How are your writing skills?

May 2024

It’s time to write your way to your success, says Cath Littler.

Ihad the pleasure delivering a workshop to tutors and managers at AAT’s face-to-face training provider conference, something that I have done so often that none of us can remember a TP conference when I wasn’t running a workshop!

While the topics over the years have changed, the single thread of teaching accountants writing skills has remained constant and, whether English is a first or second language, there are three main points you should remember:

  • Confidence and skill are built through repeated practice.
  • You can learn how to structure an email to a client or an exam answer by learning the right phrases and including the right information.
  • It is important to understand what you are being asked.

The yin and yang of practising writing

The really great thing about practising writing is that it helps you to understand what you are writing about. This is because if you write about something you must understand it enough to get your point across. You probably find writing to a friend about something that you are passionate about easy – because you know what you want to say and have probably said it repeatedly.

However, the first time you write about something your brain is not ready, so it is hard to find the right words. The more you write, the more you understand, and everything gets easier. This is because you have arranged the information in your brain ready to be shared.

So if you go into an exam and have to write about something that you have never written about before, you will struggle to do it well. If you have had a lot of practice, you will find it easier and quicker to answer questions and to get a good mark.

The right words and phrases

One of my roles is to end-point assess AAT apprentices who often discuss how difficult they found answering the phone or writing emails to clients when they started. Once they understand what words and phrases to use it becomes easier. After all, accountants must repeatedly email clients for information and the information required is usually similar, so the main section of the email will also be similar. The first email to a client will take a long time to put together and will be checked by a manager, but over time trainee accountants learn the right phrases to use and the right information to ask for.

The same principle can be applied to answering exam questions. When you start practising it is hard, but over time and with regular practice you will learn the right words and phrases to use, and it becomes easier.

At the conference workshop I also encouraged tutors to use a range of different scenarios for learners to practice on. That is because it widens the learning experience; the more you must apply your knowledge to different situations, the better you understand it and can apply it at work and in an exam.

The right information

It is also always important to include a good amount of detail when communicating with clients or answering an exam question. For example, if you are emailing about an overdue invoice, you will include the invoice number, date, amount and when payment was due. If you are writing about changes to profit margins you should not just say that the margin has improved – that is not going to help the client or get marks in an assessment. Instead, you should say something like ‘Profit margin has increased from 10.2% to 11.4%, showing that for every £1 of income, the organisation is now earning an extra £0.012 profit.’ That helps the client, and the examiner knows that you understand the principle.

So include details and explanations, even if it seems too obvious to you. The client and examiner need to see the information.

Understand what you are being asked

This is where answering client questions can be different from answering exam questions. Clients are often not sure what they are asking so some backwards and forwards is usually required before understanding is reached.

In exams you only get one shot at answering, so examiners use command verbs such as ‘state’, ‘explain’, or ‘describe’. You need to understand the differences between the verbs and what they are asking. AAT has lots of e-learning on command verbs – much of which I have written, so go and have a look so that you understand what examiners are asking.

  • Cath Littler, head of learning and development at Mindful Education