Proposal Acronyms: Sometimes It’s Okay to Break Rules

In business writing, and in proposal writing in particular, we seem to have an unrequited love of acronyms and similar abbreviations. Perhaps we’re worried about strict page limits in our proposals, or maybe we want to sound cool, or maybe we think if we save a bunch of syllables we can collect them all and turn them in at the end for prizes.

But writing that’s filled with acronyms is hard to read. When a Government proposal evaluator reads a paragraph that’s chock full of acronyms, they likely stop at each acronym and define them in their heads. Acronyms become like speed bumps on the road of comprehension. Our proposal writing should communicate content with precision and effectiveness, so that the evaluator can understand the solution and identify strengths quickly and easily. In this sense, good proposal writing becomes invisible.

We’ve all been taught that you should define (write out) an acronym the first time you use it, then just use the acronym on all other occasions. I’d propose some modifications to this rule:

Rule Modification #1

If it’s been a while (many pages) since you defined the acronym and it’s not commonly known, it’s okay to define it again.

Rule Modification #2

If the acronym is widely understood, you don’t have to define it at all. (If you’re working on a proposal to NASA, you don’t have to write, “National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)” – they know who they are).

Rule Modification #3

Avoid cute acronyms that are made up just to sound cool (you’re trying to communicate content here, not impress the neighbors).

Final Thoughts

My all-time favorite acronym was from a proposal to the FAA many years ago. It was “ESI,” which stood for “E-DARC System Interface.” But “E-DARC” was an acronym for “Enhanced Direct Access Radar Channel.” And “Radar” is actually an abbreviation for “Radio Direction and Ranging.” So “ESI” was a triple-embedded acronym! Imagine defining that acronym in a proposal:

“The Enhanced Direct Access Radio Direction and Ranging (Radar) (E-DARC) System Interface (ESI) is …”

My advice is to use acronyms sparingly and only when it helps to communicate content clearly. Don’t make the customer evaluators LOL.