs to raise its standards.

CPAs (certified public accountants) have attended my business writing classes. They have shared samples of writing with 80-word sentences. Yes, sentences 80 words long! When I have commented on the difficulty in understanding complex sentences of that length, they have responded, "Oh, ignore that sentence–it's industry standard language." They even suggest that they are legally required to write those sentences that way.

Rubbish! There is no legal requirement to write incomprehensible sentences. And if that is the industry standard, then rise above it! Your clients will be grateful.

I am picking on accounting firms today because of Carrie's message. But I regularly see similar examples from other industries–even from communications companies–in the business writing courses I lead. When I give constructive feedback on a passage that is difficult to understand, the writer will say something like "That's our standard statement of work." Again I say, "Raise your standards!"

Remember: Your clients read the writing you send them. They read the letters, contracts, statements of work, responses to requests for proposals, project charters, and similar documents. If those documents are not clear and concise with short, well-constructed sentences, your clients are slogging through them. They may be wondering why they chose (or would choose) to work with you, since your writing is so dense and difficult to read.

Do not give yourself a free pass on effective business writing. Raise your standards. Exceed your clients' expectations. That is what they want from you.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

10 comments on “CPAs, Raise Your Standards!”

  • I’m with you!

    I did some freelance work for an accounting firm a few months ago. They recognized their need for clearer communication with clients–a great first step.

    Interestingly, when I submitted the draft, they made several edits, elongating all of the concise sentences.

    I think the lengthy writing “style” is a part of the industry culture. (As it is with other industries too.)

  • Amen! I am teaching a writing class for our MS in Accounting students and will share this with them.

    Much of this could be a misplaced desire to seem ‘smart’ to clients and, for that reason, ‘worth’ the high charges they are charging.

    Clients may not want to ask for simpler writing because they don’t want to seem stupid (which is ridiculous but very common in the biz world).

    And to the person who said 80-word sentences were industry standard, the SEC says otherwise:


  • JMCCW, I appreciate your links to the SEC (U.S. Securities and Exchange Commision) announcements.

    Reviewing the requirements, I enjoyed seeing that the SEC insists upon the following:

    –Short sentences
    –Definite, concrete, everyday language
    –Active voice
    –Tabular presentation of complex information
    –No legal jargon
    –No multiple negatives

    I don’t believe complicated writing ever comes across as intelligent in business communications. Yes, I appreciate the long, winding sentences of literary fiction writers such as James Joyce and William Faulkner. But in business messages? Never!

    Thanks for sharing.


  • Great post, Lynn! I used to work for a CPA firm and am now a technical writer for a tax software company, so I’ve seen some pretty atrocious stuff. And I get the “that’s-just-the-industry-standard” and “we’re-legally-required-to-write-it-this-way” lines ALL the time. I think it’s the industry standard to say those things. šŸ™‚

  • I’m a fairly regular commenter here, so I hope you’ll forgive this blatant plug of my own blog.

    Your readers with this problem might like to check out two recent posts I wrote on how to stop verbose execs from mangling your writing. It’s a problem I am very familiar with.

  • Clare, I just read your excellent posts. You share much wisdom for corporate writers, and I hope others will read your work.

    Thank you for wisely blowing your own horn here in the service of good writing!


  • I can’t help but think of an example of improper punctuation use. A colleague uses … excessively in their email. For example: “I got your message… I agree with what you said…. We should set something up soon… Thanks, Crystal S…

    Have a great day…..

    They probably don’t realize how silly it comes across. I’ve been told that I may come across is overly critical at times so I decided not to say something in an email, but will when I see my colleague in person.

    What’s funny is my boss started doing it after he had been communicating with our colleague. It must be catching!!

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