Given how many businesses perform their own accounting, you might think that write-up is a thing of the past. After all, why should a business pay you to do something that they can do in-house?

Fortunately, for the many practices for which write-up is a major revenue generator, that's simply not the way things are. Yes, there was a major switch to in-house accounting a number of years back. But a number of factors have renewed client interest in having someone else perform this task.

One of these is that many smaller businesses underestimated the ease of actually performing accounting, or even bookkeeping, in-house. As the years have gone by, entry-level accounting software has gotten ever more powerful, with more and more bells and whistles. Even though navigation and help systems improve with each yearly update, as entry-level software has become more powerful, it's also become more complex for many smaller businesses to use.

Sometimes this results in a client throwing up their hands in frustration and going back to the way things used to be -having you do the task. Sometimes, it results in the client really mucking up their books and records, leaving you to sort out the mess, and boost your revenue.

WHAT YOU NEED VS. WHAT YOU GET

There are a fairly diverse number of write-up applications available, ranging from inexpensive to budget-draining. However, it's actually pretty simple to narrow the choice.

First is deciding if you even need a write-up system. In the past several years, accounting software vendors including Intuit and Peachtree have really beefed up their accountant's editions, adding many of the features, such as transaction review and reclassification of entries, that were previously found in dedicated write-up packages.

Another decision point is what do you need to accomplish with the application? Write-up is optimized to allow the accounting practice to enter transactions and after-the-fact payroll, as well as make adjusting, reversing and closing entries. An easy-to-understand working trial balance report is a must-have.

Many practices also like the tight integration with tax prep, though if this capability is the primary need, you may find that a less capable (and less expensive and intimidating) trial balance package may be a better fit.

You also need to determine, if you are already using a write-up package, if it's time to change to another vendor's offering to better meet your needs.

Finally, you need to look at what other practice areas you need, and if the vendor has all of the components to not only meet this need, but to meet your budget constraints.

We tested a half-dozen popular write-up applications to help you in your search. All were tested on a Lenovo Dual-core laptop running Windows 7 Enterprise, so you won't need a super high-end PC to use any of the packages we reviewed.

Accounting Relief

AccountantsWorld

(888) 999-1366

www.accountantsworld.com

Pricing: $990 per year, plus $9.95 per month per client if client performs in-house bookkeeping with the Bookkeeping Module.

We've come a long way in the last decade or so, at least in terminology. And AccountantsWorld has been at the forefront. We've seen ASP come and go, supplanted first by Software-as-a-Service, and now by cloud computing. To some extent, these are all the same thing - separating the process from the platform - and Accounting Relief is an excellent example of how it's done and pretty much has been since it was first introduced.

One of the things we really like about Accounting Relief (as well as other applications in the AccountantsWorld Power Practice System) is that the system is exactly the same whether you have one or 101 clients set up on it. The front end of the system lets you manage the clients, and if you allow clients access to perform their own data entry, each client feels as they are the only one using the remote system. There's no downtime, no worry about backups, and no system or application maintenance. It's about as trouble-free as write-up gets.

Need to add new clients? You don't have to worry about buying new licenses - Accounting Relief's pricing approach provides for an unlimited number of staff users and clients for a fixed fee of $990 per year. If you want to enable your clients to do their own bookkeeping in-house, it's an additional $10 a month per client, which you can easily charge back to the client. If your practice is very small, and you don't want to make even that much of an investment, AccountantsWorld lets you work month-to-month for just $99 a month. AccountantsWorld has its own stand-alone practice management application, Practice Relief, but the write-up system provides good client management tools, as well as customizable client dashboards and ratio analysis.

At the price, you're not making any major compromises. The software is easy to set up, with a large number of boilerplate client types and charts of accounts. There are numerous reports and financial statements, and we didn't find it difficult to modify and customize these. The vendor made much of its reputation years ago for its excellent data entry design, and it has kept this ease-of-use feature current in its applications. Data can also be ported over from client bookkeeping, or from QuickBooks or Peachtree Accounting if your clients are using those applications.

And while trial balance is often sold as a stand-alone application, it is also a subset of write-up. Accounting Relief provides a very comprehensive working trial balance, a must-have for adjusting entries and closings.

Some of the write-up packages in this roundup include after-the-fact payroll. With Accounting Relief, as with a number of the other packages, this is an option, and AccountantsWorld offers both an ATF Payroll for $395 a year, or a full payroll system (Payroll Relief) that allows you to offer service bureau payroll to your clients, which is priced based on the number of employees processed.

While AccountantsWorld does have a variety of packages that integrate nicely, including Practice Relief, two payroll offerings, and CyberCabinet, a data storage and management application, it does lack a fixed asset app and tax prep. However, it should not be difficult to use AccountantsWorld's apps for many of your practice needs, with other vendors' products filling in where needed.

Working Papers

Working Papers

CaseWare International Inc.

(800) 267-1317

www.caseware.com

Pricing: Single user - $499; up to five users - $1,399. Connector and Smart Sync are optional at additional cost.

CaseWare's applications have always been a bit hard to define. The vendor often takes "the road less traveled" in software design. That's not a criticism; it's just that CaseWare often approaches an application from a different direction than the rest of the vendor pack.

Working Papers is a case in point. Working Papers is hard to classify as just write-up - it also functions quite well as a trial balance application. But that's often true of applications from a number of other vendors as well.

What really sets Working Papers apart from the crowd is its underlying design. Most accounting-oriented applications these days are based on some sort of underlying database. So is Working Papers, but its underlying database is comprised of documents, rather than just records. This approach makes it easy to expand client records with scanned documents like receipts, images and even faxes, as well as e-mails and other electronic documents. This document orientation sometimes makes data entry a bit unwieldy, but it's terrific when it comes to using and/or creating reports, which is a major use for write-up.

And if you find the data entry screens a bit awkward (many won't), using the inexpensive connector option seamlessly integrates with Office so you can do your data entry in Excel and pop it right into Working Papers.

Unlike some write-up applications, Working Papers doesn't have hundreds of boilerplate reports. The reports it does have will be sufficient for many users, and report templates for specific purposes, such as GAAP financials, are available from CaseWare.

Working Papers also has excellent import capabilities from most accounting software, so your clients can easily do the majority of transaction entries in QuickBooks or another package, and have you import the data to make adjusting and recurring entries, as well as generate statements. Sure, QB, Peachtree and other packages will generate financials, but not many clients know what a statement of cash flow is, much less how to generate one or know if it is accurate. Export capabilities are also excellent, with direct export to many of the popular tax prep applications.

Working Papers has some features that set it apart. Unlike most write-up packages, Working Papers has strong engagement management capabilities, something usually more associated with practice management. And the optional SmartSync add-on lets you track files between staff members, and when multiple staff are working on the same client, the client records can be synced with a central client file.

Set-up went fast and easy. There aren't a lot of boilerplate clients or charts of accounts, so setting up your first client might take a while (which is also true of many other write-up packages). Once you have a client set up, however, it's easy to copy the framework to other clients with a similar structure.

The one feature lacking in Working Papers that you'll find in many other write-up applications is a real-time or after-the-fact payroll. This is not necessarily a deal-breaker, as you can use another payroll system and just move totals into Working Papers.

ATX Client Write-Up Suite

CCH Small Firm Services

(877) 728-9776

www.atxinc.com

Pricing: $495; with payroll - $945.

Several years ago, CCH purchased ATX Software and Universal Tax Systems and folded them into a new division called CCH Small Firm Services. Both vendors continue to offer tax prep and other accountant-oriented applications, including the write-up suite reviewed here. The client write-up software sold as ATX or TaxWise is identical - the only difference is the labeling and which tax prep software it feeds into.

The base product, Client Write-Up Suite, includes a number of different functions. In addition to the client write-up, which allows you to enter or import transactions, make adjusting and recurring entries, and generate financial statements, the software provides the ability for your practice to run accounts payable and receivable. This is not a full-blown practice management or time & billing application, but you can generate client invoices, and create and print vendor checks.

Also included in the $495 suite is a basic after-the-fact payroll. A full real-time payroll is also available, and bumps the suite up to a not-unreasonable $945. The full payroll upgrade also permits you to print MICR checks, payroll quarterly returns, W-2s, and other required forms. To file these electronically, however, you will need an additional Payroll Compliance module.

Our review package came with a huge user manual - 521 pages! Using the application is not really that difficult. Navigation is easy to follow, and we had no trouble locating the tasks we wanted to perform.

Set-up is a bit tedious, as there is just a single sample client, but there are various set-up wizards to take some of the pain out of the process. There are a variety of reports, though not a large selection. It's possible to customize these, but we found the process not particularly intuitive.

Perhaps the weakest area is data entry. It's far from the easiest one to use of the packages we reviewed. On the other hand, importing data from QuickBooks, Peachtree and other accounting packages is very easy, so if you have a large number of clients that do their own data entry using one of these packages, the application's own data entry shouldn't be much of a problem.

Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. ATX Client Write-Up Suite is targeted at the needs of the smaller practice and, as such, lacks some of the polish of more expensive packages. It is also primarily meant for users of ATX or TaxWise tax prep software. For the price, however, it is certainly worth taking a look at, and provides capabilities, such as ATF payroll and AR/AP, that cost extra with applications from most other vendors.

However, if you have a larger practice, and a larger budget, or if you are using another vendor's tax prep application, you might be happier with a somewhat more expensive application with more bells and whistles.

CCH ProSystem fx Write-Up

CCH Tax and Accounting

(800) PFX-9998

http://tax.cchgroup.com

Pricing: Starts at $2,240.

In the market for accountant-oriented applications, there are two major players -Thomson Reuters and CCH. Both have an extensive collection of highly integrated practice applications. Like Ford and GM, the two vendors' suites are more similar than they are different, and both have their fans. CCH's collection of accountant-oriented applications is the ProSystem fx Suite, and the write-up component of this suite is ProSystem fx Write-Up. Depending on how extensive your needs and practice requirements are, you can add practice management, trial balance, engagement management, document management, and a host of other applications to build as comprehensive a system as you like (or can afford).

ProSystem fx Suite has a live payroll module, and also integrates with online service bureaus like Intuit Online Payroll (the former PayCycle). Most of the ProSystem fx applications are also available in a hosted Software-as-a-Service format, as well as the more common in-house editions.

We had no problems installing ProSystem fx Write-Up. The application is built on top of Microsoft SQL Server, which can sometimes be problematic if not precisely configured during the install. The ProSystem fx installation routine, however, both installs MS SQK Server 2005 Express (the free edition of SQL), but correctly configures it for your hardware and software set-up. Once installed, you can use the sample clients and charts of accounts to ease the pain of setting up new clients.

The system is logically designed and simple to navigate. Data entry screens are intuitive, and you can also import transaction data from QuickBooks, Peachtree, Lacerte, and even Thomson Reuters' Write-Up CS. Checks can be entered in check register or check entry screens, and either gives you the ability to break out ATF payroll transactions. You can customize the columns in the data entry screens to more closely approximate the source documents, improving data entry productivity. Even the menu and toolbars can be customized with shortcuts so that staff members using the application can navigate through their particular workflow more efficiently.

While ProSystem fx Write-Up does not have the sheer number of reports that some of the other write-up packages included in this roundup have, the 25 or so reports that are included are comprehensive and the Report Wizard lets you display and print precisely the data that you or your client needs. If you need even more customization, it's simple to export a report to Excel for further manipulation.

Modular practice systems like ProSystem fx Suite, as well as some of the other vendors' application suites, have both an upside and a downside. The upside is that you can put together exactly the system that your practice requires. The downside, however, is that doing so, depending on the extent and comprehensiveness of the system that you need, may cost enough to give you a case of sticker shock.

Drake Client Write-Up

Drake Software

(800) 890-9500

www.drakesoftware.com

Pricing: Included with Drake tax software bundles; stand-alone - $445.

As with the ATX/TaxWise Write-Up application also reviewed in this roundup, Drake's Client Write-Up (as well as several other applications from this vendor) is primarily marketed to users of Drake's tax products. In fact, when setting up a new client and choosing a boilerplate chart of accounts, the templates are classified by tax return type (1040,1120, 1065), rather than the client's type of business.

With most write-up packages, the bookkeeping aspects of a client have the spotlight. Drake's approach highlights the application's other capabilities, especially in the payroll area. The software includes ATF payroll, and you can access a payroll portal to run live payrolls. The easy-to-navigate home screen makes it easy to access booking, contractor, payroll, and accounts payable/accounts receivable functions. Check printing in AP or payroll can be done using preprinted checks or MICR printing on blank check stock.

Client Write-Up is heavy on payroll features - you can generate W-2s, 941s and 1099s, and file them electronically. Actual bookkeeping, however, is rather limited and reports are both somewhat sparse and not very customizable. Locating features isn't always easy. For example, it took some hunting to find the trial balance reports, which were located under the "Transactions" report category.

The home screen, however, is formatted in a flowchart format broken up into major categories such as booking, payroll and the like. There's also a limited icon bar on the left side of the screen, and an overall system ribbon bar at the top of the screen.

We found client set-up rather tedious and time-consuming, though the requisite screens are straightforward. There's just not as much boilerplate as with other vendors' write-up packages, so you'll have to do more of the client and firm set-up work.

Write-Up CS

Thomson Reuters

(800) 968-8900

www.cs.thomsonreuters.com

Pricing: $2,700; includes Payroll Compliance Module.

Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting has a large lineup of products targeted at professional accounting practices. The CS applications and suites have been very popular for many years, and have consistently been updated and improved. This year, Write-Up CS has been joined by a new product, Accounting CS, which is not reviewed here. Accounting CS combines a number of applications into one integrated suite that provides write-up, trial balance, live and after-the-fact payroll, and client accounting. It is not a bundle of existing apps, but a single application that offers the functionality of several of the existing CS products.

Many small-to-midsized accounting practices, however, will appreciate the modular approach of being able to pick and choose what applications to buy, and when to purchase them. Rather than a single large outlay for capabilities they may not need or use, purchasing Write-Up CS and adding other CS applications as needed may not provide the same degree of integration as Accounting CS, but does provide the ability to purchase only the capabilities desired.

That's not to say that you would be settling for Write-Up CS. It is mature enough to be very stable, while still being up-to-date enough to offer all the conveniences and bells and whistles. And, if desired, Write-Up CS and other components of the CS Professional Suite are available in both in-house and hosted versions. In addition to Write-Up CS, the CS Professional Suite includes service bureau payroll, fixed assets, trial balance, practice management, tax prep, an engagement manager, and a document management system. For comparing client financial performance against industry norms, Financial Analysis CS is available, as are modules to provide financial planning tools, portals, and a Web site builder.

Write-Up CS includes an ATF payroll, which is easy to use and provides the data your client has to file on various forms, but does not have the ability to actually generate the forms themselves. For this capability, you'll have to purchase the optional payroll compliance module. If you later add the live payroll application, you can use the payroll compliance module with that as well.

Setting up Write-Up CS went quickly, and the application comes with a wide range of charts of accounts to make client set-up easier. Data entry is very easy, with the ability to move and hide fields so that the data entry screens closely correspond to the source documents being keyed. A client bookkeeping solution is optional, and lets your clients do their own data entry, and Write-Up CS has excellent import and export functionality.

There are a wide variety of standard reports (more than 40), and these are easily customized. Extensive graphics are accessible and there's a financial statement editor so the documents that you hand your clients will both look good, and be targeted to their needs. As with most of the write-up packages included in this roundup, Write-Up CS provides an easy-to-use working trial balance.

When you start adding up the prices of all of the available CS Professional Suite applications, the total can give you a good case of sticker shock - fortunately, you don't have to buy the whole suite in one shot.

Ted Needleman is senior director of the Technical Services Division of Industry Analysts Inc., an independent market research firm and testing laboratory. He was previously the editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology, and writes frequently on software, hardware, and technology-related subjects.

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