Writing AdviceWriting, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2011

Those Crazy Acronyms

Acronyms are those convenient abbreviations we all know about that replace long words or complex titles for quicker communication of complex ideas or names. They usually come from the initial components in a much longer phrase or name that's in common use in a business, specialty, or culture. The components that form acronyms are often the first letters of the most important words in that longer title or name or concept, as in CEO for Chief Operating Officer or IBM (International Business Machines) or http (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) in website addresses.

Where do we use acronyms today? Nearly everywhere. We see them online, in research papers, on cable television, e-mails, social networking sites, phone texting, technical documentation, computer data systems, and many other places. Acronyms are especially recognizable when we don't understand what they mean and what's being said to us or written in what we're reading. When we understand the meaning of an acronym, however, we rush right by it and keep reading.

There is definitely a major upsurge in acronym use in writing today and frankly in all areas of communication. Acronyms have become a favorite tool for fast and brief communication and likely a direct outgrowth of our modern approach to thinking — say it fast and move on to the next idea or task. Speed is the main instigator of all the acronym use we are seeing now. Another cause is the expansion of complicated bureaucracies that force us to try and avoid writing long titles and department names and regulatory references over and over in favor of more brevity. Then we can move on to our next task more quickly.

Most of us are familiar with well-known acronyms like the FBI or NASA or UPS or VISA or even USA, but what happens when we try to figure out the following communication with no explanation there?

"It's important to review APCAT fully for USQRW and follow the instructions found in the ZEPX of the database, or you will likely apply the TYOP in error."

There is quite a difference, don't you think?

We all have also had the exasperating experience of being in a non-understandable discussion with a colleague from another department or a customer service representative or hearing a lecture in school that's confusing or reading a journal article we're sourcing for a research paper and running into a bunch of acronyms that aren't explained anywhere and used too indiscriminately. It's frustrating and confusing. The experience keeps us from fully understanding a key idea at a meeting, the details of a project proposal, a key element of a paper, or even an important safety concept. We are annoyed when we can't get done what we need to get done because we can't figure out the exact meaning of a few acronyms and have to go ask someone or look them up.

If you want to be a good communicator and deliver the clear, specific writing that others will thank you for, you have to learn how to handle acronyms in daily writing. You need to know when to use them, when to identify them, and when to fold them, i.e., avoid using them at all. What's the best way to deal with these choices? How can you use specialized coded language effectively? The following suggestions are helpful, both to you as a writer and those who read your writing and want to understand it better. These acronym hints will help you communicate more clearly and let your readers keep their sanity when you do include acronyms in your writing.

  1. Make a concerted effort not to overuse these sometimes useful abbreviations. Don't turn everything you write into an unneeded acronym — it makes for annoying as well as confusing text. Use acronyms discriminately and only when it makes sense to use them and they truly fit into your discussion.
  2. Don't use internal acronyms that are known only to your department or team outside of that special environment without explaining what they mean to those other colleagues;
  3. In written material, at first mention of an acronym, write it out in parentheses as well to explain its full meaning the first time you use it. Don't keep your reader in the dark. Of course the exception to this hint are acronyms we all know and use every day.
  4. In that same vein, make sure your reader has the cultural background and professional experience to know even the most common acronyms — always remember and respect your reader.
  5. If the acronym you introduced disappears for a bunch of pages, repeat the explanation to refresh your reader. Assist your reader in understanding what you're trying to say. It's only polite, and it helps you get your idea across too.
  6. If you need to use a lot of technical or specialized acronyms in a piece of writing, i.e., a scientific paper, then add a Glossary or Appendix at the end and post all the acronyms and their meanings there as well for all to review. Those of your readers who know the meanings won't use the Glossary, but those who don't know what you mean or how an specific acronym fits into your text will have a ready-made source to find out and will thank you.

Applying these simple writing tips will relieve a lot of reader tension in your delivery of ideas and produce clearer, more precise, even safer, communication. The truth is if your reader misses the meaning of an important acronym (or two or three) in your writing, he or she will likely also miss a major part of the meaning of your piece and the effort you've given it or at the very least a key part of the background that is vital for your reader to know to understand your idea.

So, do use those crazy acronyms, but use them judiciously and with care. Remember that too much of the best spice can hurt any gourmet dish. Moderation is the key to good eats and good writing.

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