The tax profession has long recognized that the ability to write helps CPAs advance to more responsibility and higher pay. From the CPA exam, which tests written skills, through an entire career, tax professionals need to structure an argument and express it in clear, correct prose.
In 1961, the AICPA used a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to determine “the common body of knowledge needed by those about to begin their professional careers as certified public accountants” (Roy and MacNeill, “Horizons for a Profession: The Common Body of Knowledge,” 122 Journal of Accountancy 38 (September 1966)). When, as part of this study, senior tax professionals ranked 53 items of knowledge and skill needed by entry-level accountants, written and oral communication appeared at the top of the list.
In 1989, the country’s largest CPA firms co-authored a white paper titled “Perspectives on Education: Capabilities for Success in the Accounting Profession” (American Accounting Association, 1989). In that paper, the authors stated that the ability to obtain, analyze, and present knowledge is a critical skill for tax professionals and that the profession needs to encourage this skill for continued growth.
The written or oral presentation of tax knowledge challenges tax professionals, especially those new to the profession. Their schooling focused on learning a considerable and ever-growing body of technical knowledge and applying it to compliance services but did not emphasize communication.
By not learning to communicate well, however, especially in written form, tax professionals limit their practice to compliance services. “If we want to shift from more of a compliance-driven tax practice to one that is more consultative, we need to invest in providing training to develop and increase the writing skills of our professionals who will deliver these services,” said a tax managing director from RSM McGladrey. That firm’s leaders consider writing to be at or near the top of a tax professional’s requisite skills. They see it as the driving factor behind the organization’s strategic plan for growth.
In response to management’s interest in writing, course developers at McGladrey adopted a blended approach to teaching writing skills. The program they created included tax examples and exercises that followed the profession’s best practices and the protocols of the firm. Other firms and academic programs could adapt this model to suit their distinctive situations and needs.
This column describes how this group of tax professionals, one of whom is also an adult learning specialist, collaborated with a writing consultant to create a distinctive training experience for CPAs on how to write for the profession. The writing program they created offers a model to other firms and to tax educators who realize the importance of teaching writing but do not feel they have the time or expertise to develop their own program, or do not see how to fit yet another “extra” into an already overloaded curriculum.
The need to write pervades every area of responsibility in the tax profession. Whether tax professionals are responding to a question, requesting information, preparing a tax return, conducting tax research, or writing a tax memo, they produce a written document as the final deliverable. Informally, tax professionals use e-mail to request information, schedule meetings, and address other corporate interactions. All these documents must be well written to present the writer and the organization in a positive light.
If the documents are weak, readers find themselves ill served: Colleagues lose time and patience, managers have to edit or rewrite, clients make poor decisions based on inaccurate or misunderstood information, careers suffer, and the organization loses growth opportunities and compromises its reputation. As another managing director at McGladrey said, without strong writing skills “we are at a competitive disadvantage in the tax consulting world . . . and we also limit people’s advancement if we don’t help them learn these skills.”
Learning to write is a difficult process, and few professionals start their careers as effective writers. Senior staff who lament the poor writing skills of new professionals may have forgotten that it took them years of experience and mentoring to achieve their current proficiency. Whatever the cause, most firms find that their staff accountants need to improve their writing ability, and the faster they can do so, the more competitive the business can become.
Redesigning the Curriculum
At McGladrey, developing writing skills had been part of the core curriculum for staff tax professionals for many years. Course objectives included writing for a specific audience and purpose, structuring entire documents and parts of the document, and editing for correctness, consistency, and clarity. Despite valid content, this course had not been tailored to writing specific types of tax documents and expressing tax content, just as a university rhetoric class would not directly address writing situations that tax professionals encounter.
The course developers redesigned the program to meet specific needs of a tax practice. Following adult learning principles, they focused on ensuring that the program was relevant, currently applicable, and practical. In addition, they minimized time “talking about” writing and maximized the time participants spent writing and receiving feedback. To accomplish these goals, the program needed to expand beyond the original eight-hour classroom session. A blended learning approach—synchronous and asynchronous e-learning and instructor-led classes—met the constraints of time and budget.
The New Tax Curriculum
The new program comprises four modules. The first, a one-hour webcast, builds the business case for writing skills, outlines the writing program, introduces the next module, and provides the opportunity for participants to critique a tax document, a topic developed later in the program. In the second module, a self-study on grammar and punctuation, participants complete exercises on Georgia State University’s M.Tx. Writing Web Site, which the university authorized for use in this program. For the third and fourth modules, participants attend a day and a half of a class taught by a writing professional and a senior tax professional. The classroom sessions emphasize writing techniques on the first day and apply the writing techniques to an exercise on writing a tax opinion memo on the second half day.
Module 1—Writing: What’s at stake: Module 1 of the writing program, delivered via a one-hour webcast, is co-taught by a learning and development professional and a senior tax practitioner. The learning objectives include evaluating the quality of a tax memo by comparing it with a company standard and introducing participants to the writing program. Participants begin the session by reviewing a tax research memo from the perspective of the client-recipient. They evaluate the quality of the memo by determining whether a client would understand the issues and could assess the risk or reward associated with each option described for each issue. In the final segment of this module, participants learn about the M.Tx. Writing Web Site and receive guidelines for completing module 2. While this webcast involves information sharing, the presenters keep lecturing to a minimum by including writing exercises and opportunities for interactive responses.
Module 2—Basis: Grammar and punctuation: To address grammar and punctuation, the program uses the basic skills section of the M.Tx. Writing Web Site. Each section begins with a brief overview followed by 5–10 self-tests, which consist of 5–10 questions each. The real learning comes through completing the exercises—rewriting sentences to be more succinct, inserting appropriate punctuation, and moving from passive to active voice. Because the examples are tax specific and include tax terminology (e.g., deductions, exclusions, credits, court cases, and Internal Revenue Code), participants see writing principles at work in their field. The message is clear, immediate, and practical.
To obtain National Association of State Boards of Accountancy CPE credit for this self-study, participants must complete self-tests on the website and a final exam, which was written by the program’s developers. Participants complete this module before they attend the next two, which are instructor led.
Module 3—Strategic writing skills: Two instructors—a writer and a tax professional—lead this eight-hour class. Objectives include applying research-based strategies for selecting and organizing appropriate content; structuring content for clarity and readability; using layout to aid the reader; and editing for substance, format, integrity, language, and tone. Participants engage in interactive exercises in which they assess the success of documents based on how well these documents serve readers’ needs.
At the whole-document level, readers want context, the main point, and a road map—preferably in that order—right up front. Participants see that changing this order affects the clarity and tone of a document. In the body of a document, readers expect a “parallel rhythm” of information, which increases reading efficiency and understanding. In a tax memo, for example, the parallel rhythm is the order of five elements: fact, issue, authority, analysis, and conclusion. If the writer breaks that order, the reader has to work harder to understand the information.
At the sentence level, the reader understands more rapidly if he or she hears a rhythm that approximates “who or what did what.” The opposite structure—what was done—hides the agent of the action, so facts presented in a tax memo, for example, can “float” with no responsible party attesting to a situation. This simple rhythm, consistently applied, produces better sentences than the application of several more complicated guidelines.
In addition to helping participants use structure to serve content, the instructors ask participants to identify their personal negotiating style to learn how it affects their writing—i.e., what they select to write about, how they structure content, and how their decisions determine tone. If left unaware of their negotiating style, writers lose control of their writing process and wonder why some documents succeed while others do not, or why some e-mail incurs angry replies or misinterpretation. Participants frequently comment on highly charged e-mail they receive that addresses relatively small matters. The course shows how a collaborative style mirrors an ideal structure for professional writing and how both appear in positive examples of tax documents.
As a final exercise in this module, participants apply course principles to writing an e-mail. The writing professional reads and annotates each e-mail and offers private comments to each participant. The module also introduces the tax memo format and a case study in preparation for the next module.
Module 4—Applying principles to a case: In this module, participants discuss the case they reviewed in module 3 and complete blank sections of a tax memo to illustrate that they can use the template and apply writing principles discussed in the first three modules. The same two instructors lead this four-hour session, with the tax professional taking the lead on discussing the case and guiding participants through the exercise and the thinking behind the memo structure. Participants receive the authorities and a list of issues so they can focus on writing, not tax research methodology. The instructor asks participants to write the analysis and conclusion sections for four out of six issues. Participants receive the analysis and conclusions for the first two issues to serve as examples.
Participants discuss their drafts with the instructors and each other, reviewing content and writing. The two instructors review each individual’s work. Participants leave with the “answer,” a completed version of the same tax memo to use as a reference, and an invitation to send the instructors a memo they have written when they get back to their offices or to call with follow-up questions.
Learning to write well requires that professionals write often and that they receive timely, effective feedback on their writing. The former writing program helped participants develop writing skills, but it did not address the specific needs of a tax practice or afford sufficient opportunities for multiple writing exercises and feedback.
The new program aligns with the types of written communication required of tax professionals. By focusing on writing tax memos, it reinforces the firm’s professional standards for delivering tax advice to clients. Using a blended solution of webcast, self-study, and classroom time has offered the best option for sustained instruction and a learning experience that satisfies the needs and preferences of adult learners.
Even a transformed writing program, however, does not ensure permanent proficiency. Tax professionals, especially early in their careers, must continue to hone their writing skills by taking advantage of opportunities to write and by receiving feedback and guidance on their writing. To promote ongoing feedback, the firm also offers a writing program for senior tax professionals on coaching writing skills. This program helps participants overcome their reticence to coach in an area where they might not feel entirely competent, either because they question their own writing skills or because they cannot describe the changes they would like to see in documents and could more comfortably make those changes themselves. This program helps them identify how and why documents fail or succeed and gives them specific tips on coaching their staff to higher levels of proficiency.
While the firm has made progress in promoting better writing skills, encouraging better writing is a journey rather than a destination. The firm will continue to refine the writing program and look for additional opportunities to provide ongoing writing feedback to employees. The firm’s leaders are also acquiring evidence that good writing helps expand their business and helps young tax professionals extend their horizons by moving beyond compliance to include consultative services.
How to Add Writing Skills to a Curriculum
Incorporating writing into the curriculum is relevant not only to CPA firms but to college and university tax programs as well as to corporate tax departments. For college and university tax programs, professors can “bootleg” writing skills into the curriculum by including short-paragraph responses in examinations and making the quality of the writing part of the grade. Going a step further, professors might link mentors from local CPA firms who would volunteer to work with students in tax research classes on the thinking and writing that goes into the clear, correct expression of a tax case and opinion.
Depending on time and culture, professors at a larger university might encourage students of law, rhetoric (specifically technical communication), and tax to present and critique papers on technical topics that relate to all three areas, or invite graduate students and professors in rhetoric to review papers that tax research students have written. The advantage of this cross-cultural experience is that it reflects the real world.
Corporate tax departments also need professionals who can communicate clearly and effectively with their internal clients, who are professionals with varied backgrounds. A corporate writing program can easily modify the model presented in this column by focusing on writing for internal clients, using their firm’s document protocol.
The key to a successful writing program for tax professionals (or future tax professionals) is to make sure that the writing directly relates to their work, that the program requires them to produce a written document, and that they receive feedback on their writing. Each community can leverage its unique instructional resources to design an appropriate writing program.
Annette Nellen is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, CA. She is a former member of the AICPA Tax Division’s Tax Executive Committee and is a current member of the AICPA Tax Division’s Individual Income Tax Technical Resource Panel. Diane Orlich Kuhlmann, formerly with McGladrey in Bloomington, MN, is currently completing a Ph.D. in human resource development at the University of Minnesota. Mary Ryba Knepper is with Ryba Associates, Inc., in Andersonville, TN. Harvey Coustan is with Harvey Coustan, LLC, in Evanston, IL. Mr. Coustan is a member of the AICPA’s Tax Practice Responsibilities Committee. For more information about this column, contact Ms. Kuhlmann at firstname.lastname@example.org, Ms. Knepper at email@example.com or Mr. Coustan at firstname.lastname@example.org.