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A Blended Approach to Teaching Tax Writing Skills

How a group of tax professionals collaborated with a writing consultant to create a distinctive training experience for CPAs on how to write for the profession.

May 2011
by Diane Orlich Kuhlmann, et al./The Tax Adviser

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

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.

This article has been excerpted from The Tax Adviser. View the full article here.