Journalists hate acronyms: How to avoid ‘alphabet soup’

By Lauren Edwards

It’s a business custom to use acronyms in parentheses, like this:

The American Bureau of Undiluted Acronyms (ABUA) will deliver its report on …

Journalists hate this.

Old-school journalists will remember a city editor somewhere in their life who gruffly shouted across a busy newsroom, “No alphabet soup!” The saying itself may seem a little corny and innocent, but the delivery made it clear that he (back then, most editors were men) was essentially cursing at a reporter who had used acronyms in a news story.

Rather than explain why or elaborate on the subculture of journalism, I’ll go straight to recommendations for avoiding acronyms.

It’s a finesse move, not a rule.

Here’s what journalists prefer to see:

  • … spoke before the AAEE – short for American Association of Eagle Eyes – on the topic of copyediting in the digital era. The association
  • … spoke before the American Association of Eagle Eyes – also known as the AAEE – on the topic of …. The association
  • … American Association of Eagle Eyes. Also called the AAEE, the association …

Notice that on second reference it’s “association,” not AAEE.

This use of a generic word, rather than an acronym, is in reach more often than you might be thinking.

  • For organizations, try:  bureau, agency, administration, council, group, organization, trade group, industry association, …
  • For technology, try: platform, standard, protocol, architecture, technology, layer,

Most PR writers would probably do it this way:

  • … spoke before the Association of Eagle Eyes (AAEE). The AAEE

But you don’t have to!

Top-tier and other mainstream journalists don’t, though some vertical publications do. In Forbes, you’ll find it only in paid or contributed content.

Here’s a nice example from a 6/2/18 TechCrunch article:

“MaidSafe reckons they’ve come up with a way of achieving consensus on decentralized networks that’s scalable, robust and efficient. Hence the name of the protocol — ‘Parsec’ — being short for: ‘Protocol for Asynchronous, Reliable, Secure and Efficient Consensus’.

They will be open sourcing the protocol under …”

And here’s a reader-friendly way that an important technology association handles its gnarly full name. This case is especially interesting because the acronym itself is pronounced differently than one might think. The blurb below is from the organization itself.

The IEEE (Eye-triple-E) is a nonprofit, technical professional association of more than 423,000 individual members in approximately 160 countries. The full name is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., although the organization is most popularly known and referred to by the letters I-E-E-E. Through its members, the IEEE is a leading authority in technical areas ranging from computer engineering, biomedical technology and telecommunications, to electric power, aerospace and consumer electronics, among others.

In a press release, here’s how it could be done …

(1) … newly ratified by the IEEE (pronounced Eye-triple-E), a nonprofit technical professional association that determines standards for Wi-Fi devices. The association …

(2) … based on standards ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, popularly called the IEEE (Eye-triple-E). The nonprofit technical professional association …

If you do PR for a government-related organization, good luck!  Government and military program names can be long and awful, so the temptation to use acronyms is almost irresistible.

Below is an example from a Wired story from many years ago that did a nice job of providing context to offset the negative effects of using an acronym.  I pulled this example from an old workbook of mine, so it’s old — but it still makes the point!

(As a side note, it’s a little eery to see commentary of 15 years ago that foretells what is well known to all of us now in a lived-it way. You’ll see what I mean!)

The Wired story is about DARPA, a familiar name for industries that work closely with the Defense and Energy departments (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, iRobot). The target audience for a press release or contributed article related to DARPA might easily recognize the organization. But for others, it’s alphabet soup. 

The acronym is held off until the sixth paragraph. Its use in the headline is spiced up by “spy machine” and the alliteration of “DARPA’s dreams.” (My comments are in blue.)

A Spy Machine of DARPA’s Dreams 

By Noah Shachtman, May. 20, 2003

It’s a memory aid! A robotic assistant! An epidemic detector! An all-seeing, ultra-intrusive spying program!

The Pentagon is about to embark on a stunningly ambitious research project designed to gather every conceivable bit of information about a person’s life, index all the information and make it searchable.

What national security experts and civil libertarians want to know is, why would the Defense Department want to do such a thing?

The embryonic LifeLog program would dump everything an individual does into a giant database: every email sent or received, every picture taken, every Web page surfed, every phone call made, every TV show watched, every magazine read.

All of this — and more — would combine with information gleaned from a variety of sources: a GPS transmitter to keep tabs on where that person went, audio-visual sensors to capture what he or she sees or says, and biomedical monitors to keep track of the individual’s health.

This gigantic amalgamation of personal information could then be used to “trace the ‘threads’ of an individual’s life,” to see exactly how a relationship or events developed, according to a briefing from the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, LifeLog’s sponsor. (Note: The name is tucked away at the end of the paragraph, for attribution. It’s not very noticeable. Instead, the emphasis is on what’s really happening. Also notice the explanation tacked onto the end: LifeLog’s sponsor. This is just enough info for now. The relationship is one of sponsorship. Enough said, for now.)

Someone with access to the database could “retrieve a specific thread of past transactions, or recall an experience from a few seconds ago or from many years earlier … by using a search-engine interface.”

On the surface, the project seems like the latest in a long line of DARPA’s “blue sky” research efforts, most of which never make it out of the lab. But DARPA is currently asking businesses and universities for research proposals to begin …. (Note: DARPA’s role was previously explained, and now, on second reference, it’s in a sentence that also includes context that helps the reader recall the name’s meaning.)

It does not say: Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA)

As I said, this is a finesse move, not a rule. It takes more refined writing skills to arrange  information in a way that puts the reader’s needs first.

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