When to use acronyms in your content

Estimated read time: 4 minutes

When should we use acronyms in our content? Seems like a simple question that isn’t asked as often as it should be.

I see it all the time, unfortunately: Articles full of alphabet soup. Every chance the writer gets, they’ll use acronyms. Nonstop. All the time. Now, I don’t want to overstate things here. There’s a place to use acronyms when they are globally understood and sometimes we don’t even know they are acronyms.

For example, laser is an acronym that stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, according to the AP Stylebook.

But let’s dive into things here one step at a time:

  • What are acronyms?
  • Why do writers use them?
  • The reason not to use them.

This article addresses publicly facing content – think blog posts, articles, social media posts. That’s the content that can and will reach a wider audience and that audience can be easily lost if we pepper them with letters that don’t make sense to them. Or that make them think. Afterall, we want them to consumer our content, not think about what something means in the content.

Read next: Why a company style guide is necessary for good content

What are acronyms?

Acronyms are words that come from a combination of the first letters of a series of words. For example, COPE comes from Create Once, Publish Everywhere. FBI is the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Most every industry has plenty of acronyms.

Why do writers use acronyms

Every writer can probably answer that question for themselves, but it looks to me it comes down to a number of reasons:

The perception that everyone knows it

They mistakenly believe that everyone knows what the word stands for? Heck, I use the COPE term all the time. I sometimes can’t believe others don’t know it. But there are so many acronyms flying around now that it’s almost impossible for anyone to know them all. To make it worse, the same words are used across different industries. Good luck googling.

The writer doesn’t even know

There are cases when an expert interviewed for an article or another power-that-be executive threw around an acronym with a writer. They writer wrote it down correctly but didn’t ask what it meant. Even worse, the expert or leader said that everyone in the industry knows the acronym. That’s a quick brush off and some writers wouldn’t follow up asking for the definition again.

Space reasons

Back in my newspaper days we always ran out of space. Everywhere. There weren’t enough pages. Headlines had to be short. That’s less of a thing now with digital content creation, but can still happen in:

  • Email subject lines
  • Ads
  • Social media posts

The reason not to use them

Some reasons for why acronyms are used are honestly just excuses and a good style guide will address the issue of acronyms. And if your audience truly, honestly, to the last person knows all the acronyms out there maybe it’s okay to use them. But here’s the thing: Every industry has new people entering, why not make comprehension easy for them?

I was reading a trade publication article about livestreaming the other day and it was full of acronyms. Heck, I’m definitely part of the livestreaming community. I wrote a book on the topic, blog about it and produce two shows. I’m not even new to the industry and that article made no sense to me. At all.

Using too many acronyms might also present an issue with SEO. Does that CTA stand for call to action or case telescoped ammunition?

Sometimes, the acronym might make sense, but other times – maybe most of the time – it can shut out audiences or make the content harder to consumer.

It also makes people think too much. For example, when NFL teams play the Las Vegas Raiders some sportswriters decide to just say LVR on Twitter. If you are following each post all the time and in sequence that might be okay. But if you are just checking in here and there (much more likely on Twitter), you’ll have to think about it. And that’s an easy acronym.

But the exceptions

There are exceptions, of course, and sometimes at least using the acronym at times can help. Especially, if a lot of people use it in an industry. So consider where that line is, but as a rule of thumb I would recommend to follow AP style and write it out and use the acronym here and there if there’s a real content performance reason for it.

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