Business and finance professionals must be able to write with authority and clarity. Though accountants spend much of their time crunching numbers, they also turn those numbers into reports that explain their findings, data points, and analyses. These communications can help stockholders, clients, partners, and other businesses understand the findings and business of a particular company.
Business and finance professionals translate complex data into simpler terms that non-technical people can understand. Consequently, they must write with precision, purpose, and concise language. Usually, these communications take the form of memoranda, letters, reports, and papers. Accountants should also keep in mind their audience. For example, the tone and style of an in-house email to a colleague will be quite different from a letter to a client.
In their academic careers, accounting students should keep in mind that strong writing skills are just as critical to success as bookkeeping and financial analysis. This accounting degree writing guide explains the basics of effective writing, including proper grammar, style, and word usage. This page also includes many writing tips for accounting programs.
Types of Writing Accounting Students Will Do
Personal Statements for Accounting Programs
While some schools have done away with personal statements, and others have made them optional, most colleges still request them. Personal students provide students with the opportunity to discuss any qualifications not listed on their resume or academic history. For instance, students can talk about any difficulties they have overcome, their personal background, or why they want to enter accounting. After reading your statement, the admissions committee should know a good deal more about you.
A personal statement can make or break a college application. As a result, students should make sure their personal statement uses engaging, cohesive, and grammatically correct language. Students should avoid boring, overconfident, cliche, or unoriginal writing. Give yourself several days or weeks to write and review your personal statement before submitting your application. Have a trusted friend, adviser, peer, tutor, or family member read over your statement and make revisions based on their advice. Even if your school does not specifically require a personal statement, you should always include one.
Some colleges ask students to answer a particular prompt, while others allow students to write about any topic of their choice. You could write about a time you solved a problem, what you wish to contribute to the profession, or what inspired you to pursue accounting. No matter the topic, you want your personal essay to reflect your personality and goals.
Exams in accounting programs sometimes require long-form essays. The key to acing such exams is to prepare both before the exam and once you sit down. While students usually have a general idea of what the exam will cover, they typically do not know the exact prompt. Thus, they should prepare for any questions related to the accounting course, unit, and/or lesson. Long-form essays often include five paragraphs: an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion. However, professors may ask for longer or shorter responses. Make sure you carefully follow instructions.
The most challenging aspect of exam essays is the time limit. Once you read over the prompt, you should take a few minutes to formulate your thoughts. Start by jotting down notes on the topic, then select the main points to build your essay answer around. Also consider the evidence you will provide for each point. Before you begin writing in earnest, compose a focused thesis. A strong thesis lays the foundation for the rest of your argument. The thesis can also keep you on track and prevent you from veering off into tangential points.
Both essays and research papers expand upon a line of thinking, analyze a perspective, or argue a point of view. However, a research paper differs from an essay in many ways. An essay often relies on a writer’s viewpoint, opinion, or experience. By contrast, a research paper explores an idea or describes a particular issue with support from the findings or ideas of others. While essays usually follow a standard five-paragraph format, research papers may be significantly longer.
A college research paper typically begins with a cover page, an abstract, and an introduction. At the start of the paper, students may also outline the limitations of the study, discuss methodology, and note prior research. Professors may or may not require these sections. The main body of the paper describes the main points and supporting arguments using outside sources, research, and arguments. In the conclusion, students briefly summarize their argument and make final remarks. Research papers also include a works cited page, reference list, or bibliography, depending on citation style. Students may also include an appendix with charts, graphs, photos, interview questions, or a glossary of terms.
Professors usually allow students to choose their own research topics, as long as they fit into a particular subject. For instance, in a business technology course, students may write about social media presence, digital marketing, or the influence of technology on stocks. Accounting programs often ask students to write about professional ethics, the future of the profession, and computer versus manual accounting.
A case study describes a test or scenario in a real-life context. A case study in business, for example, may test the effectiveness of a particular style of management. In this case, the researcher would note how the efficiency, morale, and productivity of a particular workplace changed under different management. Based on the findings, a researcher can draw a conclusion and recommend a course of action. Case studies document the details of a case, offer possible explanations for certain circumstances, and propose an approach using data as supporting evidence.
Case studies require significant time and effort, but the resulting insights can substantively help a business or enterprise. Case studies can help forecast trends, determine a strategy’s effectiveness, or steer a company in a new direction. Accounting case studies force students to consider wider issues in business and use analytical, critical thinking, and strategic skills. Researchers must use clear and accurate writing to describe data, convey interpretations, and present final recommendations. While case studies often focus on a single subject, they also might compare two approaches. For instance, a case study may evaluate the benefits of cash versus accrual accounting methods.
Undergraduate students usually do not conduct original case studies. However, some students may complete a case study as part of their thesis or capstone project. Undergraduate students often evaluate case studies that other accountants and researchers have already conducted. Master’s and doctoral students are more likely to assist with case studies.
How to Write an Accounting Essay
Essays describe an event, explain a viewpoint, argue for a particular approach, or investigate a phenomenon. Essays usually rely on the author’s experiences, viewpoints, or opinions. However, some essays include support from outside sources. The list below describes common essay types students should know how to write. The key to writing a successful paper is to understand each type’s purpose and strengths. You wouldn’t, for example, write a narrative the same way you would write a cause-and-effect essay. While most bachelor’s programs go into depth about essay types, here is an overview.
- Narrative: Narrative papers tell stories. Like any story, a narrative includes a viewpoint, characters, and plot. As the narrator, you set the tone, style, and setting. Narrative writing often centers on a personal experience. A writer must demonstrate why the story is significant, and in the end, convey the point or lesson. Personal statements for college applications often include narratives.
- Expository: Expository essays explain a topic, idea, point, side, or concept. While expository essays may include persuasive elements, they should objectively state the facts instead of arguing for a particular side. Expository essays usually include an introduction, three evidentiary paragraphs, and a final conclusion. The thesis should be specific and assertive.
- Persuasive: Persuasive essays advocate for a particular approach, interpretation, viewpoint, or idea. To support their position, the writer uses evidence such as anecdotes, statistics, and studies. When writing such an essay, start by choosing a side. Then assess the audience to determine if they are supporters or opponents. By knowing your audience, you can decide how best to build your argument. Remember that a persuasive essay must have at least two sides. If not, the crux of the essay — to persuade — will fall flat.
- Comparative: In a comparative essay, a writer assesses two ideas or views (A and B) and explores what makes them alike and/or different. In order to be successful, a writer must go beyond a descriptive summary of each side. The point of a comparative essay is to further connect A and B by discussing their relationship.
- Cause and Effect: In this form of essay, students analyze the effects of a particular action or circumstance. The research unpacks how certain phenomena relate. For example, students may write about how lower taxes can help or hurt an economy. These essays may discuss multiple causes that culminate in one effect, or one cause that results in multiple effects.
- Thesis/Dissertation: Theses and doctoral dissertations both require in-depth research and significant time commitment. Bachelor’s and master’s programs conclude with a thesis, and doctoral programs culminate in a dissertation. A dissertation may include dozens or even hundreds of pages, but a thesis usually caps at 20-30. A thesis synthesizes the findings of others, while a dissertation presents a student’s original research and ideas.
Citations Guide for Accounting Students
In any academic writing, especially research papers, students must take care to properly credit where they got their ideas, data, statistics, and graphics. Citing sources can strengthen a thesis and give weight to the writer’s own research efforts. Proper citation also protects the writer from plagiarism. Once levelled, a plagiarism claim can prove detrimental to one’s academic career and subsequent professional career. Intentional or not, plagiarism besmirches a student’s integrity and can lead to suspension or even expulsion. Students can choose from many different citation styles, including those listed below. Some professors require students to use a particular format.
American Psychological Association (APA) Style
Widely used in the social sciences, APA style originated in 1929 to increase the readability of scientific writing. The style places an emphasis on a source’s date. More recent sources hold more weight. APA in-text citation lists the author name, followed by the publication year. This style compiles all sources into a references page. Business and finance courses often use APA. In general, APA style works well for professions that use technical writing.
Form: (author name, publication year, work title, publication city, and publisher)
Brodersen, S., & Pysh, P. (2014). Warren Buffett Accounting Book: Reading Financial Statements for Value Investing. Saxonburg, PA: Pylon Publishing.
“Be accurate, be balanced, and be careful (the ABCs) when selecting a future growth rate (Brodersen & Pysh, 2014, p. 50).”
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)
Also known as CMS or CMOS, the Chicago Manual of Style debuted in 1906. The CMS manual uses Turabian Style for citing sources, based on Kate L. Turabian’s book “A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.” This style utilizes two documentation systems: notes-bibliography and author-date. Historians commonly use CMS since source origin is the most important element. The author-date format lists the author’s last name, followed by the publication date (with no comma) and the page number. The notes-bibliography format uses footnotes.
Form: (author name, work title, publication city, publisher, and publication year)
Brodersen, Stig and Preston Pysh. 2014. Warren Buffett Accounting Book: Reading Financial Statements for Value Investing. Saxonburg, PA: Pylon Publishing.
“Be accurate, be balanced, and be careful (the ABCs) when selecting a future growth rate (Brodersen and Pysh 2014, 50).”
Modern Language Association (MLA) Format
MLA style, which dates back to the formation of the Modern Language Association in 1883, documents sources for scholarly writing. The humanities and fine arts commonly use MLA, but many other academic fields also use the style. To cite within text, writers list the author’s name and the page number. Unlike APA and CMS, MLA leaves publication year out of the in-text citation. A works cited page lists all sources at the end of the paper. Per the most recent edition of the MLA handbook, students no longer need to include the city of publication and publication marker. Authorship is the most important aspect in MLA format.
Form: (author name, work title, title of container [if applicable], publisher, and publication year)
Brodersen, Stig and Preston Pysh. Warren Buffett Accounting Book: Reading Financial Statements for Value Investing. Pylon Publishing, 2014.
“Be accurate, be balanced, and be careful (the ABCs) when selecting a future growth rate (Brodersen and Pysh 50).”
Associated Press (AP) Style
AP style does not cite sources in a list at the end of a paper. Instead, authors link to sources in the work itself. Journalists primarily use the style. Few academic fields exclusively use AP style because of the lack of reference page. AP guidelines codify grammar, spelling, punctuation, and language usage. The style creates consistency, clarity, and accuracy. Writers credit graphics using the format “AP Photo/photographer name” and include credit for quotes, ideas, studies, or statistics in the copy.
In “Warren Buffett Accounting Book: Reading Financial Statements for Value Investing,” co-author Stig Brodersen advises, “Be accurate, be balanced, and be careful (the ABCs) when selecting a future growth rate.”
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Which Writing Style Should Accounting Students Use?
Business and finance use both CMS and APA style for citing sources. APA style lends itself well technical writing, however, and thus is the more common of the two. In the end, your professors will let you know which style to use for your research paper. You can also check your discipline’s journals for insight into what style is common. The peer-reviewed Journal of Accounting and Economics, for example, uses APA style. The journal provides a guide on how to create in-text citations and compile a references page.
Common Writing Mistakes Students Make
Active vs. Passive Voice
A common mistake for many writers is using passive construction. A passive sentence focuses on the object receiving the action instead of the subject performing the action. For example, consider the following sentence:
Tuesday’s parade was attended by an estimated 100,000 people.
The object, “Tuesday’s parade,” begins the sentence. Those performing the action, “the estimated 100,000 people,” end the sentence rather than begin it. To make the sentence clearer and more authoritative, simply rewrite the sentence so that the subject comes first:
An estimated 100,000 people attended Tuesday’s parade.
The sentence is cleaner and includes more forward momentum. To strengthen your writing, look for where you can eliminate passive constructions. Passive sentences sometimes exclude the subject performing the action. For example:
Today’s recital was delayed.
In this case, readers wouldn’t know the cause of the delay. To provide clarity, a writer can add the actor and rearrange the sentence:
The rainstorm delayed today’s recital.
To identify passive constructions, ask if you can add “by (a person, place, thing)” to the end of the sentence. Also check to see if the first noun in a sentence is the one performing the action or receiving the action.
Punctuation is important; it gives meaning to words, phrases, and sentences. Punctuation creates clarity and adds polish to any writing. Common punctuation errors include apostrophe placement and semicolon use. Papers often have a host of issues with the comma: comma splices, missing commas, and unnecessary commas. A comma splice links together two independent clauses. For example:
The business opens Monday through Saturday at 8 a.m. sharp, it’s closed all day Sunday.
The comma appearing between “sharp” and “it’s” creates a run-on sentence. To fix this, simply replace the comma with a period. A semicolon would also work, as would adding a conjunction:
The business opens Monday through Saturday at 8 a.m. sharp. It’s closed all day Sunday.
The business opens Monday through Sunday at 8 a.m. sharp; it’s closed all day Sunday.
The business opens Monday through Sunday at 8 a.m. sharp, and it’s closed all day Sunday.
As you can see, a simple punctuation mark can make all the difference. Students also often confuse semicolons and colons. Though they look alike, they serve a different purpose. A colon usually starts a list, but it can also introduce a quotation or appositive. A semicolon, on the other hand, connects two separate but related clauses. It sometimes can replace a period.
Sarah purchased three items: an umbrella, a pair of gloves, and a coat.
Charles went to the matinee this afternoon; we attended the evening show.
Along with accurate spelling and proper punctuation, correct grammar can make or break a paper. Common grammar issues include fragments, run-on sentences, incorrect word usage, and subject-verb agreement. Word usage directly ties into spelling. A misspelling, such as a homonym, can throw an entire sentence off. For example:
The couple arrived to review their tax return.
The couple arrived to review they’re tax return.
The couple arrived to review there tax return.
The first sentence is correct. “Their” is a pronoun/determiner that refers to the couple. “They’re” and “there” are homonyms of “their.” Although they sound alike, they mean different things. “They’re” is short for “they are,” and “there” refers to a location. Students also confuse “its” and “it’s.” “Its” is a determiner, and “it’s” is a contraction for “it is.” Consider the following:
The second sentence is correct, since it means “it is raining.” Subject-verb agreement is another common mistake. Always make sure verb tense matches a sentence’s subject. When a verb and subject disagree, the sentence feels awkward and careless.
Each night, the clerk balances the ledger.
Each night, the clerk balance the ledger
Each night, the clerks balance the ledger.
As you read through the above sentences, it’s clear that something is amiss with the second sentence. The plural form of “balance” is incongruent with the singular “clerk.” If an exam asks which of the above sentences is wrong, the answer is “B.”
Writing Resources for Accounting Students
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: This website explains how to properly cite a paper and avoid common errors. The page also includes a comprehensive section on subject-specific writing. Students can learn how to compose a memo, business letter, technical report, report abstract, and white paper.
- Research and Citation Resources: This section from OWL explains how to properly cite sources and conduct research. The page includes primary source methods, such as interviews and observations, and secondary source methods, such as books, journals, and the internet.
- Harvard College Writing Center: Harvard University hosts tips on grammar, punctuation, and style. Students can learn about the fundamental elements of academic writing, including essay structure and the editing process.
- NYSSCPA: Offered by the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants, this terminology guide lists over 1,000 accounting and finance terms. Students can use these terms to bolster their papers.
- Common Errors: Professor Paul Brians from Washington State University maintains this guide on the most common usage errors in the English language. Each error links to an explanation of how to correct it.