Rethinking Rules for Acronyms

One of my first rules of writing is that rules are useless if you can’t break them when you have a compelling reason. I’m hardly a revolutionary (my wife says I’m a square), but I also refuse to participate in a tautology of rules.

The rule goes like this: “Spell acronyms out on first use; abbreviate thereafter.” Not a bad rule, but if you press in hard on the why of it, it starts to smell an awful lot like cover-your-arse (that’s CYA). We get so busy avoiding the gotcha moment that we forget about the user experience (UX).

While editing proposal pages by the hundreds over the last month, I realized that the big problem with this rule is it presumes end-to-end readership. That’s just not how people consume content. Even the Government reviewers for this proposal, who are required to read every word, are probably going to split it up by sections. 

I think we’d do well in #techcomm to think about hybrid approaches. The catch-all acronym list still covers the CYA angle, especially if you can link to that list in your web help, or better yet, define the acronym with hover text. But I think context also matters. If the user went straight to Section 5 on Page 62, she never saw you define the acronym on Page 3. Instead of assuming she cares about your carefully laid out introduction, why not bend the rule in anticipation of the more likely behavior? Define it in your dusty front matter, and then define it again on the first use within each major section.

I think there’s some other useful exceptions, such as skipping the definition in a crowded graphic or very common instances like VA, EST, or PM. Your acronym list is still there as a safety net. Sometimes the acronym itself is more meaningful than its definition – do you remember what IBM, PDF, or VHS stand for? You can also go the other direction by eschewing the acronym altogether as a refresher, for added emphasis, or to improve the cadence of your text. 

This is obviously something where you need organizational buy in, and it’s not worth bucking a conservative boss if you have one. But it is worth it to push for UX as a driving factor in your content strategy. This is just another brick in that wall.

Comments

  1. Profile photo of Aubrey Zimmerman
    Aubrey Zimmerman

    Mark, I find your comment highly helpful! I work in the Energy industry, and I have noticed at least 500+ acronyms for different things that are commonly used in written media. I feel each industry have different needs, and each industry should accomodate (address the rules of how they use) acronyms.

    I love acronyms because it can save precious space when writing proposals (and everyone understand what the heck FEED means!). Thanks for sharing!

  2. Profile photo of Aubrey Zimmerman
    Aubrey Zimmerman

    Mark, I find your comment highly helpful! I work in the Energy industry, and I have noticed at least 500+ acronyms for different things that are commonly used in written media. I feel each industry have different needs, and each industry should accomodate (address the rules of how they use) acronyms.

    I love acronyms because it can save precious space when writing proposals (and everyone understand what the heck FEED means!). Thanks for sharing!

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