Writing Skills for the Tax Professional

School of Accountancy faculty members teaching in the Master of Taxation (M.Tx.) program at Georgia State University developed this web site in response to the accounting professionís continued and increasing demand that new hires possess excellent communication skills.

The 1989 “White Paper,” Perspectives on Education: Capabilities for Success in the Accounting Profession, which all eight of the then Big-8 firms endorsed, asserted that colleges and universities should provide curricula developing and supporting the communication skills of accounting students: “Practitioners must be able to present and defend their views through formal and informal, written and oral, presentation. They must be able to do so at peer level with business executives.” In 1990, the Accounting Education Change Commission, echoed the same sentiments in “Objectives of Education for Accountants: Position Statement Number One.”

Far from diminishing, the accounting professionís call for universities to develop studentsí communication skills has increased. Students who exhibit strong communication skills have a decided advantage in the marketplace and are more likely to excel in their careers. Strong written communication skills can lead to better job placement, more responsibilities, greater work satisfaction, higher job performance evaluations, and faster career advancement. Unclear, ambiguous, and unorganized writing can result in the loss of a supervisorís confidence or client goodwill. Consider the following:

  • From a list of 22 critical skills, accounting practitioners ranked written communication as the most important skill for professors to develop in students. Albrecht and Sack, Accounting Education: Charting the Course through a Perilous Future (August 2000).

  • A survey of Fortune 500 senior tax executives found that writing skills are among the most important attributes in the hiring process. Paice and Lyons, “Addressing the People Puzzle,” Financial Executive (September 2001).

  • “Studies have shown that as many as one third of the accounting firms surveyed are dissatisfied with the communication skills of entry-level accountants. One study highlighted poor writing skills as one of the leading reasons entry-level accountants lose their jobs.” Kim, “Accountants as Communicators,” Trusted Professional (December 1998).

  • Out of 19 characteristics, CPA firm recruiters identified writing skills as the 5th most important characteristic used to prescreen accounting applicants for on-campus or first interviews. Writing skills ranked higher than technical skills, Beta Alpha Psi membership, work experience, and reputation of the college or university. Moncada and Sanders, “Perceptions in the Recruiting Process,” CPA Journal (January 1999).

  • “Excellent writing skills clearly distinguish high performers in the tax consulting field from those who merely interpret and apply tax law to a client situation. The ability to effectively communicate is vital to the success of any tax professional.” Sherrie Winokur, Tax Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The exercise of writing is a learning process. Writing facilitates your ability to recognize instances of faulty thinking, such as inconsistencies, and aids in synthesis. As Francis Bacon once said, “Reading maketh a full man, conference [i.e., discussion] a ready man, and writing an exact man.” A reasonable paraphrase of Bacon is that your knowledge can be more precisely and effectively developed through writing than through either reading or discussion alone.

As the frame at the left indicates, we divide this web site into three general sections: basic writing skills, forms of written communication, and miscellaneous items. We briefly discuss these topics below.

Basic Writing Skills

This web site does not attempt to cover all aspects of written communication. Rather, it focuses on those areas where, based on our observation and experience, tax students and professionals can make the greatest strides in improving their written communication skills. All examples are from actual student work.

In the first section, we target problems of wordiness, inappropriate punctuation, and overuse of the passive voice. Short self-tests following these topics will assist in evaluating your understanding and application of these basic writing skills. After mastering all three topics, take some of the comprehensive self-tests to evaluate your overall abilities. For empirical evidence that the lessons and self-tests enhance writing skills, see Cleaveland and Larkins, “Web-Based Practice and Feedback Improve Written Communication Skills of Tax Students,” Journal of Accounting Education 22 (Issue 3, 2004), pp. 211-18. (Tax professors desiring to improve their students’ writing skills might make this class assignment.)

Next, put what you have learned into practice in your university and job-related written assignments. For those who wish additional help, we list many excellent web resources for improving basic writing skills.

Forms of Written Communication

In the second section, we provide lessons and examples to assist tax students and professionals in preparing common forms of written communication.

First, our lesson discusses the basic principles and procedures of preparing a research memo. Novice tax researchers learn important communication skills more quickly and efficiently through practice. To this end, we provide a fact scenario that we strongly recommend for training. Though you may derive some benefit from simply reviewing the completed research memo, we do not recommend this procedure for the research novice. Persons who wish to maximize their benefit from this resource should read the facts carefully, identify and research each issue, and make a best-effort attempt to write the research memo. Only then should the individual compare his or her written work with the research memo example we provide. (The example demonstrates and emphasizes how to apply many of the principles discussed in the lesson through frequent endnotes.) We believe this procedure helps individuals reach the peaks in their learning curves much sooner. We provide a few troubleshooting “tips” that may assist in identifying and correcting problems with the research memo.

The tax professional often writes a client letter from the research memo or, sometimes, in lieu of the memo. We provide a short lesson on how to write the client letter. The examples are based on the same facts as the research memo example (mentioned above).

The third form of communication is the judicial brief. In this lesson, we indicate the reasons why a M.Tx. student or tax professional may wish to learn this analytical writing skill. The decisions we provide for practice are Burnet v. Logan (dealing with a contingent sales price) and Bingler v. Johnson (involving educational support). To develop this skill, we strongly recommend that you study the briefing lesson, read each judicial decision through carefully at least twice, attempt to summarize each decision in the specified form, and compare your own summaries with the Burnet v. Logan brief and Bingler v. Johnson brief we provide.

Finally, some tax professionals write articles for publication. From the authorsí collective experiences, many things can keep an article from being accepted. This short lesson provides pointers on avoiding some of the more common mistakes that aspiring authors sometimes make.

Miscellaneous Items

The third section contains some general information about this writing project, its authors, and people the authors wish to acknowledge.

To evaluate the effectiveness of this web site, the authors developed an “Exit Questionnaire.” Please complete the questionnaire to help us improve the site. It takes only 1 minute.

If you have any problems viewing some of the web pages or if some of the pages do not align correctly, check to see if we have provided any suggestions.

Thank you for visiting the M.Tx. Writing Web Site! You also might wish to visit the sites listed below. They provide guidance, practice, and feedback for tax students and professionals who wish to improve their tax research skills.

Identifying Issues

Locating Tax Authority

Evaluating Tax Authority

Marginal Tax Rates