Certified Public Accountant, Currently freelance
Date of Interview: November 4th, 2016
Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from college?
A: I’m a CPA and where I was working I was a manager. I graduated from college in 2007, but technically I finished classes December of 2006. And what else, what was the other thing?
Q: Can you provide a very brief description of your primary job functions?
A: There are many. Let’s see. So as CPA– so I would prepare, I would review tax returns, train staff on that, and client interaction – emails and phonecalls – on a daily basis for whatever questions or issues that come up with their business. With staff, would be as I mentioned training, but also any other HR issues and pay rate, you know, salary, evaluations. I meet with them once a week. Clients, on a daily basis, and then some of the issues that might come up would be tax notices, and so forth.
Q: What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete?
A: Types of writing – many, mostly kind of casual emails between with clients or staff on status of projects. Also, as I mentioned, IRS notices. So, writing responses to IRS or whatever other taxing authority might have had a question. Sometimes it’s just a notice and sometimes it’s a full-on audit, where you have an agent coming out to go through some documents. What other forms of writing..not sure [chuckles]. Oh, I guess with the stuff– so that’s with my employment, and then where I volunteer with the Virginia Society of CPAs and the Northern Chapter, I’ve been tapped to write a couple of pieces for them. Mostly writing informational pieces on a certain issue in the field. Research and development credits would be one. That might be another thing, is presentations – but I don’t know if that’s so much writing. And then writing articles on those topics. And then a couple times it’s like a more personal piece on “why you’re a CPA” – that sort of topic.
Q: How frequently are you required to write, and if you’d give an approximate estimation on average, per week, what percentage of your job would be writing-involved?
A: You mean, would you count like, emails?
A: Okay, sixty percent.
Q: And that’s on a weekly basis? How frequently during the week?
Q: Daily. Could you describe your writing process, including how like assignments or tasks are given to you, what steps you have to take from the start of a project to its completion?
A: It depends very much on the project. I’d say if it’s just a new client coming in, it’s a sit-down meeting with them. Where writing comes in, you know, I’d take notes on what they’re– about them and their history and what issues they have, and take a look at their, you know, prior tax returns, prior financial statements, look at their history and then talk about what needs to happen in the future. Many times, some sort of research project will come out of that. So we will look into that; either me personally or staff person will look into it. I’ll have them take the first stab at it, and then I’ll sort of clean it up and give to them our conclusions to the client our conclusions. And then from there we can make decisions on how to handle whatever the issue is. If it’s just preparing a tax return, then it’s pretty straight forward. If it’s like a tax audit or something, then we start gathering documents and creating our deliverable.
Q: Could you describe the primary audience or audiences to which you are normally writing and for what purpose?
A: When I talk about like sixty percent of my time is a lot of emails, and those are with clients. So those are generally owner-managed businesses, so either directly to the owner who is managing it, or perhaps a CFO or controller who is taking point on the financial matters. So that would be the primary audience. When it’s something a little more involved with like an IRS notice, then the audience would be that taxing authority or perhaps directly to an agent. Where I’m writing articles, that is either geared towards CPAs and teaching them more about that issue and that would be the audience, or else it might an article where the audience is maybe prospective clients or other owner-managed businesses in like a certain field.
Q: Can you talk a bit about, like, what’s at stake in the writing that you do?
A: My relationship with my clients and their trust in me. Being able to communicate clearly is kind of– I mean, anybody can prepare a tax return – like literally, you don’t have to be a CPA to do that – but you need to have a good foundation relationship. We don’t just prepare tax returns, there’s more to it than that. But if a client is just thinking about it from a compliance point of view like, “I just have got to get this form completed”, then I’m not doing my job in conveying the value that we can provide.
Q: Other than clients, is there anyone that oversees the writing that you do? If yes, could you provide just brief description of their title and their role in your organization?
A: CPA firms are usually organized as partnerships, and so the [? 7:27.3] partners them. So the partner would be whoever– so every client is sort of assigned to a partner, like the partner is responsible for that relationship, and like, officially within the firm. And then they delegate me to handle the issue. So my role is– basically I’m the primary point of contact, and working with the staff to make sure the work gets done, and then review it and make sure it’s done correctly. And then any questions that come up, that goes back to the partner to decide on how to handle that, how to communicate that to the client if it’s sensitive. And so most of my career, any letters that went to IRS or taxing authority would go through one of the partners first. But as a manager, that doesn’t really need to happen. So it’s mostly just communication on how to handle an issue. But yeah, for much of my career, I write all these letters and the partner would like, red-line it and make it to his tone of voice, or her tone of voice, or whomever was looking at it.
Q: Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college?
A: Not directly. I’ve taken a couple of leadership courses/seminars. But I don’t think writing was directly– communication was a topic for sure, but I think those mostly focus on verbal.
Q: What do you do to prepare to write, for example, research, interviewing, or pre-drafting?
A: I mean, I’ll research it if there’s something that needs to be researched. But usually if it’s just a notice response or something like that, it’s kind of standard and it’s very contingent on the circumstances that the client was under. So I’d interview the client, what are the circumstances, and then you, as my bosses write: write the saddest story that the truth will allow. You know, so that’s one way to think about it.
Q: Can you elaborate on that a little bit [laughter]. That’s fascinating, can you elaborate a little bit about that?
A: If you’re requesting like an abatement of a penalty or something, then you know, the saddest story the truth will allow. I mean it’s, you know, “my dog died, my wife got sick, my car broke down, and I ran out of”– you know, it’s just whatever the circumstances are, you write it in a way that’s like, “it was so sad and it was so awful and they couldn’t possibly have filed that day. But look! They did it two days later and it will never happen again and they have reached out to a professional to ensure it will never happen again and we’re on top of it” – and that’s sort of how you write these things.
Q: So it sounds like there is some persuasion there.
Q: Outside of email as a form of writing, does revision ever occur in your writing and, if so, what kind of process do you go through to revise?
A: I try to be paperless, but I usually catch these things after I print it out and just read it cold, basically, if it’s important. Even with email too sometimes, if it’s sensitive at all. And I’ll just set it aside and come back to it and try to re-read it, as if, from their perspective.
Q: How long do you typically have to complete a writing project?
A: Like an hour [chuckles]. Maybe. By the end of the day.
Q: Earlier you asked about types of documents that you write. Were you familiar these genres when you were a student? And if so, how did this affect your approach to them coming into the workplace?
A: Which genres?
Q: The email, or informational writing, persuasive writing, even things like the things you write to the IRS, those sorts of documents.
A: Was I aware of them when I was in school?
Q: At least in the style in which you engage with them now.
A: Not really, no. I guess it’d be mostly like English classes, mostly like kind of reading comprehension, and “did you understand that?”, and then you sort of regurgitate it with a slant. And then history would be just kind of facts and writing it out. I’ll say that probably the most valuable class I had – and since I saw this notice I’ve been trying to remember and I just can’t remember – but I had a professor at Mary Washington who did– it was a business class on business writing, which I think was probably the most valuable in my career, about, you know, don’t– basically don’t use filler words and be as concise as possible, and just kind of the opposite of you know, “minimum of seven pages!”, for these other types of classes. So that was probably the most valuable in terms of business writing that I can see all of my staff need something like that. But, persuasive writing, I don’t think– no, we didn’t have to do any of that. IRS notices never occurred to me [chuckles] to write about that. Email I certainly was aware of.
Q: Are you able to identify any change in your writing style between college and your current time writing in the workplace, and if so, to what would you attribute this shift?
A: Certainly I’ve had more practice at being concise and trying to get to the point quickly, even if it’s a client or you know, IRS agent or something. You have to state your point right away, or else they’re not going to be engaged. It’s not so much with the rules and English – you know, it’s like an introductory, a body, and your conclusion – you kind of lead with your conclusion. It’s like, “I’m writing in response to this, and we believe that this isn’t correct”. And then you state all of your reasons, and then yes, you have a conclusion, but you kind of have to get to the point right away, there’s no introduction really. Much less.
Q: What challenges did you face when entering the workplace as a writer? In what ways did you feel prepared or unprepared to write in the workplace? How does that compare to the challenges that you face now?
A: In what ways did I feel unprepared– I mean that one class helped a lot with preparing and sort of having an idea of, okay, I’m going to try to be really concise here. But having practice in really doing it in practical ways – I did not feel prepared for that. So, basically the way I was trained is I would, you know, take a stab at it, write it up, and then they would, it would just get marked up and completely changed. What I found most interesting is these, even in emails or letters, is it’s very tonal. Like I think in school it was like, try to be as, I don’t know, third person and detached, almost. And in the writing that I do, it’s more personal. When I’m writing a letter for this person’s client, I have to lead off with “Ladies and gentleman!”, and I have to have a certain tone. And when I’m writing for this person, it’s “Dear sir or madam”, and it’s a totally, it’s a different tone. So it’s, people are very particular.
Q: How would you say that you learned to navigate the differences in those kinds of tones?
A: Practice, I don’t know. Just trying it over and over again until it got the point where he’d always be happy with the letters I write, to the point where he’s like “I don’t want to see them anymore, you sign it”. And so I was like, okay now I can do it, and then I could actually start writing them in my tone [chuckles]. So not as much of a “Ladies and gentleman!” sort of author. But it’s been interesting. Yeah, that’s kind of just helped me to develop, just like being exposed to the different [? 17:09.9] people have.
Q: What practical steps did you take in the office to overcome any early writing challenges, for example, looking at documents performed by other writers or asking questions of more senior writers?
A: Yeah, I mean I might go online and just Google how to format something, or read a couple of samples. Or I’d go back in the work file and figure out how we had responded to something for some clients in the past. Fortunately everything was sort of paperless, so you could do a search, IRS letter or something, and try to just find other examples that he’d written before, or whomever had written. Can you say the question again? I feel like there was another piece to it.
Q: Any practical steps taken in the office to overcome early writing challenges?
A: Yeah, pretty much that looking at history and mostly just trying it and it being just totally rewritten every time, the first couple years.
Q: Would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer?
A: Maybe average [chuckles].
Q: On what criteria are you making that judgement?
A: People usually understand what I’m trying to say. Not always [chuckles].
Q: How do you, or how does your boss, judge the success or quality of your writing that you do?
A: I guess if it’s like an appeal, and whether it’s successful or not. So those tend to get rewritten a lot more often and I’ll go through a lot of versions of that; usually pretty good success with that. Where I say I’m like average is usually with email correspondence, where if you’re writing it quickly, and then– email is so difficult because you can’t hear the tone, and so you’re trying to respond quickly, but sometimes the message isn’t always completely received, or if I could’ve written it in a different tone, it would go better. So that’s, those are unsuccessful communications where you didn’t, maybe didn’t fully explain it or assume they remember that email from two days ago that we already talked about this and just explaining further. But, by and large, it’s successful. The message gets across and I keep my clients.
Q: Last question. What skills do you think are most central to writing in your specific workplace and function?
A: I don’t know what you mean by that [chuckles]. Skills, like English, I mean, vocabulary? What do you mean?
Q: What traits that you think you have as a writer – or successful writers in your workplace – what do you find to be common? Any common traits or skillsets in writing that you think lead to success in writing in accounting?
A: Being able to get to the point quickly, and being concise. Keeping people’s attention and I’d say being really clear and keeping your tone neutral or positive. Like I have a partner in the firm who will get in trouble all the time for writing those nasty emails, and she didn’t really change what she typed, but she started just inserting smiley faces [laughter]. So, “this is my tone when I am writing to you in this manner, you know, I’m writing”, but you know, but it doesn’t read like that, but you throw in a smiley face. So I think that’s just crucial, is being able to keep it neutral or positive when you don’t intend to offend somebody but you, sometimes you do accidentally. Or knowing when not to put it in writing and when to have a conversation.