Steer Clear of the Alphabet Soup

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Practical Tips for Using Abbreviations Without Confusing
Your Audience

Abbreviations are used a lot in technical writing, and they’re great for saving space or staying within word or character count limits. But they can be tricky, and if you use them the wrong way, you risk alienating your reader. The following tips will help you use abbreviations in a way that makes sense to your reader.

The Introduction

In most instances, it’s best to introduce and define an abbreviation at first mention in running text, like this: adverse event (AE). Don’t introduce it in a header or subhead. For subsequent instances, use only the abbreviation. In longer pieces with multiple long sections or chapters, consider defining the abbreviation at first mention in each section or chapter.

Executive summaries and abstracts are typically treated as separate pieces because they’re often used as standalone pieces in other publications or as reference materials. If abbreviations are allowed in executive summaries and abstracts, they should be defined in those pieces and then again in the main body of the document.

Tables and figures are also typically treated as separate pieces, with abbreviations defined at the bottom of each piece in alphabetical order.

PRO TIP : Avoid creating sloppy abbreviation lists. Be sure that all abbreviations that appear in the table or figure are listed and that all abbreviations in the list appear in the table or figure. This task is tedious
but essential.

Know Your Audience

Defining abbreviations is especially important for a lay audience. However, if you’re writing for subject matter experts, it’s often fine to use abbreviations without defining them. This means you have to really know your audience—if you’re even the teensiest bit unsure whether to define or not define, err on the side of caution: When in doubt, spell it out.

Follow Publication Guidelines

If you’re writing a journal article, check the publication guidelines to see if they have rules about using abbreviations. The rules vary for each journal:

  • Some journals don’t allow abbreviations.
  • Some journals allow them but may have restrictions for using them.
  • Some journals have a list of preferred abbreviations, those that should never be used, or those that can be used without a definition.

Keep It Simple

The goal of technical writing is to explain complex ideas in a way that will make sense to your audience. If you follow these tips and avoid the alphabet soup, you’ll be well on your way to meeting that goal.