Acronyms--How often do you spell them out?

Subject: Acronyms--How often do you spell them out?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Katherine Darges <katherine -dot- darges -at- defensegp -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 31 Jul 2006 15:36:24 -0400

Katherine Darges wondered: <<I am editing a multi-section document, with each section 50 to 75 pages. The document was written by the Government for the Government. Phrases that get turned into acronyms are spelled out when they are first used, followed by their acronyms in parentheses - most in the first section. Appendix A is a complete acronym list - about 300 all ogether (this IS the Government, after all). Would you re-identify the acronyms in each subsequent section as well as adding the new ones? Or, is once really enough, based on the fact that the readers of the document have all been involved in the project of which the document is a record?>>

The standard convention for defining acronyms is that they should be spelled out the first time they appear in each discrete section that readers can be expected to read so that readers will understand them. So in a single-author book that you can expect readers to read from cover to cover, once will suffice. In a multi-author collection such as a symposium proceedings, once per submitted paper is the rule of thumb; this same approach applies for reference material (once per chapter).

Where you don't have any clear idea of what readers are going to read, or where they will enter the text, your solution of providing an acronym list is a good one--though I'd expand this into a full glossary to cover any other non-acronym technical terms that might stop readers in their tracks. This is equally true for things like online help, and for the same reason: you can't guarantee that anyone will encounter the first definition, and rather than throwing up a roadblock, it's better to provide such a resource to ensure that they can find the meaning and keep reading.

However, forcing someone to stop reading just so they can look up a definition takes them out of their current task, which is understanding the current sentence. (Also, a good proportion will never realize that you've provided a glossary. <g>) Thus, you should provide the information "just in time"--once per section, where they have a chance to read it. That's particularly true for material that will be extracted from the main document and stored separately on the bulletin boards and bookshelves of individual offices--which happens more than you'd expect based on my tenure as a federal wage slave. This does create a certain amount of redundancy, but isn't that better than preventing comprehension?

You state that readers have all been involved in this project, and this may be true _now_. But any document of continuing interest will attract many readers who weren't part of the project. For them, and for people like me who take a long time to memorize all the acronyms used in a new project, it's a kindness to provide definitions on the go, where readers need to see them.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Acronyms--How often do you spell them out?: From: Darges, Katherine

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