Writers in the Storm

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August 2, 2017

Seven Ways to Use Acronyms in Your Writing

acronym: a word, such as NATO, radar, or laser, formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term; also, an abbreviation, such as FBI, formed from initial letters.

Acronyms are a type of abbreviation. Chances are, your characters see, understand and use acronyms. And that can be very useful to you, the writer. 

How can you use an acronym?

  1. Give a context to the world your characters inhabit: You'll use acronyms that everyone will recognize, like AMEX, TSA, IRS. You don't have to spell out the meanings of common acronyms; in fact, omitting the cumbersome definitions is exactly why you use this type of acronym.
  2. Succinctly enhance setting: If you read AI in a blurb, you're probably going to be reading a science fiction or contemporary/near future work involving computers and artificial intelligence. Think HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Bladerunner. I write science fiction military adventure romance (how's that for a sub-genre?) so SOL, SNAFU, and FUBAR and other acronyms that originated in the military let you know you've entered my world.
  3. To convey mood: If you're an actor, when the cast hears the play is SRO, the mood backstage is energized, happy, expectant. Standing Room Only means your job is guaranteed past tonight. It means big names in the business will take notice, and maybe that break you've been hoping for will materialize after the next performance.
  4. Give readers "in the know" an "Easter egg": If you're in a hospital and you overhear a nurse say that your roommate is going to get a 3H, you can be glad you're not in line for that procedure. 3H is a medical slang acronym for an enema that is "high, hot, and a Hell of a lot" that is given to troublesome patients. You don't need to define all your acronyms, but you can show their meanings through context. When you don't define an acronym that's been used in dialogue, it probably won't impact your story, but a reader who knows what those letters mean can smile, knowing they've found that secret surprise you left for them.
  5. Reveal unknown information:  You can make up your own acronyms and reveal the definition when it will make the most impact. In my debut YA book, PRISM, the name of the planet matches the landscape of a world where government and military leaders were exiled to twenty-five years ago. Instead of plants, crystals and crystalline forms grow. The reader sees the sunlight streaming through prisms of different shapes and colors. It's a harsh, but beautiful, planet. Late in the book, the hero sees a top secret folder stamped P.R.I.S.M. The cover page reads Prisoner Relocation Internment Security Management. This information changes the mindset of the hero—and, hopefully, the reader. Because this prison world was never meant as a place for a thousand people to survive and thrive. 
  6. Avoid overused acronyms. ROTFL was fun when it first became widely used. Now, it's not so fresh, which means description, either visceral or using the senses will have much more of an impact.
  7. Add humor: What if my character uses acronyms but can't spell? What if she changes the meaning of the acronym with one letter. Say she types ROTFS for rolling on the floor screaming. She thinks its hilarious, but no one knows what she means. If I wrote anything funny, I could see this used as a running gag to reveal her character. Imagine she texts, "HM, I had my first VT at lunch today." HM: holey moley, VT: vampire taco  Warning--PSA (Personal Story Ahead): I guess it's been a long time since I've been out to eat, because today, I saw a "vampire taco" on a menu. I asked what it was and the server described it. It sounded innocuous, and who doesn't want to brag they've eaten a vampire taco? So I ordered it. Let's just say the server needs to talk to the cook. But I have eaten a vampire taco.

Have you used acronyms in your writing? How might you add them to your WIP?

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Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes  that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.

Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong.  She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.

A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.  Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.

P.R.I.S.M., a young adult science fiction story of survival, betrayal, deceit, lies, and love, available for pre-order October 2, 2017.

When she’s not hanging out at Writers in the Storm, you can visit Fae at http://faerowen.com  or www.facebook.com/fae.rowen

53 comments on “Seven Ways to Use Acronyms in Your Writing”

  1. Great blog, Fae. Never thought of using them before. Trying to think of ones for my genre (Western), and the only thing I can think of is 'Goat Rodeo' - and that's not an acronym (means the same as snafu, though).

    1. Thanks, Laura.

      Goat rodeo. I love it, and I would never have guessed the meaning. Thanks for showing how specific expressions can be to a genre!

  2. In my police stories and mysteries, the one I use most in my writing is BOLO - be on the lookout. From what I've heard, it's replaced APB - so I'm pulled out if I read that one. It often helps to have a character not know what an acronym stands for so another 'in the know' character can explain it.
    AI to me means artificial insemination, though. 🙂

    1. It took me a long time to figure out what BOLO means, and I've watched NCIS and SVU since they started, Terry. Not sure I'm thanking you for your "alternative" definition for AI, though. I'm afraid it's going to pop up whenever I'm reading in my genre and that one would never have been on my radar. Ha!

    2. AI is a tough one for me too, Terry! I KNOW they're talking about artificial intelligence, but my brain goes to "insemination" and turkey basters before I pull it back to the page. It's a bit distracting.

  3. I have a LAMPS series. Legend and Myth Police Squad. I write romantic comedy 🙂
    Loved your post. Acronyms are so much fun.

    1. Thanks, Bonnie. Your series acronym is perfect. I love when an acronym 'illuminates" something in the story.

  4. I used one acronym in my SciFi novel "The Expanding Seas" – EPIRB. I thought most people knew what it was. Wrong. Only a couple in my critique group were familiar with it. I kept it in my story, but added a note to the bottom of the page (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon).

    1. Even if you hadn't given me your title, Jerold, I wouldn't have blinked at EPRIB. My husband had a boat when I married him. On the second "trade up" he did some serious upgrades on electronics. I only cared about the price of everything, so when I questioned the EPIRB line of the invoice, I got schooled. And, as with Bonnie, I have to give you kudos for an acronym that gives me a directional for where your book is going!

  5. I work in education, and I loathe acronyms so much I have never used LOL. For my baseball books, it was actually helpful to have an editor who didn't know a lot about baseball and she helped me decide which industry specific acronyms I needed to define and which were common enough to leave as is. But for me, DH will always mean designated hitter and I am firmly against it.

    1. As a teacher, I get the whole educational acronym dislike, Kristina. When I was in junior high, I walked to my "boyfriend's" baseball games. His mother taught me how to keep the scorebook. I don't think anything but DH when I see that acronym. And I get why you aren't fond of players who don't play the whole game.

  6. Great blog! When I write my post-plague survival and renewal with aliens in the USA (a sub-sub genre), I keep culture and time specific acronyms to a minimum. I want the reader to guess when the action takes place. Tomorrow, next year, the turn of the century? I do use acronyms almost everyone knows, however. Fubar, Snafu, CF. They are classics that stand the test of time. 🙂

    1. Ah, Nancy, thanks for sharing one of my favorites: CF. My friends know that things have gone far south when I use that one.

  7. Thanks, Christa. I haven't read anything about acronyms in fiction writing. Since I use them and enjoy figuring out possible meanings when I encounter them, I thought it would be fun to hear what WITS readers think!

  8. I've only used the usual suspects.

    True story: I used a real word which started out as slang in the 60s, but it's used pretty commonly now. The editor accused me of making it up. Gave her links to the word in the Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries. SMH


    1. Okay, Denise. I have to admit I googled SMH. I got eleven very different definitions. Um, I don't know your genre, but 60's, I'm thinking you used it for "Sex Might Help"?

      1. Shake My Head, it's even in the Oxford dictionary: SMH 1. abbreviation
        shaking (or shake) my head (used in electronic communication to express disapproval, exasperation, frustration, etc.). But it had nothing to do with the editing word. I guess my comment was confusing.

        1. Not confusing, Denise. I don't know most texting acronyms—I ask my younger friends!

      2. When I said SMH, it was in reference to the editor's comment. I guess the humor was lost. The editor should have looked up "jonesing" to see if it was real before accusing me of making up the word. And while the jones/jonesing does have its 60s roots in the drug culture, it's very mainstream now, and I bet most users don't know the origin.

        1. by user, I mean someone using the word, not a drug abuser.

          Sorry, I'm stressed to the max, about to take DS2 to college, MIL on day 11 in the hospital following her cancer surgery, and DH is in NJ & NY to be with her. I need ZZZs.

          1. LOL I know what you mean! True story. I started writing for money for a small ad agency when I was in college, switching from shelving books in the library to having a desk and there were secretaries! So, my first job was a brochure for a telecom. I closed by saying "From Nome to Tierra del Fuego, MetroCom (not their name) can meet your needs." The only edit I got back from the client was a note from the VP saying i shouldn't make up place names and to put something in place of "Tierra del Fuego." I'll never forget it.
            Hope you get those ZZZZs.

  9. This is a longer acronym - unsub. I watched a million Criminal Minds before I even heard it said correctly (hard of hearing). Finally, I GOT IT! Unidentified subject! Thanks for an interesting post, Fae!

    1. Thank you, Barb! I don't watch Criminal Minds often—I have to admit I get too squeamish—but when I have watched they always use that acronym. I never knew what it meant. Until now.

  10. My husband has a dairy farming background and AI--artificial insemination--is commonly used to improve herd genetics. When writing stories that include farming scenarios, I'll have to be more specific. 🙂

    1. No problem, DL. As long as your don't have computers that have human aspects, you're fine. I don't typically have ranches in space, so I think I'm okay with AI. So far...

    1. You are not going to believe this, littlemissw. Today I saw an ad for a vampire facial. Honest! I can hardly wait for the third shoe to fall tomorrow. And I don't read vampire stories. If you don't see me commenting this month, pull out your garlic necklace!

      Anyway, a vampire taco is a very messy steak taco (cooked to your level of doneness--I thought it meant it was going to be VERY rare) with lots of red sauce, so when you eat it, no matter what you do, that sauce is going to drip down your chin coat your lips... you get the picture.

      1. I'm with you, Jerome. I think a little goat rodeo would be a cute kiddie attraction.

        1. Knowing now what "goat rodeo" means - I've seen a few in my time, Their neither pretty nor cute. You just want to back away and be glad it's not your rodeo.

  11. The military has by far the best acronyms. So many, I can't keep up, but super-duper fun. Plus, my military brother likes to make new ones, like "Whiskey Tango" for "white trash." He's creative like that.

  12. LOL, great post, Fay. I had no idea what "3H" was until you explained. And now I'm kind of sorry I know . . . Anyway, thanks for a great essay. And I'm looking forward to P.R.I.S.M.

    1. Thanks, James. Be very afraid if I ever have to visit you in the hospital! I am so looking forward to setting P.R.I.S.M. free!

  13. For me here down-under - SMH is the Sydney Morning Herald. Haven't much of a clue of the others. I'm thinking they don't translate, transpose well even in English, or age-group perhaps.
    Thanks for the article, Fay. 🙂

  14. Thanks, Wendy. I think there are a number of sayings that, even though they are in English, they don't translate well. When my husband and I went on a driving tour of New Zealand, we started seeing "BEWARE! Judder bar ahead." The signs got closer together. My husband kept looking for the equivalent of a military or biker bar that was so big and so rowdy the community need to be reminded it was there. We finally came to a sign warning "Judder bar" with an arrow point the the pavement. And the speed bump.

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