Technical Writing Tips: Abbreviations and Acronyms

It’s common in science and engineering to use abbreviations and acronyms to shorten long words or terms. This comes in not only when communicating with others, but also in one’s internal communication. In our lab, we end up with tons and tons of files and directories full of simulation data. We usually give them cryptic names. “R0.1mmCV0.4x” or “CI250V5” or worse. Typing out long names all of the time is laborious, and we generally know what our own abbreviations mean. This comes into play with notes, too. I might write down CV instead of conduction velocity, LAD instead of left anterior descending coronary artery, or APD instead of action potential duration, or the more ambiguous “duration.” When thinking or writing about different sets of experimental parameters, I may refer to things with labels that are nonsensical without explanation. It’s an issue of practicality.

When communicating with outsiders, however, abbreviations can be a problem. They must be kept to a minimum in papers, abstracts, and posters. Even things that are talked about all the time in the field must be defined, as you can never assume that someone knows them. I’m working on a manuscript now, and I had to go back, count instances of abbreviations, decide which ones were worth using (used often) and which had to be spelled out (used infrequently). In retrospect — and here’s the writing tip — I should have written everything out in the manuscript to start with. It would have been easier to go back later with search-and-replace to abbreviate the most-used terms.

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