CPE for Government Auditors

Audit Report Writing Tip: The Three Stages of Editing

The editing hierarchy for audit reports

When I first began my role as editor of audit reports in a large audit office, I edited in the silliest way possible. I wasted so much time and caused so much animosity, it is surprising they kept me on the payroll.

Here is what I would do: I would get a draft of an auditor’s finding or report, pull out my red pen and start hacking away. I would correct every sentence of the audit report as I went—making each one perfect. I also added the occasional scribbled note in the margins—or right over the center of the auditor’s writing—sharing such brilliance as, “Why is this here?”, “This isn’t the effect”, “I don’t understand the purpose of this whole paragraph!”

I would proudly return the marked-up copy of the audit report to the auditor, who would look at it with shock and disappointment. I walked away thinking “Well, that is just how it goes. Editing is painful and somebody had to do it.”

I finally got a clue

After a few months of this, after several of my acquaintances stopped saying hello to me in the hall, after several arguments with annoyed authors, I finally got the clue that I was doing something wrong.

I realized that returning a redlined, bleeding audit report to the auditor caused defensiveness. DUH. I realized that the quality of the reports was not improving and that I was just another bureaucrat in the process —a barrier to getting the project completed. I realized that I was wasting a lot of time making happy-to-glad changes and that if I kept up at this rate, I was going to become an overworked and bitter little editor.

Here is what I learned and it changed my work life and the reporting process of my authors completely: Edit for organization first, readability second, and grammar third. And if it is fine the way it is, leave it the heck alone. (If you missed my harangue on leaving well enough alone, see https://yellowbook-cpe.com/how-to-take-the-ouch-out-of-editing-2.html )

The editing hierarchy

The first thing you do when editing is to read the whole audit report without a pen in your hand. Then you read it a second time with the goal of figuring out how the report is organized. Finally, you ask yourself if the organization of the document is logical and if the author has met the goals of the audit report.

If the answer is yes—the document is logical—you have taken care of 90% of your editing work. You can move on to readability and grammar. If the answer is no, then you do whatever it takes to fix the organization before you invest another second of your time.

Why? Because if the audit report isn’t well-organized, whole paragraphs may disappear! And these very paragraphs may be the ones you just spent thirty minutes perfecting.

So in addition to the writer being in love with—married to—those sentences and paragraphs, you are, too. You will hesitate to cut because gosh darn it, you spent time on that sentence, and it is good!

Stephen King has a great book out about writing—aptly called On Writing. In it he says, “Kill your darlings.” And although it is Stephen King, he doesn’t mean for you to create the living dead out of your pets! He means cut needless sentences and paragraphs out ruthlessly, no matter how attached you are to them.

Don't waste your time on grammar until the document is well organized.

Does this report make sense?

How do you critique the organization?

How do you figure out if a audit report is well organized? If you are editing a finding, you can rely on the five elements to guide you. A finding is well organized if it has all the elements and the elements match. All you have to do is highlight or note where the elements are and make sure they match!

If your audit report isn’t structured as a series of findings—it may have some other predefined structure to follow. Often newspaper reporters are instructed to answer “Who, what, where, when, and how.” If there is no logical structure for you to lean on, then mark the bones of the logical structure with a highlighter or pen. You can make notes in the margin or tag the main points with sticky notes.

One editor I worked with created a separate word document that sketched out the bones of the audit report so that he could easily review it for logic.

I have also seen folks write each major point on a post-it note. This method allows the editor to easily change the order of the major points.

What do you do if it is not logical?

Let me start with what you do not do. You do NOT rewrite it for the author. You need to get back with them, point out where the logic fails, and then rehash the organization of the audit report. You do not tell them how to fix it—you just point out what isn’t working. Professionals like to make their own decisions and do their own writing.

I begin the meeting by expressing admiration for their work. Find something nice to say! Then I ask them some questions. I always ask them to describe the issue and why they think it is important that we share it in an audit report. Even if I think it is clear from the writing, I still ask it. The story they tell me is often more intriguing than what I see on paper. Sometimes they have missed the forest for the trees. Any number of things may crop up from that discussion.

Then I ask, “What do they need to do correct this problem? What is our bottom line recommendation?” (More on recommendations in an upcoming newsletter!)

Then, starting with the recommendation, we make a simple sketch of the elements of a finding on a piece of paper, white board, or flip chart. We make sure that the condition and the cause match the recommendation, we choose a sexy effect and a solid criteria, and then we stop the meeting. It usually takes less than half-an-hour.

Then the team goes back and fleshes out the sentences and turns in another draft to me. I do my best to leave it the heck alone at this point. Unless there is something crazy wrong with grammar (like I could tell judging by the quality of this sentence!) or super thick paragraphs, I leave it be.

Now, if I am editing my own work, I go more heartily into stages 2 and 3 of editing.

Editing for readability and grammar

Stage 2 is editing for readability issues. Here we look at things like sentence length, paragraph length, parallel bullets, active voice, etc.

Stage 3 is grammar and spelling. Make sure you run a spell check and then read each word out loud to yourself slowly. Do not just scan it. Read it out loud word for word. It is amazing how much stuff you will catch with this method. If you really want to get fancy, read each word and punctuation mark to yourself out loud and backwards. Yes, start at the end and read up. Again, a very thorough method for catching stuff. Tedious, but effective.

Want to know more about findings and report writing?  Check out Leita’s fun videos and books here: https://yellowbook-cpe.com/topics/audit-reporting


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