Spelling out acronyms

We live in a world of acronyms, alphabetical abbreviations, such as U.S.A. or F.B.I. or C.I.A. They save space, and are easier to write and read than “United States of America” or “Federal Bureau of Investigation” or “Culinary Institute of America.” We use them all the time, so we assume our readers understand them. Not necessarily.

Readers appreciate explanation, and they don’t resent explaining things they might know, but might not. So we spell out acronyms the first time we use them in a piece, followed by the acronym in brackets. After that, we simply use the abbreviation, like this: “After graduating, she joined the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Three years later, she developed innovative pat-down techniques that caused less embarrassment for TSA officers.”

Remember that one acronym can stand for a number of titles. “C.I.A.” can mean any of the following:

Central Intelligence Agency
Certified Internal Auditor
Cleveland Institute of Art
Chemical Industries Association
Culinary Institute of America.

You can’t assume that your readers will decode the right one.

Clusters of acronyms, so-called “alphabet soup,” can confuse readers, like this: “ARUFON sent a FOIA request on UFOs to the CIA.” You can’t make a rule about how many acronyms one sentence can contain. Like everything in writing, it’s a balancing act among common usage, brevity, and clarity. But the greatest of these is clarity.

How do you know if your readers will understand an acronym? Ask three other writers who don’t cover the subject what the letters mean. If two of them miss it, spell it out for your readers. If in doubt, spell it out.

[Got any anecdotes about acronyms?]

Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 1:58 pm  Comments (2)  


What would help you the most in the whole writing process? A good debriefing.

Debriefing involves a person asking you organizing questions just before you type. Most of the problems happen in the ORGANIZING stage, and debriefing comes at the end of that stage, before you DRAFT. The main topics are what you want to say and how, that is, content and structure.

Debriefing always begins best with the most magic of magic questions: “What’s this about?” That takes care of content. If you can’t answer that question, or the debriefer can’t understand your answer, you don’t know what you want to say. You have to rethink or GATHER some more. (Plungers need to type to figure out what they want to say, so they should type awhile before debriefing.)

The next question is usually about structure: “What are the parts or sections of the piece?” The debriefer listens to see if the structure will work for the readers, and if all the parts make sense.

Then the debriefer asks about length: “How much space do you need?” Since writers want all the space in the world, I ask how much space the READERS need to understand the piece, how much explanation the readers need. If the debriefer is the editor, this question turns into a negotiation. The writer knows the material and how much space it will take to explain it, and the editor knows how much space is available. Editors also judge how much room the subject and treatment are worth in the context of their publications. So the writer and editor settle on a length.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful not to have space restrictions, if the editor just said, “Take as much space as you want.” No. Writers who start typing without a length in mind type long in space and time, and tend to file drafts instead of finished pieces, and turn them in late. If you don’t know how much space you have, you can’t select and design the material to fit the space. Freedom is knowing how much room you have, not having infinite space.


A good debriefer tailors the session to the characteristics of the writer. For example, the debriefer may know that the writer never puts any people in the story, so the next question is something like this: “Do you have any real people in the piece to illustrate this topic?”

Who has time for all this when you’re ready to type? You do, and most debriefings take about two minutes. Let’s look at a sample:

DEBRIEFER: Okay, Jane, what’s your piece about?
WRITER: Well, Agatha, it’s about getting rid of squirrels in your attic.
DEBRIEFER: I’ve had that problem myself. How do you get the little monsters out of there?
WRITER: Not easily. There are pest control companies (very expensive), gunfire (dangerous), noisemakers (problems with neighbors), home remedies, etc. I’m going to focus on home solutions, mostly chemical, like moth balls, and talk about the other methods as background.
DEBRIEFER: Sounds interesting. What are the parts?
WRITER: I’ve planned four parts. I’ll lead with a family struggling with squirrels who chewed through their soffit. Then there’s a section on home remedies that actually work and why, followed by another section on methods that don’t work, or that cause other problems. Then I’ll talk about the pros and cons of pest control specialists. And I have some really good stuff on getting rats out of the basement….
DEBRIEFER: What do rats have to do with squirrels?
WRITER: Nothing, but I’ve got some funny quotes on cellars full of rats….
DEBRIEFER: Don’t write that part. As usual, I don’t hear an ending. Got one?
WRITER: Well, no, but I could come back to the homeowners in the lead. They actually got rid of their squirrels.
DEBRIEFER: Good. How much space do you need?
WRITER: I can do it in about 30 inches, or a little more.
DEBRIEFER: No way, how about 15 inches with a photo?
WRITER: Maybe 20, 22?
DEBRIEFER: 20, with a photo, done. Write it fast. I want to read it. Thanks.

That debriefing took 75 seconds. At the end of it, the two players are on the same wavelength, the writer knows what she wants to say and how, and has her supervisor’s approval. She’s ready to write with confidence and understanding.

Notice that the debriefer did not tell her what to do, except to omit the rat section. She asked prompting questions, focused the writer’s ideas, and set expectations. You can debrief with someone who’s not your editor, even by asking yourself questions. But that other person is your first reader, representing the interests of all your future readers.

[Had any experiences with debriefing?]

Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 5:53 pm  Comments (2)