Writing a Short Composition

Jared Burns, CPA, CA of Louisbourg Investments explains how to write short compositions, which for many, is in fact the trickiest and most time-consuming part of being a professional.

You’re a professional, you should be able to easily write a short memo to your client while finishing up with this month’s billings and simultaneously reviewing February’s T-slips, right? Writing a short composition, for many, is in fact the trickiest and most time-consuming part of being a professional. 

Whether you’re an auditor, tax specialist, CFO, lawyer or investment advisor, it is often more difficult to write a short letter to someone than it is to write a long one. You must be succinct and determine what is important as opposed to what is only eating up word count (and your audience’s time and focus), all the while making sure that you are properly explaining what is likely a complicated topic. 

A tax specialist explaining whether there is a taxable shareholder benefit to the client this year, or the auditor who’s establishing why some transaction fees for the newly acquired business are capitalized versus expensed are topics that have entire books written about them. 

So, how do you balance the need to be concise while making a credible, factually correct communication that includes a value-adding conclusion? I propose following these steps:

Step 1: Create Your Outline

Some will suggest that you do an outline second and that the first thing you need to do is jot down your ideas (brainstorm - if you like buzzwords). I like to create my outline in a way that incorporates my ideas as they are generally led by the client’s needs. It’s what works for me, but you may want to break this step out into two– 1) list ideas and 2) create outline.  

This step is where you will establish your audience, including the level of knowledge your audience has in relation to the topic you are writing about. You should build the structure of your composition. Introduction, body, conclusion. The body of your letter will have the technical content of the letter, so you’ll want to break down your outline into subheadings that include each issue you’re addressing. When doing a tax memo, I like to use this step to list out the facts and assumptions surrounding the issue and the relevant tax law that I think could apply.  

The purpose of an outline is to pinpoint your thoughts and order them in a way the reader will find easy to follow. This is the step where you can assess the general logic of your points and the relative strength of the communication. Are there gaps in your subsections? Are there subsections that are not necessary or redundant in order to explain your main points?

For me this is the step where I complete the bulk of my research and determine my probable conclusion. You may already know the technical on what you are writing about so your focus is more so on flow and structure. But for many, you will have to take time to look up the topic you are writing about. This is the place to start that.  

Step 2: Create an Initial Draft

This is where you let your creative juices flow, if you find yourself wandering away from your outline, that’s alright. This is a critical step for adding, deleting and rethinking different parts of your letter. 

A good writer will go from draft to outline and back numerous times before the next step. Keep your major themes in mind and let the words spill out. Now is not the time to worry about grammar or tone, you’ll have a chance to look at this later.  

Keep an eye out for gaps in your argument and fill them where needed. On the flip side, look for superfluous content in your draft. I am as guilty as anyone in writing about what I know and forcing that knowledge into a memo where perhaps it is not pertinent. This is the time to ask yourself, is this relevant to the analysis? Okay yes, it might sound good, who wouldn’t be impressed with my knowledge about tax attribution rules, but is this the place for it, does it add value? Or, am I only confusing the reader and possibly losing their attention?  

The initial draft for me is the hardest part of writing. However, with a good outline and a free-flowing relaxed approach I find that I can get through it with most of what little hair I have left.

Step 3: Let Your Draft Rest

If you’ve ever cooked steak properly you’ll know that you need to let the meat rest after you’ve taken it off the grill. The same applies to your writing. Put down your draft and try to only revisit it at least a day later. This has some obvious benefits. It lets you revisit your writing with a more objective mind, increasing your likelihood of success for picking up on grammatical errors, messy sentencing and incoherent thoughts. As devastating as bad grammar can be to the authority you want to establish in your composition, what can be even more damaging is a technically incorrect analysis. This is a less obvious benefit to putting your work down and revisiting it later. It allows you the time to think on your ideas, are they incomplete, over simplified or even flat out wrong? 

You’re a professional, you are probably writing about something complex, this step is worth setting time aside in your busy schedule to do properly.  

Step 4: Revisit the Draft

Here you are your own editor. You will use this step to critically assess every aspect of your work as if you are the intended audience. This is where you should read your work out loud, your ears will pick up something your eyes have missed. It is also where you ask yourself: Have I missed any technical aspects? For tax practitioners this could be reference to a case law, provision of the Income Tax Act etc. Is my structure clear, logical and properly sequenced? Is my tone appropriate? Have I properly assessed the readers level of technical knowledge? Is my vocabulary clear and unbiased? Remember bias is for social media, not client memorandums. Is my syntax, punctuation, and spelling okay?  

Lastly, have I properly concluded on my analysis? This is what the audience of the letter likely cares most about, and if your audience is a client it’s likely what they are paying you for. So, review your recommendation or conclusion and make sure it adds value to the reader.

You may have the benefit of getting your work peer reviewed or even reviewed by a superior. This does not mean that this step can be done by them and you can therefore skip it. Requiring a peer review is a great procedural process, but you need to keep in mind you still have a brand inside and outside of your company. You should always assume that you will be the last person to touch a memo before it is sent to your intended audience.    

Writing a short composition takes time and can be incredibly frustrating yet gratifying. It is critical that you take the time that is required to write a strong composition. My hope is that in following these steps you will become a better writer and in turn a better professional.  

This writing is for general information purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, accounting, tax or personalized financial advice, if you are not sure how to proceed with a request for further information seek help from a professional accountant. Any opinions expressed are my own and may not necessarily reflect those of Louisbourg Investments. 

About the Author

Jared Burns, CPA, CA

Manager, Tax and Estate Planning
Jared Burns holds a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Mount Allison University. He obtained his chartered accountant (CA) designation in 2012 and has completed all three parts of the CPA Indepth Taxation curriculum. At Louisbourg Investments, he is the Manager of Tax and Estate Planning where he works with their investment team, clients and other professional service providers to identify tax and estate planning opportunities custom to their unique circumstances and needs. Jared oversees the firm's compliance function and ensures that we consistently abide by the highest industry standards in our regulatory responsibilities helping to ensure maximum investor confidence.