Not all hamburgers are created equal. Dollar-menu burgers are consistent but average, price-conscious but cheap. On the other hand, gourmet burgers zero in on taste to create the right flavor for the consumer – for just a little bit more time and money.
Audit issues are a little like hamburgers. You can either eat a dollar-menu, fast food hamburger, or you can enjoy a perfectly crafted, gourmet burger.
And the truth is that sometimes as auditors, you write cheap, dollar-menu audit issues that are consistently average. Whether you write about procurement or accounts payable, your issue looks mass-produced and relatively the same.
Zoiks! That’s harsh. But cheap writing isn’t your fault, really. Most auditors still come from a financial or accounting background. The last English class you took was in college – either that snoozer in business writing or the double-snoozer in freshman English.
Writing isn’t your thing. Math isn’t mine. Let’s be friends.
On the other hand, I’ve met auditors who are also fantastic writers. Many auditors have taken numerous writing classes. Others auditors have been in the trenches, editing so many audit reports that they’ve developed a few tricks up their sleeve. Still, other auditors just have some sort of weird passion for editing.
Even if you’re a dollar-menu writer now, that does not mean you always will be. Anyone can become a gourmet audit report writer. Over the next few weeks, Audit Writer’s Hub articles will focus on specific writing tips to help you begin crafting your gourmet issues. This week, we look at passive voice.
Passive voice is a common, dollar-menu tactic in report writing. Before we try to fix it, let’s first define passive versus active voice in sentences.
A good sentence has the following parts of speech (we’ll designate each part with a different color):
- Subject (commits the action)
- Verb (the action itself)
- Direct Object (the receiver of the action)
In an active voice sentence, the structure should be sequenced in the order listed above: subject/verb/direct object. To write a sentence in active voice, make sure the subject actually commits the action, or verb, in the sentence.
Active: John threw the ball.
On the other hand, passive voice occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence, so the sentence sequence looks like this: direct object/ verb/ subject). In other words, the sentence is flipped backwards. For example,
Passive: The ball was thrown by John.
Although “ball” is the first noun we read, and the subject of the sentence, it didn’t actually do the throwing. John did.
Sentences that use passive voice either bury the doer of the action too deep into the sentence or remove the doer of the action entirely from the sentence. As a result, passive voice makes a sentence confusing.
Make sense? Let’s look at auditors and passive voice.
Why Auditors Love Passive Voice
Maybe you don’t love passive voice exactly, but passive voice is definitely useful when crafting a drive-thru, dollar-menu issue. However, dollar menu doesn’t equate to gourmet. Let’s use the following sentence as an example:
The mistakes were made during the second quarter.
Often, auditors either don’t want to determine who owns the action or implicate the owner of the action. If you don’t know who made the mistake, the reader may fill in the gaps and erroneously make “management” the subject.
At this point, ownership gets messy.
Assigning ownership means you might get pushback from the audit client. Whether it was procurement or accounts payable, neither group wants to take responsibility for the mistake. To avoid conflict, you make the sentence passive in the report and assign responsibility to no one. So someone has made the mistake, the reader doesn’t know who it was, and now everyone is confused.
Confusion is the rub. If you’ve ever read a sentence, and wondered what you just read, often it’s because you read a sentence written in passive voice that lacked a true subject.
Passive Sentences in Reporting
If I had a dollar for every time I saw something along the lines of the following sentence, I’d go buy a few hamburgers myself:
This problem was documented last year.
In this example, the initial subject, This problem, did not commit the action, documented. In fact, we don’t know who committed the action of documenting. The person who documented the problem could have been an auditor, the process owner, or Donald Duck. To avoid the passive voice rut, try the following three steps:
Step 1: Locate (and circle) the helping verbs
The purpose of helping verbs is to “help” a verb along, but they can also be an indication that you are writing in passive voice. A full list of helping verbs is at the end of this article. Circle the helping verb (in this case, the helping verb is “was”) and then commit to reword (and reorder) the sentence to get rid of “was.”
Step 2: Define who committed the action
Locate the verb, or action, and decide who committed the action. For sake of argument, let’s say that management did the documenting:
Still passive: This problem was documented by management last year.
Step 3: Reorder the sentence
Reorder the sentence, where the first noun in the sentence commits the action. The noun and the verb should be close together, with the direct object (this problem) following closely after.
Active: Management documented this problem last year.
List of Helping Verbs
Open up one of your audit reports right now, go through the first 15 lines, and circle the following helping verbs. If you discover passive voice, continue to steps 2-3 above:
Although the dollar-menu issue is easier and faster to craft, it will leave the consumer wanting more. But with a few simple tactics, you can exchange mystery meat for some real beef in an issue. Fixing passive voice brings you one step closer to those gourmet issues you’ve dreamed about.
Interesting in learning more about similar topics? Check out one of our upcoming seminars, or take one of Sarah's upcoming training sessions on audit report writing found here. Jill Schiefelbein will also be speaking at our upcoming SuperStrategies Conference & Expo in Las Vegas.