Spelling out acronyms at first mention?

Subject: Spelling out acronyms at first mention?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>, "'Gilda_Spitz -at- markham -dot- longview -dot- ca'" <Gilda_Spitz -at- markham -dot- longview -dot- ca>
Date: Thu, 12 Oct 2000 17:35:47 -0400

Gilda Spitz, concerning the traditional practice of spelling out acronyms at
each mention, observes <<But when you write text for an online help system,
you can't assume that users will read the "first" text first. So what do you
with the concept of "first mention"?>>

It isn't a particularly great rule for printed materials either, since it
makes the (probably incorrect) assumption that readers will read the
document from cover to cover, and will start at the beginning to do so. You
can redefine the acronym in each chapter (e.g., once per paper in the
proceedings of a symposium), but it's always seemed to me to be a better
approach to include a glossary of acronyms. (That's the approach I currently
use, but I also include any other jargon that needs defining.) This approach
would work perfectly well online. Another approach that would work well
online would be to use search and replace to turn each acronym into a popup,
so that clicking on it would open a window that contains the definition. I
may get around to doing this some day.

<<We've compromised by spelling it out at first mention within each Heading
1, but not any Heading 2s or 3s related to that Heading 1. But even that
doesn't deal with the issue totally.>>

No, but it's not a bad idea, since the odds are that many readers will
arrive at a help topic via its level 1 heading (the ones who get to topics
via the TOC or topics list rather than the index).

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Technical writing... requires understanding the audience, understanding
what activities the user wants to accomplish, and translating the often
idiosyncratic and unplanned design into something that appears to make
sense."--Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer

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