The controversy concerning the use of abbreviations in content writing was around long before mobile phones and texting. Although using abbreviations in your content writing can be an effective way to save space and get your message across more quickly, it can also hinder your communication by making your writing less clear and understandable.
When to use abbreviations in your content writing
As a general rule, you should only use abbreviations in your content writing when you have very limited space to work with. For example, it can be suitable to abbreviate long words if you don’t have much room to work with – such as in charts, graphs, spreadsheets and footnotes.
Most of the time it is not necessary to abbreviate your words. For example, I was editing a quarterly newsletter for a client who wrote Jan to Mar Newsletter in the heading and in other parts of the publication. There was plenty of room to write January to March Newsletter, but for some reason the writer decided to abbreviate the names of the months.
In editing other publications, I have noticed that some writers tend to abbreviate certain words for no reason. Common examples include mths for months, approx or appx for approximately and hrs for hours. Again, in most of these instances there was plenty of space and no need to abbreviate these words. From an editor’s perspective (and most likely for readers as well) it looks unprofessional to abbreviate words when it’s not necessary.
Using acronyms in your content writing
Acronyms are a common form of abbreviation found in content writing. They can convey information quickly and with less space. But when should you use them? First, ask yourself ‘Will everyone reading my document understand what the acronym means?’ If not, define the acronym the first time you use it. For example, ‘The Building Code of Australia (BCA) is a uniform set of technical provisions for the design and construction of buildings and other structures throughout Australia.’ If your publication has multiple sections and chapters, you will want to define the term at the beginning of each part because readers won’t always read it from the beginning to the end.
If you use many abbreviations in your documents and publications, and you are not sure all readers will be familiar with them, you should consider including a glossary that defines these terms.
Another time to think about acronyms is when speaking to groups. If you are speaking to an industry group and you are confident that all audience members will understand the terminology, using acronyms will save time. When you are not sure that all audience members will understand the acronyms, define them the first time you use them. For example, ‘Today I will be speaking about our company’s EBITDA last financial year. EBITDA means earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation.’ You might also want to explain the term in more detail if you think it is necessary for some members of your audience.
Refer to style guides for guidance on when and how to use abbreviations in your content writing
Style guides can be very helpful when you have questions about how and when to use abbreviations in your content writing.
In Australia, the Style manual for authors, editors and printers offers a complete chapter with guidance on using abbreviations (shortened forms) in many situations. In summarising shortened forms, the Style manual states:
Writers use shortened forms of words and phrases to produce more compact expression. If readers are familiar with those that are used, communication can be more efficient. But if shortened forms might be new to at least some readers, think carefully about whether the really are necessary. A publications level of formality and the potential number of shortened forms in it should also be taken into account.
Similarly, the Chicago Manual of Style includes a full chapter on using abbreviations and states:
Outside of the area of science and technology, abbreviations and symbols appear most frequently in tabular matter, notes, bibliographies, and parenthetical references. Abbreviations should be used only in contexts where they are clear to readers. Some are never used in their spelled-out form (IQ, GOP, DNA) and may be used without explanation. Others, though in common use (HMO, UPS, AT&T), are normally spelled out at first occurrence — at least in formal text — as a courtesy to those readers who might not easily recognize them. Less familiar ones, however, should be used only if they occur, say, five times or more within an article or chapter, and the terms must be spelled out on the first occurrence.