Spell It Out!

A close up shot of a computer keyboardOver the span of my career, I took great joy in preparing drafts of memos, briefing notes and all kinds of correspondence for my management team. Naturally, I learned a lot along the way and I was more than happy to pass on to the advice to the newest generation when it was my turn to coach them.

In the early days, one comment that came back a few times was the editing note, “in full first”.

By saying that, my director was suggesting that I should write out an acronym in full the first time it appeared in the document and then to include its acronym version in parentheses. Once that is clarified to the reader, the writer can then feel free to use the acronym in its shortened form throughout the rest of the document.

What sage advice that was! To this day, I really appreciate the time, effort and patience that this busy executive took in tutoring me on the importance of spelling out an acronym.

She explained that an acronym that might be commonly used by my peers and myself might not be evident to someone on another team, someone who isn’t involved in the technical aspects of the work, or someone outside of our organization.

I recall a discussion in which I asked about documents going to a very specific audience for whom a given acronym should be common knowledge. Could the document go forward with just the acronyms as-is?

She suggested that because there is always going to be someone new on the team whether a recent hire or a recent deployment from another team, there is always the potential that this may be a first for them. Wouldn’t it make their initial learning curve easier if the acronyms were spelled out?

She was absolutely right.

It didn’t take much convincing that the time it takes to spell out an acronym in full, just once in its first iteration, is a wise investment to establish clarity for all readers (rather than getting an email back later asking what “XYZABC” stood for.)

Even if an acronym is obvious for a specific target audience, if there is potential that a document might be unexpectedly shared outside of an inner circle, then it should be viewed as a best practice.

Back in the early days, it took a few times for me to get into the habit of self-checking to ensure that all acronyms were spelled out, but eventually I got on the bandwagon.

What is interesting is that not only did I get on the bandwagon, I think I started leading it as it became a strong advocate for spelling out acronyms, gently suggesting it when I was asked for comments and feedback on draft documents. I was pleased when most authors took the advice in stride, agreed and adopted the practice.

Later in my career, I found another reason for spelling acronyms out: the archives. A written document that will go into archive for a decade or two or three… will it make sense to a reader if a well-known acronym today is not so well-known in the future?

And even after my public sector career, I still find myself haunted by mystery acronyms.

I shared this story on Facebook a while back, but it’s too good to not include it in this post.

When I first joined our rural community’s page on Facebook, I noticed the acronym “TIA” from time to time, without knowing what it meant. No one spelled it out. It appears that everyone assumed that it was known.

I did a Google search and one of the first interpretations I saw was “this is awkward.” I forget what the post in question was specifically about, but the interpretation was definitely appropriate as I recall a tone of apprehensiveness in the author’s communication.

That being the case, I carried on my merry way with the interpretation that “TIA” meant “this is awkward”.

When reading community posts in the days that followed, I started scratching my head while a weird squint came over my face as I read questions like the following:

– Does anybody know how late the grocery store is open tonight? TIA

– Does anyone know if the pharmacy has restocked on rapid tests? When I call I keep getting a busy signal. TIA

– Does anyone know what business will be taking over the site at (…)? There is brown paper in the windows and I am curious. TIA

I was confused. What was awkward about any of those questions?

I asked my partner what “TIA” meant to him, to which he replied “thanks in advance.”

I smacked my forehead, had a very good belly laugh and then shared the story with him. Obviously, the first interpretation “this is awkward” was not the right assumption to make for these scenarios.

How cool it would have been if even one person would have written it out in full, rather than assuming the whole world knew what TIA meant. Maybe it was me who just fell off the turnip truck, but I truly did not know.

For that reason, it always puts a smile on my face when I read messages or documents for wide distribution where the acronyms aren’t spelled out at least once.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but sometimes inventing interpretations can be a fun exercise in itself, but I’ll save that for another post.

In those moments when I have to look up an acronym, I feel so grateful for my mentor whose advice was proven time and time again that we should always spell acronyms out “in full first”!

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Sincere thanks for reading!
Have a great day,

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Filed under Humour, stories, Writing

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