Some copywriters have a niche. Mine is plain English. That’s it. Some copywriters have a passion for certain sectors or topics. My passion is plain English. That’s it.

Verbose copy is so difficult to read. It must be a nightmare to write! You have to keep re-reading to make sure you’ve understood correctly. And surely, the aim of most copy is to get to the point quickly – particularly online. You need the who, what, where, when, how and why, and to make sure those are communicated clearly and succinctly.

In this post I’m going to look at acronyms and abbreviations, how confusing copy can be when it’s peppered with them, and why keeping it simple is key.

What is an acronym? An acronym is an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word (e.g. NATO, NASA). It’s not just acronyms though, there are many abbreviations not pronounced as words, that also confuse in copy.

Some acronyms are so embedded in culture/society that they will rarely need explanation or spelling out. Others are industry/sector/hobby specific and are only meaningful to an in-group. You might legitimately and deliberately want to pepper your copy with acronyms to show you know your stuff in your sector, or to show you belong.

If I’m doing web copy, for example, and the client throws in acronyms – whether I know of them or not – I always ask for a full explanation and ask if their target market will be familiar with them. Acronyms can show a sense of belonging but they can also alienate newcomers to a market. And everyone is a newcomer at some point. If you want to be welcoming and win people over you need to be explicit. Never assume.

In technical terms, in copy it’s best practice to spell out in full any acronyms on first use, with the acronym in brackets after. From that point on you can use the acronym on its own (spot the example in the next paragraph). It’s a very simple rule, and easy to remember but often acronyms are not spelled out at all ever, leading to confusion for the reader.

As a rule I’m not a massive fan of anything that has the potential to alienate a reader, or make them mentally switch off. You could say I don’t like acronyms (IDLA), or abbreviations (IDLAOA?). I’m particularly not a fan of informal ones like SMH – which I always interpret as the Sydney Morning Herald, before my brain finds the alternative ‘shakes my head’ and YOLO, which gives me an icky feeling for some reason. I do like JFDI though! You’ll have to google this one.

One of the main reasons I switched off from Line of Duty was overuse of acronyms. I had absolutely no clue who or what was going on. It felt like a parody of itself, like they said “how many randomly generated words and numbers that mean nothing can we get in per scene?”

Just for fun though, and to be a complete hypocrite, I have come up with some of my own that I’d like to get into everyday use.

IDKWYAOA – I don’t know what you are on about

STAIE – Say that again in English

CTB – Cut the bullshit

AYWM – Are you with me?

So, AYWM? Are you?