Should you use acronyms in your writing?

A delegate raised an interesting point at one of our workshops earlier this month.

We were talking about acronyms - words formed from the initial letters of another word.

Some acronyms are of course very well-known, for instance the RSPCA or A&E. In the business world, we know that the CEO and the MD are the big bosses. And, more mundanely, if PTO is at the bottom of a letter, it means you’d better read what’s on the other side.

Other acronyms though are not so familiar and can leave some people extremely confused.

In certain jobs you could argue that is largely the aim. For instance, if a doctor scribbles UBI on your medical notes in A&E, he’s telling another doctor you have an ‘unexplained beer injury’.  It will be instantly understood by other medics but you are deliberately excluded.

And that, as our delegate pointed out, is part of the point of why sometimes acronyms are over- used. He said it gives those who know what these abbreviated versions mean a ‘power’ over those who just see a collection of random letters.  

Although our delegate has a valid point and some writers do overdo them to highlight their superior knowledge, it can also indicate that the writer has forgotten the audience they’re writing for.

I think sometimes we don’t realise that we’re speaking in our own industry-specific language.

My own trade of journalism for instance has its own distinct language.

I remember as a trainee reporter in my first few days in the newsroom being bemused when the news editor demanded a ‘flight of NIBs- check out any RTAs for the NF’.

Once I’d worked out that he wanted several ‘news in brief’ short stories including  any road traffic accidents for the night final- the last edition of the day- it was perfectly clear. But by then that day’s deadline had probably long passed.  

 My point is, don’t assume everyone is speaking your language, especially if you have to step outside your own particular work environment and communicate with a less informed audience.

 Here are five points to remember when using acronyms

*The first time you use an acronym, write it in full with the letters it will be abbreviated to in brackets beside it. That is unless it’s a very familiar one such as the BBC, NASA or the RSPCA that the majority of us recognise.

*Don’t use so many acronyms that your article will look ugly on the page/screen – too many acronyms can look like you are shouting.  It could also mean that your reader gets distracted from what you are saying as as they have to decipher what the letters mean. This is the complete opposite of what you hope to achieve with an acronym.

* Make sure that if your information is going to be used by people outside your office, that others will understand it.  Just because I use buses and trains as a passenger, it doesn’t mean I understand all the industry’s abbreviations or phrases.

*Don’t fall into the trap of assuming everyone will understand trendy new phrases, even if you and your mates bandy them about all the time.  Maybe I’m simply getting old but when a PR recently emailed about FOMO and another about YOLO, I had to look them up in an online urban dictionary. They mean Fear of Missing Out and You Only Live Once in case you were wondering.

*Write the acronym in capital letters throughout, even if the acronym spells out a word. Do not put full stops or leave space between the letters. It’s AIDS, NATO or FIFA and not F.I.F.A.

Remember, clear communication is all about getting the message across simply. And excessive use of acronyms doesn’t help do this.

- Adrian Monti