Please Don't Do This to Your Reader (PDDTTYR )

Pretty much every writer I’ve ever edited has one habit in common: Every time they mention an organization, be it a company, a nonprofit, or a government department, they immediately insert its initials in parentheses.

 The Student Resource Research Center (SRRC) works with the National Association of Educational Consultants (NAEC) to help freshmen locate tuition resources such as for California State Department of Educational Assistance (CSDEA), the nonprofit League of Catholic College Charities (LCCCP), and United Minority and Financially Disadvantaged College Fund (UMFDCF).

 After that, the initials may reappear later in the article — on the assumption that the reader should have memorized all these nicknames on command. Or, weirder yet, the organizations are never mentioned again, meaning there was no reason whatsoever to “teach” this abbreviation to the reader (other than to simply point out that the organization has initials).

 I understand why writers do this: We’ve all seen it done a thousand times. It seems standard. Yet it never fails to blow my mind. It makes me want to call the writer and say, “Hey, real quick, if I told you the SRRC and the NEAC work with the CSDEA, LCCCP and UMFDCF, could you off the top of your head give the full name of even one of those organizations? No? Then why do you expect the reader to know them?”

 True, for a lot of publications this is simply how it’s done. But Los Angeles Times style sees it differently, and their way seems to make much more sense than this force-feeding of alphabet soup.

In this editing style, if an initialism is already known to the reader, you can use it freely on second reference without cramming it in after the first reference. “Investigators from the Defense Intelligence Agency said that DIA operatives are already in place.”

Of course, if it's very well known, like FBI or CIA, there may not be any need to spell out the name at all. On the other hand, if it’s a new one on the reader, here are some of the solutions Times style advocates:

1. After a first reference to an organization, refer to it with descriptive words the reader already knows. This can be a generic descriptor like “the association” or “the state assistance program,” or even a shortened version of its full name “the Catholic Charities.”  If there are multiple subsequent references, consider mixing one of these impromptu nicknames with occasional uses of the full name to remind readers of that name.

2. If no generic nouns will do the trick, on subsequent references, go ahead and refer to the organization by its initials — even though you never did that whole parenthetical cram thing at the first reference. The idea here is that when a reader sees UMFDCF and wants to know what it means, he’s going to have to go back to the first reference regardless of whether you cluttered it up with parentheses and unfamiliar letters. This requires no more work of the reader but cleans up a lot of the visual blight.

 3. When references to the organization are scattered far apart within the document, scattered initials or references may fail to remind the reader of what organization you’re talking about. In those rare cases, when there’s no other way around it, mention the initials — not in parentheses but in the sentence. "The Centers for Initialism Restraint, called the CIR, approve of this."

4. When none of those methods fits the bill, go ahead and insert the initialism in parentheses after the first reference then refer to the organization by its initials thereafter. In other words, this is a case in which the reader’s best course really is to learn the nickname. And those are the only times you should teach it to him.

 No matter what, there’s never an excuse to cram in the initials of an organization you refer to only once. This does nothing but break up the flow of the writing and drive certain copy editors nuts.

Tags: ,