This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly , the official blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada .


I’m an in-house editor for the Alberta Energy Regulator. Authors are required to work with our group as they move towards publishing their documents. It’s essential that we cultivate and nurture relationships of respect and trust. One element of that is always being able to rationalize and justify our recommendations. There’s no room for personal pet peeves and arbitrary dos and don’ts.

Because academic staff are familiar with and typically respond well to empirical research, I decided to do a survey of research on topics of interest to editors. For example, how does negative phrasing affect readers (doi:10.1016/S0022-5371(73)80057-X )? What about concrete vs. abstract words (doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2013.09.015 )? What about the importance of clear subheadings ? The result is my publicly available Empirical Research for Editors list. It informs the writing courses I teach, and occasionally I use it with individual authors. The survey is far from comprehensive, and I warmly welcome additions.

AAOB (Acronyms And Our Brains)

Our brains process acronyms (particularly unfamiliar ones) differently than regular words. The effect on processing fluency depends on a number of factors, including familiarity, imageability (how we make a mental image of the word), the nature of its “orthographic neighbourhood” (similarly spelled words), print-to-pronunciation patterns, and voicing characteristics. Additionally, one study showed how acronyms (again, particularly unfamiliar ones) trigger “attentional blink .”

Acronyms are helpful during the writing process. But it’s easier to read three words that we instantly understand than to have to pause at a rarely used and awkward three-letter acronym to remember what it means. In my plain language workshops, I encourage authors to just do a search and replace and eliminate unhelpful acronyms.

At the very least, be sure to have a list of acronyms and their definitions at the front of the document, even for acronyms you think are familiar. It will reduce misunderstandings and errors.

Further reading