Avoid drowning readers in alphabet soup
Acronyms appear to speed communication. After all, if you can boil a multisyllabic pileup of words down into a handful of letters, that moves information faster, right?
“[Unfamiliar acronyms] create false economies,” write the editors of the SEC’s A Plain English Handbook. “They may save a few words, but they may also frustrate and force the reader to take more time and effort to understand the document.”
Besides, copy cluttered with capital letters looks like academic writing. It’s visually off-putting to readers because it looks as if it’s written in code.
So how do you avoid frustrating your readers with acronyms, in everything from blog posts to text messages?
How to handle acronyms
Here are six ways to avoid drowning your readers in alphabet soup that you won’t find in a style guide or publication manual:
1. Use familiar acronyms.
If the acronym is more familiar to your audience than the original term, go ahead and use it. “REITs,” for instance, may be easier to read when you’re writing to a group of real estate investors.
2. Use a generic instead of an acronym.
Assign a generic word to substitute for the original phrase. Generics like “the program,” “the policy” or “the plan” often make perfect substitutes for corporate acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms.
3. Spell out acronyms.
In one of his famous letters to shareholders, Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, spells out an abbreviation:
4. Explain acronyms.
But spelling out the abbreviation isn’t enough. (Do you feel like you have a solid grounding in IBNR just because you know what the initials stand for? Didn’t think so.) So he clarifies the term with this explanation:
5. Illustrate acronyms.
That’s a little better. But I still don’t think I could explain IBNR to my friends. So Buffett illustrates the abbreviation with an apocryphal story:
6. Decipher alphabet soup.
Get help explaining acronyms with The Acronym Finder, a comprehensive database of acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms.
7. Skip the acronyms altogether.
As The Associated Press Stylebook counsels, “NNCBTPSNBRTASTSAFW.” That is, “Names not commonly before the public should not be reduced to acronyms solely to save a few words.”
Sources: Ann Wylie, Start Making Sense, Wylie Communications Inc., 1997
United States Securities and Exchange Commission, A Plain English Handbook: How to create clear SEC disclosure documents (PDF), August 1998
The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, Perseus Books Group, July 15, 2002