I always compare reviewing a working paper to marking an exam paper, for the simple reason that when you were writing an exam and it was all over the place without proper structure, untidy and hard to follow, the marker generally did not tend to be lenient when scoring marks. Whereas when your exam paper was well structured, a train of thought was clearly identifiable and it looked neat, chances were if you knew your work, you would do well.
In comparison: when a working paper is untidy, hard to follow and has no proper structure, chances are it is going to look like sticky notes exploded on the paper.
Presentation of a working paper
I have often heard that I can be too pedantic when reviewing working papers because I raise review notes when appropriate borders have not been used, paragraphs are too long, or a helpful colour legend was not utilised. Then, again, I have also been called pedantic because I point out grammatical and spelling errors on working papers.
I always ask myself, was I being too pedantic or did
the quality of the working paper improve by making the required amendments? If my answer is yes, the quality did improve, then I was not too pedantic, I was doing
Why is it important to focus on the presentation of a working paper? When a reviewer opens a working paper and it looks well structured and tidy at first glance, he or she may feel more at ease. When the person who prepared and executed the work took pride in their product, they would have approached the content of the working paper with the same amount of care.
There is no such thing as being ‘too pedantic’ when it comes to the technical accuracy of a working paper. So yes, if there is a technical mistake, misrepresentation or misunderstanding, a review note will follow, probably in the form of a mini essay.
When I write review notes on a technical mistake in a working paper, short and sweet usually does not cut it, as the mistake indicates that the performer did not understand or did not know better. To raise a review note to correct the work without providing a learning opportunity is pointless to the review exercise, because as reviewer I just could have made the appropriate adjustment and moved on.
At the same time, the performer of the work should take time to understand what they did wrong and why it is corrected in the manner explained. If the review note is answered just because the reviewer requested it and not to learn from mistakes, reviewing working papers as part of on-the-job training is pointless.
When to fix and when to raise a review note
Deciding when to fix the working paper or when to raise a review note is always tricky. I always weigh up whether it will take me longer to raise the review note than just correct it and whether the performer will learn something from said note.
When it will take me longer to raise a review note and the performer does not learn anything, I fix the working paper and move on, but when it will take me longer to raise the review and it leads to the performer learning something, a sticky note will be added to the working paper.
Knowing when to raise a review note and when to fix a working paper can be a fine balance. Yes, sometimes review notes can be a bit ‘pedantic’, but the important thing is to consider the intention and end result of the review note.
Chantal Potgieter AGA(SA) is a trainee accountant at a small-medium firm