Written Communication Frequently Composed by Entry-Level
by: Susan M. Moncada, Sandra J. Nelson, and Douglas C.
Recent developments in accounting education and the profession
have emphasized that possessing good written communication skills is important
to succeed in the practice of accounting. Some accounting professionals
feel that improving written communication skills is the most important
additional education that should be addressed by the 150-hour requirement
to sit for the CPA examination. The decision of the AICPA to test writing
skills, beginning with the May 1994 examination, also acknowledges the
importance of having well-developed written communication skills. Furthermore,
we know that writing ability has been an important factor affecting performance
appraisals and salary increases of entry-level accountants.
To be adequately prepared for the accounting profession, job applicants
should know the types of written documents they will be expected to compose
as entry-level accountants. In addition, accounting and business-communication
faculty must provide students with opportunities to practice writing the
types of written communication required by the profession.
This article1 identifies the types of written communication that entry-level
accountants most frequently compose. In addition, we compare the perceptions
of CPAs employed in public accounting to those employed in industry. Specifically,
we wanted to find out the extent to which entry-level accountants, employed
by either sector, compose the same types of documents. Also, we examine
the differences based on the size of public accounting firms.
CPAs employed in public practice and industry from a Midwestern state
were surveyed. From a list of 15 types of written communication, all respondents
were asked to rank the eight most frequently written by entry-level accountants.
An "other, please specify" category was included as the sixteenth
item on our survey instrument in case we inadvertently omitted a viable
form of written communication. We received 261 usable instruments from
150 public accountants and 108 management accountants. Three individuals
did not specify how they were employed.
Written Documents Frequently Composed
First of all, entry-level accountants create to some extent all 15 types
of written communication listed in the survey instrument as shown in Table
I. The top eight forms of written communication most frequently composed,
however, are working papers, memoranda, general business letters, instructions
and procedures, documentation for an existing system, analytical reports
involving comparisons and evaluations, electronic messages, and compilation
review reports. Based on the magnitude of the percentages, the remaining
eight types of communication may be composed, but much less frequently.
We also feel that the items identified on the survey instrument thoroughly
represent the types of written communication entry-level accountants compose.
Only sixteen individuals (5 from industry, 11 from public practice) ranked
the "Other" category. The types of other communication listed
included Internal Revenue Service correspondence, client-assistance request
letters, special-analysis workpapers, billing descriptions, and personal
to-do lists. While some entry-level accountants may be expected to construct
these documents, the low number of responses suggests that these items
are seldom composed.
Table I- Rankings of Written Communication Frequently Composed
|General Business Letters
|Instructions & Procedures
|Documenting a System
|| 8 (27.2%)
|| 8 (24.6%)
|| 14 (5.9%)
|| 12 (9.1%)
|| 13 (6.8%)
|New Business Proposals
|| 16 (3.1%)
N = 261
|N = 150
||N = 108
Note: The percentages shown are based on the total possible
points any one item could be awarded.Comparisons by Employment Sector
When we compare the perceptions of CPAs by employment sector, the rankings
are somewhat different. The top five types of communication composed by
entry-level accountants in public practice were among the same five items
identified by the entire sample. The most notable disparities involve
composing analytical reports, progress reports, and compilation/review
reports. For entry-level accountants employed by industry, analytical
reports appear to be composed more frequently, while documentation for
an existing system and compilation/review reports are composed less frequently.
Also, it appears that the perceptions of accountants employed in public
practice vary more than the perceptions of the accountants employed in
industry. For the public accountants, only three items (the other category,
performance reviews, and new business proposals) received less than 14%
of the total possible points available per item. Six items (tax-research
reports, audit programs, audit reports, performance reviews, new business
proposals, and the other category), rated by accountants employed by industry,
received less than this percentage. As a result, we can infer that new
accountants employed by public accounting firms may be expected to compose
a wider variety of accounting business documents than entry-level accountants
employed by industry.
Comparisons by CPA Firm Size
When we look at the top eight forms of communication ranked by firm size,
we also see some interesting differences (see Table II). CPAs working
for local firms said that entry-level accountants compose compilation/review
reports more frequently at their firms than did either CPAs employed by
regional or "Big Six" firms. CPAs working for regional firms
felt that entry-level accountants compose electronic messages more frequently
at their firms than did either the CPAs employed by Big Six or local firms.
The most striking discrepancies, however, exist between the rankings of
the Big Six CPA firms and the other two groups. CPAs employed by Big Six
firms indicated that three forms of communication (documentation for existing
systems, analytical reports involving comparisons and evaluations, and
management letters) are composed more frequently by their entry-level
accountants than did the CPAs from the regional and local firms. It should
be noted that at least two-thirds of the respondents from each group awarded
points to the top eight forms of written communication identified in Table
|Rankings by CPA Firm Size
|| 1 (91.4%)
|| 3 (51.2%)
|Documenting a System
|| 6 (33.9%)
|General Business Letters
|Instructions & Procedures
||N = 34
||N = 35
||N = 81
Note: The percentages shown are based on the total possible points any
one item could be awarded.
To be adequately prepared for the accounting profession, new accountants
should know how to compose the forms of written communication most likely
required on the job. Furthermore, entry-level accountants should realize
that they will be expected to compose different forms of written communication
more frequently than others, depending upon whether they are employed
by industry, a Big Six, regional, or local public accounting firm.
The top three forms of written communication entry-level accountants compose,
regardless of how they are employed, are working papers, memoranda, and
general business letters. College accounting programs usually require
students to complete a business-communications course. This course teaches
students how to compose, through practice, the forms of written communication
common to all business majors (namely, memoranda, business letters, analytical
reports, electronic messages, and progress reports).
Many forms of written communication, however, are unique to the accounting
profession. Included is the top-ranked item, working papers. Practicing
accountants create client working papers for income tax returns and audit
engagements. A number of commercial software packages exist to assist
accountants in the creation of these working papers. Accounting faculty
can help by teaching students how to compose profession-specific documentation
as part of appropriate courses. Training students to use a software package,
like Workpapers Plus, might be one approach.
Students who participate in an accounting internship or co-op have the
opportunity to experience "real-world" professional correspondence
composed by accountants.
For example, in addition to working papers, a client's audit file generally
contains memos requesting advice, reporting research results, or describing
work done. Past compilation/review reports and management advisory letters
are another typical component. Much can be learned by examining the logical
organization, relevant content, message tone, audience focus, and language
usage found in these documents.
Finally, at least one writing handbook should be included in every new
accountant's personal reference library. Effective Writing: A Handbook
for Accountants by Claire and Gordon May is an excellent resource guide.
This handbook provides excellent examples of written communication composed
by accountants. The Guide to Managerial Communication by Mary Munter is
another handbook that provides basic writing instruction in a compact,
Being familiar with, as well as knowing how to compose, the types of business
documents most frequently written by entry-level accountants is an essential
component of every new accountant's education. Accounting is the process
of measuring and communicating information. The ability to communicate
effectively in writing plays an important part in an accountant's success
on the job.
Susan M. Moncada is an assistant professor at Indiana St.
University; Sandra J. Nelson and Douglas C. Smith are associate professors
at Indiana St. University and the University of Kentucky, respectively.
This study was funded by the Center for Research and Management Services,
School of Business, Indiana St. University.