Accounting software is selling like hotcakes nowadays. With all these sales - each of which represents a company maintaining its own books and records - you might suppose that client write-up is a dying application. While some practices have been hit harder than others by clients pulling write-up work to do in-house, write-up continues to remain a core revenue-producing application in many accounting and bookkeeping practices.

Strangely enough, even when a client starts doing their own bookkeeping in-house, you often find that they remain a write-up client, though the relationship in this instance does change somewhat.

The reason why this happens is that there is a vast difference between bookkeeping and accounting. While some full-charge bookkeepers are quite capable of making adjusting entries, not all of them have the judgment, training and experience to completely close a set of books to produce a set of financial statements or determine the correct accruals for taxes and other accounts.

Write-up still remains a viable application in many practices for another basic reason. With today's excellent accounting software, your clients can churn out impressive and, in many cases, very accurate financial statements that rival pretty much anything that you can provide.

What the client can't do, at least legally, is produce a compilation or review letter to accompany those financials. When those financial statements are going to a lender or other authority, they are going to want to see an accompanying statement from a qualified accounting firm, not just a raw set of financial statements produced by the client itself. Your involvement in this process has gained heightened importance in these days of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance.

Client write-up software is designed to let you put your two cents into the pot. While write-up software is basically just an accounting system at heart, it has been tweaked for use by an accounting practice.

One of the most obvious of these tweaks is that a write-up application is designed to be used to track financial information for a multitude of clients with different needs and entity formats. The same write-up application needs to be able to support clients that are service-oriented as well as those in the retail, wholesale or manufacturing sectors.

Accounting and write-up software also differ in other areas. Write-up applications often contain very strong after-the-fact payroll capabilities, since many accounting practices provide the payroll depository amounts to their clients, as well as filing W-2s and 1099s.

You can also expect a write-up system to contain lots of charts of accounts to make setting up new clients fast and easy. Most write-up applications allow you to copy one client's set-up to another that has a similar organization. This often allows you to get a new client up and running with just a couple of quick edits.

Finally, many write-up applications also provide accountant-oriented tools and reports, including engagement letters, workpaper templates, a working trial balance, and possibly even tools to help you perform the required analytical review procedures.

One thing leads to another ...

One thing that is fast becoming a vital feature in write-up applications is a link to other accountant-oriented applications. Many of the packages that we looked at are part of a more encompassing suite of integrated applications. One of the more crucial of the applications is tax prep. This is evidenced by the introduction of new write-up packages by tax prep vendors Drake Software and Universal Tax Systems.

The write-up/tax preparation link lets you easily export data at closing directly to the tax prep software, streamlining the process of producing the finished tax returns, as well as any necessary financial statements. For those clients for which you also produce individual returns, you may also be able to directly import Schedule K/K-1 data from 1120S/1065 entities directly into the taxpayer's 1040 tax return.

Other important links are to applications such as payroll and fixed assets. Again, being able to integrate write-up with these other applications eliminates redundant keystrokes, and minimizes data entry errors.

Selecting a client write-up system involves pretty much the same process as selecting any other major application. While write-up packages are more similar than they are different, there are some differences in how each handles data entry, what reports are available, and which ancillary applications are available and how well a particular package interfaces with them.

Do you need an after-the-fact payroll for some of your clients? How about special or ad hoc reports? Will the package that you select handle clients with specialized or non-standard reporting needs? Clients who are nonprofit entities may pose a special problem in regards to write-up, as most write-up applications require some tweaking and various work-arounds to accommodate these organizations.

How we tested

As with most accounting applications, write-up doesn't require the computing capability of NASA. To be truthful, most of the software we tested will run just fine on an old Pentium II or Pentium III PC, though with lots of clients, the smaller capacity hard disk drives on many of these older systems may prove constraining.

Our testing was conducted on a generic 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 built in-house. Our test platform had a 120GB hard disk, a dual-layer DVD burner, and an external USB floppy disk in case it was needed for loading software licenses. We have Windows XP Professional installed on all of our in-house PCs, and while Service Pack I was installed, Service Pack II was not.

You certainly don't need a comparable computer system to run write-up, but it probably wouldn't be a bad idea. Write-up is a revenue-producing application in many practices, which makes it mission-critical. That means that your equipment platform should be as reliable as possible, that you should have it attached to an uninterruptible power supply, and that you should be practicing back-up of critical client data files on a daily basis. Our dual-layer DVD burner is an affordable back-up method, though the dual-layer media is not yet available in sufficient quantities to make it truly affordable. DVD +/- RW media, however, has become very affordable, and can be re-used numerous times, making it great for back-up.

In our testing, we installed each package and, using the sample company included with the software, added general ledger, employee, vendor and other accounts. We then added transactions, made adjustments, constructed recurring entries and tested other features of the software. Finally, we generated reports, including using editing and filters to customize the output where these features were available.

Accountant's Relief Plus

AccountantsWorld

You have to give AccountantsWorld a lot of credit. This vendor, once know as MicroVision Software, started out with a core tax prep product called Tax Relief. Over the years, the vendor has established a major accounting Web portal (www.accountantsworld.com), renamed itself after the portal, developed a complete and comprehensive line of accountant-oriented applications, and exited the tax prep software field where it got started.

The write-up application, Accountant's Relief Plus, is one part of an integrated software suite called The Accountant's Office. This suite is available as an in-house set of applications, which is the version we tested, or as the online Accountant's Office application service provider version. Both editions are available as the "Plus" version, which we tested, that includes a very nicely designed ATF payroll and links to other vendors' tax prep packages. The Plus version also provides MICR check printing, and W-2/1099 generation.

You can also purchase a less expensive edition, which eliminates the ATF payroll, W-2/1099 generation, check printing and tax prep links. These features can be added to the Basic Edition at a later time, should you change your mind.

All of the applications from AccountantsWorld (and the former MicroVision) have always stood out in two respects - ease of use and very speedy data entry. This tradition continues in the current crop of applications, with boilerplate charts of account and sample companies that make set-up very quick. You can copy a current client to a new client, especially if their charts and reporting needs are very similar, and with a few strategic edits, have the new client up and running almost instantly.

Data entry is also very fast. AccountantsWorld has a lot of experience in what works and what doesn't when it comes to data entry, and the Speed Pad works, and works well.

That's not to say that the rest of the application isn't up to snuff. We like the numerous reports that the application provides, and all of these can be customized without much effort. There are dozens of financial ratios available to streamline compilation, review and audit analytical work.

Accountant's Relief also provides a variety of lead sheets and workpapers, an unusual feature to find in a write-up package at this price.

AccountantsWorld no longer supplies tax prep software, nor does it have client-oriented applications such as general accounting, but the import and export capabilities in Accountant's Relief are easy to use, and make interfacing with other vendors' offerings in these areas simple.

ProSystem fx Office Write-up

CCH Tax and Accounting

The CCH ProSystem fx Office suite has progressed over the years to rival most of the other accountant-oriented application collections. With tax prep, practice management and even fixed assets available, all that's been lacking has been a write-up offering. With the just-released Office Write-up, that last missing bit has been added.

As might be expected from a higher-end application, ProSystem fx Office Write-up is a very strong product. Set-up, as with the other vendors' applications, was quick, and both sample companies and boilerplate charts of account are provided. Office Write-up has excellent import capabilities, so transferring data from other applications to enter start-up balances should not be a problem. Since the write-up system provides seamless integration with other ProSystem fx Office applications, much of the data flows from one application to another as it is applicable.

We like the data entry features. Office Write-up gives you a choice of how you can input information - generic grid-like data entry screens, forms in the individual journals, or batch entry format. The data entry grids can be modified to more closely conform to the source documents. Reports are very nicely designed and laid out, but also can be considerably customized and formatted. A Report Wizard lets you set filter parameters to produce a report that contains just the data that you and your client need to work with.

The copy of ProSystem fx Office Write-up that we tested has a comprehensive ATF payroll incorporated into it. The Office Suite does not include a payroll system. Rather, CCH has partnered with PayCycle for live payroll processing for your clients.

If you have been contemplating the ProSystem fx Office Suite, but have hesitated because it lacked write-up, it's now time to take another look.

Client Write-up

CPASoftware

Sometimes, it's easy to forget that software is produced and supported by people, not the companies that they work for. This fact was somewhat violently brought back to mind during this review, as we contacted Pensacola, Fla.-based Best/CPASoftware for the latest copy of its client write-up application.

This city in Florida had just been hit with a series of hurricanes, one after another, with the last blowing through, strengthening in the Gulf of Mexico, and coming back for a second swing. With its offices unreachable and many of the staff essentially homeless, we wouldn't have been surprised if we weren't able to include this well-known vendor this time around.

Needless to say, we were delighted that after just a few days' delay, we not only received our review copy, but also received follow-up calls to answer any questions we might have. It certainly speaks well of a company that it has its act this together after what the area had gone through.

Added to the stable of Best Software products just a couple of years ago, CPASoftware is now pretty well integrated. The subsidiary's tax prep products have disappeared, and the other applications have been stratified into two general product lines - CPAPractice Manager, and CPAAccounting Manager. A third application, CPADocument Manager, provides an electronic filing cabinet that is used with the other applications.

CPAAccounting Manager is actually a suite of applications, which can be purchased as a whole, or as individual packages. These include payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable, depreciation and, of course, client write-up. Formerly called Visual Client Write-up, the application provides the expected boilerplate charts of accounts and sample clients to ease set-up. If you are running other Best applications, including FAS fixed asset products or MAS 90, you can easily tie these into the write-up and pass data back and forth.

Employees, vendors and customers that you might have set up in other modules of CPAAccounting Manager can also be zipped into Write-up, saving many keystrokes.

Data entry screens are well-designed and easy to use. We like the variety of reports available. These are also easy to modify and edit.

Many of the changes since the last version that we tested incorporate better integration with other Best Software products. You can also drop client data into Sageworks ProfitCents and create more detailed analytics that are great to use with your clients.

The predecessor to this application, Visual Client Write-up, was the first Windows-based write-up application to hit the market. The application has matured well since those days, becoming a rock-solid way to perform client write-ups.

Write-up Solution v. 2004.1

Creative Solutions

Most of the vendors included in this round-up specialize in applications for accountants. Creative Solutions, a division of Thomson, was one of the original companies to address this market.

CSI was also one of the first accounting software vendors to design its applications around a single set of databases. That's common practice now, but it was revolutionary when CSI first introduced it. These applications, which share a common large set of data, are called "Solutions," and include Payroll, Fixed Assets, Practice Management, Tax Preparation and, of course, the Write-up Solution that we reviewed.

With the most recent edition, CSI has changed its numbering system, going from Version 7 to Version 2004.1. Staying the same is Creative Solutions' modular pricing. In addition to the Write-up Solution, which contains a very good after-the-fact payroll system, you will probably want to purchase the Payroll Compliance Solution, so that you can prepare clients' W-2s, 1099s and 940/941s. Other add-ons include the Engagement Solution for managing audits, reviews and compilations, and the File Cabinet Solution, a document management application.

Write-up Solution was easy to install and configure, but it was also the only package we tested that required a floppy disk drive for loading the license information. The application itself is provided on CD. We used a $50 external USB floppy disk for this task, which worked fine.

CSI has had many years to polish the Write-up Solution, and it shows. Screens are uncluttered, and navigation is intuitive. If you have clients with data in other applications, such as payroll, tax prep and fixed assets, the data in those applications, or that which needs to flow to those applications, is effortlessly shared. Other import and export capabilities are extensive, so you can easily bring in or share the Write-up Solution's data with other non-Creative Solutions applications.

CSI offers a client-oriented application, the Client Bookkeeping Solution, specifically for your clients. They can keep their own books, and the data can be transferred seamlessly into the Write-up Solution for you to perform the adjusting entries and produce financials and other needed reports and graphics. An Accountant's Assistant application lets you import data from QuickBooks Pro, Peachtree, Paychex General Ledger, and BusinessWorks for quick client set-up.

The Write-up Solution has an excellent collection of reports, and they are both useful and attractive. Extensive filters make it possible to easily customize them to your clients' needs. CSI includes a lot of reports that focus on ratios and other performance indicators that help you in performing analytical review for audit, review and compilation engagements. These reports are also perfect for meeting with your clients to advise them as to their financial position and options for future financial decisions.

Data entry screens are pretty generic, but there's a nice feature that we like very much. The Write-up Solution lets you re-order the fields on the input screens, and even hide fields that are not used for particular clients. This lets you match the data entry fields to whatever source documents are being keyed from. Auto-fill is available in many fields, which also kicks up data entry speed.

The Write-up Solution is not the least expensive write-up package on the market. If you are looking to completely automate your practice with the Solution series, however, the Write-up Solution is an excellent addition.

Drake Client Write-up

Drake Software

Drake Software is well known for its tax prep applications. Until recently, however, if you were a user of Drake's tax prep software and you wanted to move client data from a write-up package directly into the tax return, you would have to hope that your write-up package was one that was supported by Drake, or export and import the data.

That has changed now, with Drake's introduction of its own write-up software. While the software is targeted primarily at Drake's own user base of tax preparation software owners, as evidenced by the $10 price for current Drake customers for updates (the software is free to Drake users) and the $495 price for others, there's nothing keeping you from using the Drake Client Write-up even if your tax preparation software comes from a different vendor. Of course, you will lose one of the major benefits - in this case, easy data transport between the client write-up and tax prep applications.

The software installs easily, and there are predefined templates for charts of accounts to speed up your client set-up. Current client information contained in the tax prep applications can also be transferred over, saving some keystrokes.

Data entry is unremarkable, with screens that are very easy to navigate through. Entry is made through the various journal screens, and there does not appear to be any way to simplify or customize these.

Payroll is also provided, and while most write-up scenarios focus on after-the-fact payroll, you can conceivably also perform live payroll for your clients using the application.

We found the reports to be usable, though they are somewhat plain. Again, don't expect the degree of customizability from Drake Client Write-up that you will find in some of the much more upscale (and much more expensive) write-up packages.

Overall, Drake Client Write-up is a very affordable and serviceable application. Where it does suffer is in the documentation. Other than online help inside the application, the only documentation supplied is a four-page PDF file that primarily instructs you on how to install the software, how to convert files from other Drake products, and what the changes in Client Write-up are from the previous version of the software.

Intuit EasyAcct Professional Series Write-up v. 2003.3.2

Intuit Inc.

As with a number of the solutions covered in this round-up, the original EasyAcct package was not developed by its current owner, Intuit. Still, over the years since its acquisition, Intuit has put a lot of effort into continuing to maintain and improve the application. The most recent release of EasyAcct was released last year and has had a few minor updates since that time. Last year's major upgrade added several sales and use tax modules, as well as major upgrades to accounts receivable and payables.

In other areas, EasyAcct was already fairly complete. There is a comprehensive ATF payroll that can also print checks using MICR check printing features. Those checks can also be printed from the Accounts Payable module. Some other vendors charge extra for add-ons to generate and print or magnetic file W-2s, 940/941s and 1099s. This capability is included in the base package.

Reports are laid out well, and you can do a moderate amount of customization on them, if necessary, using the available filtering and formatting controls. Boilerplate charts of accounts are provided to smooth the set-up process.

EasyAcct is sold and supported by Intuit out of its Plano, Texas, office, and is priced up at the top end of the products that we reviewed. It offers some nice features, including bank reconciliation and, more important, asset depreciation. Still, considering the rather top-of-the-line pricing, we expect that EasyAcct will be of greatest interest to current users of Lacerte or Intuit's ProSeries tax prep applications.

Certiflex Dimension Write-up v. 8

The Versatile Group

Timing is everything.

The Versatile Group almost didn't send this application for review, explaining that the version supplied is basically three years old (with constant updates), and that they have a new version with improved data entry and other new features that will be shipping in a few months.

We reassured them that many of the other vendors' write-up packages were also released several years ago and updated year to year. That's just the nature of the beast. It doesn't make sense to do a major redesign on a software application every year, especially when it works well and your users have finally become comfortable enough with it to go beyond the basic use and start trying out all the bells and whistles.

As it turned out, TVG had nothing to apologize for. Certiflex Dimension Write-up holds its own very nicely against the other applications that we tested in this round-up.

Set-up was problem-free, and sample companies and charts of accounts are provided to let users quickly configure for clients with different types of organization and operation. Data entry screens are nicely laid out, but data entry is batch oriented.

Dimension Write-up includes a bank reconciliation module, and full ATF payroll. Reports are well designed, and there are filter settings that let you perform a fair amount of customization. Should your client require more extensive customization, you can move fields around and even delete them from reports if they are unnecessary.

Our only minor criticism with Certiflex Dimension Write-up is precisely what the vendor is addressing with the new version. The current version provides only for batch input. The new version will let you process in either batch or real-time mode. To be honest, we don't consider the current batch-input-only approach a deal-breaker. Write-up is one application where batch input is a very agreeable approach, especially since it provides you with a control total (gross total of the batch) for data entry verification. PCs are so fast these days that you can post even a very large batch in practically no time at all.

In all other respects, TVG has kept Certiflex Dimension Write-up current and up to date. The application isn't the least expensive in the round-up, but it represents an excellent value for the money.

Unlike several of the vendors in this round-up, TVG doesn't have a huge suite of applications for accounting. Dimension Write-up is designed to interface easily with many of the major tax prep packages, and TVG does offer an optional module that lets your client perform data entry at their site, then upload the data to your PC and into their record in the write-up package. There is also a full line of accounting products that would be very appropriate for some of your clients. These also interface with Dimension Write-up, so that you can make adjusting entries and perform audits, compilations and reviews.

TaxWise Client Write-up

Universal Tax Systems

As with Drake Software, Universal Tax Systems is primarily a tax prep software provider. Its TaxWise users face the same problems as do Drake's tax software users - how to get the data from client accounting into the tax prep application. To solve it, Universal Tax Systems partnered with PC Software Accounting to market PC Software Accounting's application under its own brand name - TaxWise Write-up. This is not a trade secret: Universal Tax Systems and PC Software Accounting both are very open about the marketing partnership.

Our review copy of TaxWise Client Write-up proved to be a comprehensive and complete application. Sample data is provided, and you can use boilerplate charts of accounts, or copy the sample client charts, to set up your clients. Data entry is generic on nicely laid out screens. Reports are not fancy, but they contain the required information and are quite usable.

A working trial balance is provided, and a trend report, which puts a 12-month presentation of the client's income statement on a landscape printout, is also a very useful report for helping a client analyze and recognize what is happening in their business.

TaxWise Client Write-up has a great ancillary application that's available as an option - the Windows Computer Checkbook. This is a client-based bookkeeping application so that your clients can do much of the data entry, creating payroll and payables checks, and the data will flow from their application into the write-up software running on your computer.

While the client write-up system from PC Software Accounting is not as well-known as many of the other packages reviewed in this round-up, it is nonetheless a solid and well-designed application. Whether you purchase the system from Universal Tax Systems, or directly from the developer, it will serve many write-up practices very nicely.

The major shortcoming is that neither Universal Tax Systems nor the developers have a full line of practice applications beyond the write-up and tax prep packages.

If you don't really have the need for a practice management, fixed assets, or time and billing application, or are happy with diverse applications from different vendors, then you should definitely take a look at TaxWise Client Write-up.

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

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