Accounting firms have been doing write-up work since well before computers were available. When computers became affordable, many switched over to using general ledger applications, sometimes on time-shared mini and mainframe computers.Gradually, true write-up applications began to take hold, and this vertical application really started to take off with the advent of the IBM PC.

Today, it's a rare practice that performs write-ups manually. A fair number of accountants, especially those with smaller practices, still use generic general ledger or bookkeeping software, rather than a more accountant-specific write-up package. And some even use a spreadsheet for this purpose.

With write-up software so affordable, it usually pays to spend the extra money to gain the advantages that write-up offers. It is these features that differentiate write-up software from more generic accounting.

Features that set write-up apart include such accountant-friendly capabilities as slipstreaming adjusting and correcting entries into client records, after-the-fact payroll, comprehensive suites of other accountant-oriented applications such as fixed assets, and tight integration with tax prep software. Fast and easy data entry of client transactions is another write-up benefit.

BLURRING THE LINES

While write-up software appeals to accountants for the extra features it offers beyond generic accounting software, some vendors of generic bookkeeping/ accounting packages are enhancing their software and offering special accountant's editions that provide many of the same features found in specialized write-up applications.

If your practice is small enough to use this approach, there might be significant cost savings. We've included two of these editions in the eight reviews that follow.

ACCOUNTING RELIEF

AccountantsWorld is one of the pioneers in offering Internet-based applications. It got into the business of providing accountant-centric software very early on, and its Software-as-a-Service offerings are both comprehensive and sophisticated. All of these applications, which include a service bureau-type payroll, fixed assets, and sales tax management, can be integrated into a suite, though you can certainly run only one or two of them. Additionally, many of these applications, including Accounting Relief, are available in an in-house version.

We've reviewed Accounting Relief in the past as both a trial balance and a write-up application. Feature-wise, it falls neatly into both categories, providing lead sheets and other capabilities that make Accounting Relief very suitable for doing quick trial balances, tax prep input, and financial statements and reports for compilation, review or audit engagements. Data can be imported directly from Accounting Relief into the Lacerte and UltraTax tax preparation applications.

As a write-up application, Accounting Relief is easy to set up for new clients, offering a good collection of boilerplate charts of accounts and the ability to copy an existing client to a new client. As with many write-up packages, there is a client component, which allows a client to enter transactions, cut checks or generate invoices. Accounting Relief is very customizable, and you can control not only what your staff sees on many screens, but what your clients can access and see as well. This customization can be done on a client-by-client basis.

For the current release, AccountantsWorld has jazzed up the navigation screen a bit, adding a new navigation bar. Available reports are attractive and comprehensive, and with the exceptional customizability, you can format them pretty much any way you like. For overall client management, Accounting Relief's Activity Center is an easy-to-understand dashboard display of client status.

AccountantsWorld has a somewhat unusual pricing model. You can pay for Accounting Relief on a month-by-month basis, for $99 a month, or on a yearly basis for $995 per year. That fee gives you an unlimited number of clients that you can set up and service, as well as client access to the bookkeeping and reporting features that you decide to provide them. There are no additional charges for a client "checkbook" application.

About the only downside we see to AccountantsWorld's approach is that some practices still don't have high-speed Internet capability. With a broadband cable connection, Accounting Relief runs pretty much as if we were running in-house.

Of course, you can get an in-house version, but then you would loose many of the benefits of running the application as SaaS, including not having to worry about backups or upgrades, and storing client files (though we do recommend that you back these up occasionally to your own media or PC).

WORKING PAPERS

CaseWare is another company that specializes in applications for the accountant. As with Accounting Relief, Working Papers fits comfortably in both the trial balance and write-up categories. In actuality, it is more of a sophisticated records management application, which makes it suitable for use in a variety of areas. Its Windows Explorer-like user interface makes it very easy to organize and access client-related documents, whether it's a scanned document, filed e-mail or fax, or a set of financial statements.

This document orientation also provides Working Papers with the capability of storing numerous supporting documents with a client's books, such as receipts, and documents such as lease agreements and purchase contracts.

Working Papers is also very strong in its reporting capabilities. The boilerplate report templates included with the application are easy to use and simple to customize. While Working Papers does not have a large number of boilerplate charts of accounts, there are a number of sample clients that you can use as the foundation for your own client set-ups.

There are two places that Working Papers is a bit weak. The first is in data entry. Many write-up applications provide different data entry screens for different kinds of transactions. Working Paper's data entry is much more generic.

A second weakness is in its client bookkeeping provisions. Unlike many of the write-up packages reviewed here, Working Papers does not offer a client the ability to do bookkeeping, or provide a client bookkeeping module or application.

Fortunately, Working Papers has very strong import capabilities, so you should have little trouble having a client use one of the excellent off-the-shelf bookkeeping/accounting packages, and grabbing the data from that.

Working Papers also has substantial export capabilities, so moving client data to a tax prep or other application is also fairly pain-free.

For a practice that has some clients that require write-up and others that require trial balance, Working Papers should provide a single solution that meets both requirements very well.

CCH PROSYSTEM FX WRITE-UP

Just as Intuit and Peachtree share the majority of the market for entry-level accounting software, CCH and Thompson Reuters share a good portion of the market for accountant-oriented suites of applications.

ProSystem fx Write-Up is part of the suite offered by CCH, which includes tax preparation, trial balance, fixed assets, engagement and practice management, document and workflow management, payroll, and others. The write-up system includes a comprehensive ATF payroll, and provides the forms and means to file payroll and unemployment tax returns. Where appropriate, these forms can be filed electronically or on magnetic media. For those clients that need real-time payroll, Write-Up directly interfaces with the PayCycle service bureau, or you can purchase a payroll module from CCH.

The Office fx suite is built on top of a set of integrated databases, which enable all of the application to share information pertinent to the application. This reduces and eliminates re-keying and the possible errors introduced by having to make the same entries into different applications, and ensures that data required by more than a single application will be available to all of the applications that require it. The review copy that we received uses Microsoft SQL Server 2005 as the underlying database. As anyone with much experience with SQL Server has learned, it's not always easy to get the database installed and configured correctly. Fortunately, the ProSystem fx Write-Up install routine takes care of this task for you, making set-up a painless experience.

In general, this type of comprehensive suite does not get large yearly upgrades. Rather, upgrades are released as features are finished or bugs fixed.

That's not to say that there haven't been updates and enhancements. Some of the more recent of these include accounting period locking, a direct bridge to Lacerte's tax prep application, W-2 direct input, and the ability to exit with an unbalanced entry. We're not sure that this last feature is one that we would consider an enhancement, but we imagine that CCH must have had requests for it if they included it as a feature.

As in the past editions we've reviewed, write-up has comprehensive import and export capabilities, tight links to ProSystem fx tax prep applications, and extensive customization capabilities of data entry screens and reports. There aren't hundreds of reports, but the ones that are included are useful and attractive. And you can always export data and reports to Excel and Word to perform additional analysis and formatting, or to create an ad hoc report.

ProSystem fx Write-up is premium-priced, and that may make the application unsuitable or uneconomical for a smaller practice. A larger practice, however, will find it an excellent component of the ProSystem fx Office Suite.

ATX AND TAXWISE CLIENT WRITE-UP

CCH's Small Firm Services was formed to house several recent acquisitions, including Universal Tax Systems, developer of the popular TaxWise applications, and ATX Software, best known for its forms services.

In the past several years, many vendors of tax preparation software have come to the realization that a front-end application, such as trial balance or write-up, is preferred by a large number of preparers who also have a practice that provides other client services.

CCH Small Firm Services decided to offer a write-up product that could be used by Universal Tax subscribers, or as a stand-alone. The product is sold under both the ATX label and the Universal Tax Systems label, and is essentially the same except for labeling. We reviewed the ATX version of the software.

ATX Client Write-Up is available in two versions, the basic application priced at $420, and the write-up combined with a real-time payroll. Adding the real-time payroll adds to the price. Even with the payroll, the software is a good value and will be very attractive to many smaller practices.

Setting up and getting ATX Client Write-Up up and running is a quick process. You can convert charts of accounts from many existing accounting applications, or use a sample chart that is provided. Once you've gone live, using the write-up is also very easy. Data entry screens are straightforward, and are designed for heads-down entry. An optional client checkbook is available to allow your client to perform cash disbursements and receipts entry.

Compared to some of the other packages reviewed here, ATX Client Write-Up is rather sparse. It doesn't have dozens of reports, and customization capabilities are somewhat limited. It also doesn't have hordes of ancillary supporting applications like those provided by several of the suite vendors.

Still, it gets the job done, can produce very useable financial statements and necessary reports, export data efficiently into tax prep software, and has an ATF payroll system that could easily set you back about the same amount of money that you are laying out for the write-up.

One interesting thing about the way it is marketed we feel is noteworthy. First-time purchasers of the ATX Write-Up are required to purchase an $89 training webinar. This will take the user through the process of set-up, configuration and using the application, and should cut down considerably on the learning curve. We're sure that some users will purchase the webinar and simply not bother with it, but we'd expect that having paid for it, many practitioners will take the time to go through at least some of the training.

The combination of the affordable cost and the Web-based training makes ATX Client Write-Up a viable choice for a small practitioner.

DRAKE CLIENT WRITE-UP

Drake Software is another tax prep vendor that has seen the sense of trying to meet more of its customers' needs than just tax prep. It offers its tax prep clients a bundle that includes various individual and entity returns, a client status system, e-filing, and a basic write-up application that includes both a real-time and an ATF payroll.

Not that there are many bells and whistles in these subsidiary applications, though both the ATF and live payrolls are quite serviceable for your smaller clients. The payroll portion of the write-up, both real-time and ATF, generates W-2s and federal and state quarterly reports, and supports e-filing of these where appropriate. When using ATF payroll for a client, the payroll system will develop the necessary entries into the write-up system.

Write-up itself is fairly basic, though you can set up a new client from a custom chart of accounts, a template, or an existing client. Financial reports and statements are plain, and offer a minor amount of formatting flexibility when compared with the sophisticated report and statement writers that the other tested applications provide. These reports are serviceable, and are stored in text or RTF format so that they can be further formatted in a word processor if desired. A trial balance report is produced, and the adjusted trial balance can be exported directly into the Drake Tax Software to eliminate much of the data entry.

We don't know if many practices would rush out to spend the $295 that Drake's write-up costs by itself. But considering that it is included with most of Drake's tax prep bundles, it may do a good enough job to serve your needs.

QUICKBOOKS PREMIER

Both of the major vendors of accounting software for end-users have, in recent years, added significant features to their accountant-targeted editions that provide many of the accountant-oriented features previously found in more specialized write-up applications.

Considering how many of your clients are probably using QuickBooks, adding write-up-oriented features to the Accountant's Edition makes a lot of sense. We reviewed the Accountant's Edition of the Premier Edition, which, with the exception of Intuit's Enterprise Edition application, is the high end of the QuickBooks line.

The 2008 Premier Accountant's Edition of QuickBooks already contained some great write-up-oriented features, and this latest release builds on those. Previous editions have provided the capability of making adjusting entries to a client's record without requiring that a client halt their own data entry. Other significant features from previous editions include backwards file compatibility with prior Accountant's Edition files, the ability to SmartMap data into Lacerte tax prep, remote access, and an integrated trial balance tool.

With this year's edition, Intuit has added some significant features to make it easier for accountants to support their clients. One is a smart financial statement writer that exports the client's financials into Excel, but gives you the ability to easily configure the statements to your client's needs. Using the statement writer, you don't have to fool around with formulas and cells to generate a set of financials that look just the way that you want them to.

The Accountant's Edition also has online banking integrated directly into QuickBooks. Bank balances, checking and credit card transactions can now be downloaded while you or your clients are using the software.

Another new feature this year that really impressed us is the client data review. This tool looks for client errors, such as mis-postings and unapplied balances. The client data review not only makes it easier to find and correct these, but also serves as a great checklist of where to look, and provides a notes capability so that corrections can be noted in greater detail than just an adjusting entry.

There is one capability that may provide a stumbling block for practices that want to adopt the Premier Accountant's Edition as their write-up application. This is the maximum number of users that can run a single licensed copy of the software. Many write-up packages allow almost unlimited user licenses. QuickBooks Premier Accountant's Edition is limited to five users, though you can have an unlimited number of clients that those five users can access. And, of course, each client will need their own licensed copy if they are going to perform data entry, print checks, or generate invoices and statements.

You can probably work around these limitations by purchasing multiple multi-user licenses for your staff, but this approach can get really expensive, really quickly.

On the plus side, if you can live with license limitations, many accountants are already familiar with QuickBooks, and there is an extensive online community that provides support to supplement that provided by Intuit.

PEACHTREE PREMIUM ACCOUNTING

Intuit is not the only vendor to supply an Accountant's Edition of its retail accounting software. Peachtree shares this market, and has a similar offering in its Premium Accounting Accountant's Edition.

Some of these features were implemented in prior years, including the ability work with files from any edition of Peachtree Accounting other than the Quantum Edition. Peachtree Premium Accountant's Edition has also had the ability to slipstream entries into the client's set of books, so that adjusting entries can be made without requiring the client to stop using their accounting system.

Peachtree has also added the ability to maintain client data for up to five years (starting with 2007 data). This enables you to do some significant trend forecasting and budget analysis for the client. Peachtree Premium has a very seamless integration with Excel, and both you and the client can add attachments to client records. These include Excel spreadsheets and analyses, photos and images, and scanned documents.

Multi-company consolidation is another feature most commonly found in write-up that many accountants will find useful. A consolidation wizard makes this feature easy to use. Simply select the client companies that you want to consolidate, and the wizard will create a new consolidated company containing a chart of accounts that covers all of the account categories in the companies being consolidated.

The Premium Accountant's Edition also has a financial manager, which provides a quick overview of a client's key balances, including cash, accounts receivable and payable, and total assets and liabilities. This financial manager can also present a summary of the client's operations, profitability, resource management and working capital.

New this year are real-time error alerts that notify you when non-standard accounts receivable or payable accounts are used in a transaction, or when a non-cash account is used in the cash account field on receipts or payments. This isn't as extensive as the client review in QuickBooks, but it is a step in the same direction of helping catch client errors and omissions.

And while QuickBooks Accountants Edition offers a new statement writer, Peachtree's Accountant's Edition provides you with Crystal Reports 2008. This lets you quickly create custom and ad hoc reports for your own or client use.

As with QuickBooks Premier, Peachtree Premium Accountant's Edition has a limit on how many named users can be added. You can specify (with the correct multi-user license) up to a maximum of five users, and these must be specifically named at set-up. This might present a significant constraint in using Peachtree Premium in a write-up situation. To be fair, neither Intuit nor Sage markets or presents their Accountant's Edition as a write-up solution, though in many smaller practices, it can be successfully employed in this role.

WRITE-UP CS

The former Creative Solutions was a pioneer in a number of areas. It was one of the first vendors to offer an online service (Arnie), and one of the first to provide a suite of applications that share common data underpinnings. Many other vendors have followed this approach.

The CS Professional Suite that Write-Up CS is a part of includes a service bureau payroll (real-time payroll is not included as part of the write-up application), tax prep, trial balance, fixed assets and practice management. Thompson Reuters also has Engagement Management and several document and file management packages that are part of the CS Suite. While the Write-up CS application does contain an after-the-fact payroll, it does not include the ability to generate W-2s or 1099. For this capability, you will have to purchase (and renew every year) an additional payroll compliance module. This module can also be used if you are running the service bureau payroll application. Also available as an option is a client booking solution, which puts the brunt of the data entry task in the lap of your client.

Write-Up CS is easy to install, and there are boilerplate set-ups for different entity types that you can use to create a new client, or you can copy an existing client with a similar chart of accounts. Data can be easily imported from a number of sources and applications, which makes it quick to get a new client up and running.

As with previous years, Write-Up CS still has a wide variety of useful reports that can be customized to a large degree. These reports can incorporate graphics and logos, which can really have a positive impact on those who see them.

You can also customize the data entry screens, moving and hiding fields so that they more closely correspond to source documents - an excellent feature that can provide a large improvement in productivity.

This vendor has been providing accountant-oriented applications for about two decades, and this market longevity shows in its applications. They are mature and refined, and reflect decades' worth of user experience. Depending on your practice and the needs of your clients, Write-Up CS might wind up being somewhat expensive when additional modules such as payroll or payroll compliance are added. Still, many practices will find this software, and its companion suitemates, a very worthwhile investment.

Ted Needleman, a former editor of Accounting Technology, is a consultant and freelance writer based in Stony Point, N.Y.

Vendor Information

Accounting Relief

AccountantsWorld

(888) 999-1366

www.accountantsoffice.com

Pricing: $995 per year, $99 per month.

Working Papers

CaseWare International Inc.

(800) 267-1317

www.caseware.com

Pricing: Single user - $499, $250 per year renewal; up to five users - $1,399.

CCH ProSystem fx

Client Write-Up

CCH Tax and Accounting

(800) PFX-9998

http://tax.cchgroup.com

Pricing: Starts at $2,115. Payroll - starts at $1,120, single-user.

ATX and TaxWise Write-Up

CCH Small Firm Services

(877) 728-9776

www.atxinc.com

Pricing: $420, $825 with payroll.

Drake Client Write-Up

Drake Software

(800) 890-9500

www.drakesoftware.com

Pricing: Included with Drake tax software; stand-alone - $295.

QuickBooks Premier

Intuit Inc.

(800) 4-INTUIT

www.quickbooks.com

Pricing: Single user - $399.

Peachtree Premium

Accounting

Sage Software SB Inc.

(877) 495-9904

www.peachtree.com

Pricing: Single user - $499; multi-user - $1,099.

Write-Up CS

Thomson Reuters

(800) 968-8900

www.cs.thomsonreuters.com

Pricing: $1,800, plus $280 per year for Payroll Compliance.

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