Editing 101: Acronyms Can Be Another Stop Sign for the Reader

A post yesterday said that quoting someone only by their last name can be a stop sign for readers. When in doubt, make it easy for the reader by clearly identifying who is being quoted even though that person has been quoted earlier in the story.

Another stop sign I run into, especially in Washington stories, is the overuse of acronyms.  The well-known ones—NIH, FDA, NFL—are usually not a problem. But some stories I edited had five or more acronyms for various agencies and organizations.

The common practice is to write out the full name of an organization in the first mention with the acronym in parentheses, and then just use the acronym in subsequent mentions. The problem for the reader is when the name and acronym are used early in a piece and then reappears much later with just the acronym. The reader stops and thinks: IPS, what does that stand for?  When in doubt, repeat the name of the organization.

George Orwell, in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” said: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Three more stop signs. The one that once made me cancel a magazine subscription was its use of a French phrase as a crucial part of the story’s ending. You’re going to make me feel dumb because I don’t speak French?



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