craft, Writing improvement

AFWAAASN, or A Few Words About Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Short Names

So we’ve all seen it – that undefined acronym. UI/UX; SAAS; PCP. Your reader might ask, “Are you writing about illicit drugs or a primary care physician?”

Instead of adding clarity and readability to your text, an undefined acronym does the opposite. It distracts the reader, throws them out of the flow, and sends them on a web search more likely to result in an hour browsing Urban Dictionary than reading your copy.

The point of an acronym is to create a shorter way of saying something, without having to spell everything out each time. It’s shorthand, and, as such, should be a way for the reader to understand what you’re saying without getting bored.
It’s not the only way to do it – but it is catchy. The U.S. Government is great at acronymizing our laws. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a good one. And I don’t think anyone has ever spoken the real name of the PATRIOT Act in public. Which, by the way, is the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001″. Imagine saying that five times fast.

Acronyms are good at conveying the same information in a shorter way. But there are misuses of acronyms, too.

It’s TTPs all the way down.

{source: Dilbert.com]

Below are a few mistakes I’ve seen regarding acronyms and shorter names.

1. It’s Undefined

The problem with writing for an industry publication is that many times certain acronyms are used so often it is presumed to be unnecessary because “everybody knows what that is.”

For example, UI/UX above stands for “User Interface / User Experience”. This is blindingly obvious to anyone who works in, for example, app development, software design, or social network programming. This is something they live and breathe sixty hours a week. Spelling it out is just a waste of time for those writers and readers.

However, for those of us who might be coming from a different part of the world, throwing something out without at least providing a link to a glossary is distracting. And likely to lower my perception of the writer; confuse me about the subject, and portray the industry as exclusionary, rather than inclusionary. For writers or groups hoping to expand their reach, this is a deal-breaker. Don’t do it. At a minimum, provide a link to a footnote or a glossary page (if online). Or provide a separate glossary as an appendix (if a written paper).

Even better, just write out the whole thing at the first instance within the text, then list what acronym you’ll use going forward. For example:

We recognize that the State Land Trust (SLT) is a vital resource for all residents. The SLT has been providing support for outdoor activities for over thirty years.


2. Unnecessary definition

An acronym is only necessary if there is going to be reference to it later in the text. If you’re writing a short blog post, about the State Land Trust for example, in which you only ever reference the Trust once, it’s not necessary to list the acronym. In this case, providing the acronym is a minor distraction. Yet it also conveys a sense that the writer doesn’t know what’s happening in the article, blog post, press release, or white paper.

Acronyms therefore are only necessary if there are multiple references within the same text. My rule of thumb is two or fewer, just write it out each time. Three or more uses and it’s worthwhile to introduce the acronym.

3. Unnecessary “.”s

Which is easier to read?

USA PATRIOT Act                     or

U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act        ?

Again, these “.”s are unnecessary. By the fact that you’ve defined the acronym after the initial phrase, we know each letter stands for something. Yet every “.” initiates a mental pause within the reader’s mind. Don’t interrupt the reader’s flow when you don’t have to. Just let it be and you’ll have greater connection with your audience.

4. Inappropriate use

This is when an acronym is used instead of a shorter name or nickname. For example, I recently completed a spec project for Catholic Charities of Tennessee. [The letter is here.] You might suppose that I would have done the following:

 

All of these are programs of Catholic Charities of Tennessee (CCT). Yet these are not the only ways we serve our community.

But I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t use an acronym at all. I did reference the charity multiple times. Each time, though, I used a shorter name, “Catholic Charities”. I did this for 2 reasons.

First, it’s shorter. I’m trying to save a few words for my readers. The less they have to read, the more likely they’ll follow through to the end. Plus if I economize on words in some areas, I have more space to give additional stories or data and make a more compelling push.

Second, it’s more authentic. I don’t imagine that anyone who works or volunteers with this group speaks of it as the CCT. Or CCTN. Or CCOT. When they talk about it, they speak of “Catholic Charities”. I would. Because, to them, the “of Tennessee” is irrelevant. They’re in Tennessee, so they don’t need to differentiate this from Catholic Charities of Minnesota or San Diego. Thus, speaking of “Catholic Charities” is what’s normal for this group.

What’s normal should be what’s written, no more, no less. It avoids confusion and matches the day-to-day experience.

Conclusion

When you’re trying to save space in your writing, acronyms and short names are a great way to economize. But make sure they’re defined, when necessary, and used appropriately. Your writing will look more professional and resonate better with your audience. Every time.

P.S. Closing the Loop

Remember how I said never to leave an acronym undefined? You might remember a reference to SAAS in the lead. It stands for Software As A Service. Now you know – and you’re not likely to forget.

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