Giving useful feedback about writing.

Author:Binder, Elena DeVos
Position:Great Communicators

Finding the right approach to help internal auditors improve their writing is an essential -- but tenuous -- challenge for audit supervisors.

THERE'S NO getting around it -- in an audit department, writing is an integral part of the job. Auditors are responsible for communicating complex information clearly and persuasively, a task made more demanding by the politics of the job and the personalities of the players. Auditors must deliver their message to the right audience, at the right time, and in a way that best suits those circumstances. Clearly, the better auditors write, the better they are able to perform their jobs.

Those auditors who write well do so because they learned and then mastered specific skills. Success in writing is not an inborn talent, nor does it come magically. Writing is a learned skill. Like learning a sport such as golf or tennis, it takes practice and feedback to become better.

* The Delicate Balance Between Truth and Kindness

Given the importance of written communication to internal auditors, many audit supervisors find that they must either deal with giving feedback to staff auditors about their writing or they must take it upon themselves to edit and revise unacceptable audit reports.

Giving feedback to people about their writing is a delicate task, one that most would rather avoid. As Somerset Maugham observed, "People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise." Indeed, striking the workable balance between criticism and praise, truth and kindness, is difficult -- if not impossible -- for supervisors.

Most people have not received any bona fide or useful information about their writing skills from anyone at any time in their school or work careers. What feedback they may have heard is likely to have been dishonest or overly negative.

Insincere feedback is the editorial line of least resistance, where one tells another person, "Oh, this writing is fine," when it is not. The dishonest approach does little to solve writing problems. Not only is it misleading, it can cause poor writers to solidify their bad writing habits.

The converse holds true, as well: If feedback is not dishonest, it is often just too negative to serve any useful purpose -- as in the audit report returned so covered with red ink that the auditor gets more depressed than motivated. Again, the feedback approach here does not improve people's writing; and, further, it negatively affects their morale.

In both cases -- where feedback is dishonest or...

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