Writing, Critique Partnerships and Other Stories

From a community of writers, critique partners and beta readers.

Apr 27, 2020

Use of Abbreviations in Writing

By Sonia Easley.

·      Shortened words are abbreviations. Examples are Nov. for November, Mr. for Mister, and Sr. for Senior. 
·      Acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations.
·      Acronyms are abbreviations made from the first letters of a series of words and pronounced as words on their own. Examples are NATO (North American Trade Organization), WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), and ASAP (as soon as possible).
·      Initialisms are abbreviations made from word initials and pronounced as initials. Examples are USA (United States of America), FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).

As a writer, you need to consider your reader’s perspective. You want the widest audience you can get, so it’s wise not to use abbreviations that make sense only to readers of one genre. Let’s say you write science fiction (SF). Besides SF fans, you’ll want to snag romance, young adult, and fantasy readers. To grow your target base, be sure to explain abbreviations when they make their literary debuts. Even better, drop them altogether and use words and terms that any reader is likely to understand. Please don’t say to your critique partners or editors, “Everybody knows what ICX means.”
You may think readers should be responsible for decoding a writer’s work. While there may be value in stretching a reader’s imagination and forcing them to learn new meanings, many readers won’t accept that responsibility. It behooves you to make it easier for them for the sake of clarity and understanding. You want to inform and entertain, not confuse.
That said, be careful not to talk down to readers by over-describing or excessively defining unfamiliar terms, abbreviations, or subjects. With this approach, you risk bogging down your literary pacing to the point of boredom or distraction.
Yet clarity is crucial. So what’s a writer to do?
Ask your critique partners and beta readers if they stumbled over abbreviations, words, phrases, or sentences.  Thank them for any feedback they provide, and rewrite for clarity.
Consider the following scenario: You’re a professional chemist working in research. In addition, you’re a self-published writer of SF. Your potential readers could come from various backgrounds and professions. They might be pharmacists, literary agents, mechanics, architects, or single moms. . . . You get the idea. Wouldn’t you like to have these individuals in your reading circle along with the seasoned SF buffs? Of course, you would.
Questions? Fire away:
Question: Do I need abbreviations (acronyms and initialisms) in my writing? 
Answer: No, but if you use an abbreviation and it arises again within your written piece, you will use only the abbreviation thereafter and delete the spelled-out version with parentheses. An example is, ASAP (as soon as possible). Keep only ASAP.
Oops, did you catch it? ASAP is both an acronym and initialism. You can speak the word or speak the initials.
Question: Do I define abbreviations within quoted dialog? 
Answer: The short answer is yes. Remember, dialog is unrestricted style. However, if your protagonist says, “Dang that PCY report is hard to decipher,” you need to define the initialism.
Question: May I use one of my book’s characters to explain abbreviations?
Answer: Yes, in fact that’s one good way to clarify. Note the following two examples:
“You must appreciate, my dear Melody, that Alfred inhales abbreviations in his university laboratory. What he meant to say was . . .”
“Hey, Dad, I’m doing a school paper on ZIP codes. Does ‘ZIP’ stand for zippers?”
“No, Son, but I’m not sure what it does mean, so let’s look it up online. . . . Well, whadya know. It means Zone Improvement Plan.”
Question: How do I write for clarity and still make it sound natural?
Answer: You might write . . .
 “I learned from the SRO—the Statistical Records of Ohio—that the suspect is from Hawaii.” You’ve defined “SRO,” but in this case, why use initialism? How about: “I read in the public records that the suspect is from Hawaii.” The readers will love you.
Question: Should I use periods between abbreviation initials?
Answer: Using periods is a style issue. (The CMS does not use periods after initials in initialisms. So it’s USA, not U.S.A.) Choose a style and be consistent.
Okay readers, did you remember that CMS stands for Chicago Manual of Style?
Question: Will you show an example of how a writer can work in explanations through dialog and narrative?
Answer: Yes . . .
“I was concerned when I saw the letter was from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).”
Another example is . . .
“I glimpse the letterhead as I inch the double-folded paper out of its envelop: ‘Federal Bureau of Investigation.’ Hmm, the FBI. What are the Feds sending me now? The big boys from Washington, DC are . . .”
Later I can use “FBI” or one of the other three related references, “the Feds,” “. . . the big boys from Washington . . .”, or the “Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
You and your editor may want to adopt specific references for your particular literary project. For instance, my editor and I decided to both use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for my current project. Thus, we can resolve frustrating style and grammar issues. 
Do keep in mind that abbreviations change, like hyphenated words, so make sure you obtain yearly updates. In addition, a common acronym may become an accepted English word. For example, Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) became the word “scuba” (as in scuba diving), and Radio Detection and Ranging (RADAR) became the word “radar.” 
Consistency is paramount for a writer. Choose a course of action for abbreviations by selecting and using specific references for your writing project; then stick with your decision.


About the Author: Sonia Easley
Sonia Easley has far-ranging interests, insatiable curiosity, and impressive creativity, despite her grounded career in medical science. These passions have inspired her to write of spirituality, the heart-tugging adventures of a boy during World War II, and the psychologically and sometimes physically challenging travails of a university professor trapped in a mystery on the Big Island of Hawaii. In varying degrees, these storylines draw upon her rich life experiences. She’s currently diving into her fifth book, the story of Lily an eighty-year-old woman.
The author lives and writes in Southern California.
You can find her books here