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Good writing counts.

number of recent developments affecting the accounting profession--congressional investigations of alleged audit failures, the public's enhanced awareness of what CPAs do and the increase in sophistication of the users of CPAs' written products--have caused many CPAs to focus on the importance of good writing skills. Both practitioners and academicians have voiced concerns that CPAs do not possess the writing skflls needed to serve the public.

The American Institute of CPAs board of examiners, composed of nine AICPA members from academe and public practice, responded to these concerns by deciding to test writing skills explicitly on the Uniform CPA Examination and, as a result, established a special writing skills task force. The task force's recommendations, adopted by the board of examiners in January 1991, will be implemented beginning with the May 1994 CPA exam.


Many people agree CPAs should be good writers but think writing skills are not a relevant topic for the CPA exam. These people may be surprised to learn that writing skills have been evaluated implicitly on exam essay responses for some time. Even though specific points are not currently allocated for good writing, CPA candidates who communicate their technical knowledge in a clear, well-organized manner are likely to receive higher scores on their essay responses than candidates who communicate poorly. The board of examiners' new policy requires explicit evaluation of writing skills--that is, specific points will be allocated for these skills.

The board of examiners' goal in elevating writing skills from an implicit to an explicit evaluation is to impress on CPA candidates the importance of good writing skills to their careers. According to the AICPA Practice Analysis of Certified Public Accountants in Public Accounting, issued in 1991, CPAs--including those at entry levels--must produce a variety of written products. Further, the white paper issued in 1989 by the then eight largest CPA firms, Perspectives on Education: Capabilities for Success in the Accounting Profession, emphasized that practitioners must be able to present and defend their views in writing. The variety and complexity of auditing, accounting and tax issues CPAs must be able to communicate to their clients and users of financial information make good writing skills a relevant prerequisite for public practice.

One of the first issues the task force addressed was how to test writing skills-- should they be tested through (1) objective questions, (2) a separate essay question graded only for writing skills or (3) essay questions also graded for technical content? Because of the task force's concern that the writing skills evaluated on the CPA exam should relate to the writing skills required of a new CPA, it concluded the essay questions that are graded for technical content should be graded for writing skills as well.


CPA candidates' writing abilities will be evaluated on three of the four sections of the new exam structure that will be implemented beginning with the May 1994 exam: Financial Accounting & Reporting-- Business Enterprises; Auditing; and Business Law & Professional Responsibilities. (The fourth new section, Accounting & Reporting-Taxation, Managerial, and Governmental and Not-for-Profit Organizations, will consist entirely of objective questions.) Each of the three sections will contain two or more essay questions, constituting 20% to 30% of the total points for that section. No fewer than two essay responses in each of these three sections will be graded for writing skills.

Currently, the CPA exam preparers are careful to develop essay questions dealing with technical topics a new CPA is likely to encounter. Although the writing skills assessment will not change significantly the way essay questions are designed, it will add a new twist. Exam preparers also will ensure the essay questions elicit a type of writing sample a new CPA typically is expected to prepare. For example, an essay question may require the candidate to prepare a memorandum to the audit workpapers explaining the audit approach for inventories. Another question may ask candidates to draft a note to the financial statements describing a client's revenue recognition policy. Therefore, CPA candidates should pay careful attention to the requirements of the essay questions, particularly any instructions about the type of writing sample required and its intended reader and purpose.

Candidates will be expected to demonstrate the following six characteristics in their essays:

1. Coherent organization. Candidates should organize responses so ideas are arranged logically and the flow of thought is easy to follow. Generally, short paragraphs composed of short sentences, with each paragraph limited to the development of one principal idea, can best emphasize the main points in the answer. Each principal idea should be placed in the first sentence of the paragraph, followed by supporting concepts and examples.

2. Conciseness. Candidates should present complete thoughts in the fewest words possible while ensuring important points are covered adequately. Short sentences and simple wording also contribute to concise writing.

3. Clarity. A clearly written response prevents uncertainty about the candidate's meaning or reasoning. Clarity involves using words with specific and precise meanings, including proper technical terminology. Well-constructed sentences also contribute to clarity.

4. Use of standard English. Responses should be written using standard English. The Business Writer's Handbook by Charles T. Brusaw, Gerald J. Aired and Walter E. Oliu (4th ed., St. Martin's Press, New York, 1992) describes standard English as follows:

"There are two broad varieties of written English: standard and nonstandard. These varieties are determined through usage by those who write in the English language. Standard English... is used to carry on the daily business of the nation. It is the language of business, industry, government, education, and the professions. Standard English is characterized by exacting standards of punctuation and capitalization, by accurate spelling, by exact diction, by an expressive vocabulary, and by knowledgeable usage choices."

5. Responsiveness to the requirements of the question. Answers should address the requirements of the question directly and demonstrate the candidate's awareness of the purpose of the writing task. Responses should not be broad expositions on the general subject matter.

6. Appropriateness for the reader. Writing appropriate for the reader takes into account the reader's background, knowledge of the subject, interests and concerns. Some essay questions may ask candidates to prepare a document for a certain reader, such as an engagement memorandum for a CPA's client. When the intended reader is not specified, the candidate should assume the reader is a knowledgeable CPA.

Given these characteristics, CPA candidates may be concerned about having enough time to prepare well-written responses, particularly under exam conditions. Candidates may be relieved to know they will not be expected to prepare formal essays. However, they should be aware that good writing involves good editing; as a result, they should allow adequate time to refine and proofread their responses. One suggestion: Writing on every other line leaves room for revisions. The edited essay can have inserts, erasures and strike-outs as long as it is legible.


Deciding how much weight to place on writing skills was difficult. The task force wanted to achieve a balance between influencing candidates' preparation for the exam and retaining the emphasis on technical knowledge and skills. It concluded that 5% of the points available for each section would be allocated to writing skills. Five points on a 100-point exam section may not sound like much; however, candidates should not underestimate the impact these 5 points can have on whether they pass or fail. Because many candidates' scores are clustered around the passing point, 1 point often determines the difference between passing and failing grades.

These 5 points will be allocated to at least two essay responses in each of the three sections. When they take the exam, candidates will not know which essay responses will be graded for writing skills or how many points on a given question will be attributed to them. Candidates will know only that at least two essay responses in the section will be graded for writing skills. The intent is not to withhold information from candidates; rather, it is to encourage them to demonstrate good writing skills on all essay responses.


Writing skills will be graded, using the holistic grading method, by the same people who grade the essay responses for technical content. As the term implies, holistic grading treats the writing sample as a whole. A grader will assign a single writing skills score, based on his or her general impression of the candidate's writing abilities, to each essay response selected for evaluation. Graders will be instructed to base their impressions on the six characteristics described earlier.


The new writing skills evaluation is certain to have an immediate impact on entry-level CPAs' writing skills. The board of examiners expects the increased emphasis of writing skills on the CPA exam will encourage accounting firms and universities to require their employees and students to become better writers and to provide necessary instruction and training. As CPAs' written communications improve, their clients, regulatory agencies, the public and other users of CPAs' products will have a better grasp of the services CPAs perform and of CPAs' responsibilities.

The 11th edition of the AICPA's Information for CPA Candidates, which will be available this December, will contain additional information about the writing skills assessment on the CPA exam.


* THERE HAS BEEN growing concern that CPAs do not possess the written communication skills needed to serve the public.

* STARTING WITH THE MAY 1994 Uniform CPA Examination, the responses to some essay questions will be graded for candidates' writing skills. * AT LEAST TWO ESSAY responses on three of the four exam sections (Financial Accounting & Reporting--Business Enterprises; Auditing; and Business Law & Professional Responsibilities) will be graded for writing skills; 5 of the 100 points available for each section will be allocated to writing skills assessment.

* CANDIDATES WILL BE expected to demonstrate these six characteristics in their essays: coherent organization, conciseness, clarity, use of standard English, responsiveness to the requirements of the question and appropriateness for the reader.
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Title Annotation:accountants' writing skills
Author:Menelaides, Susan L.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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