Acronyms and abbreviations are one of those things that I always see people getting wrong in documentation. When you are delving into a heavy technical jargon area, you can’t be lazy in defining them. This is especially the case when you have stakeholders, who are not in your organization and will be reading the document.
Acronym vs. Abbreviation (or really Initialism)
There is a very small difference between an acronym and abbreviation, but it’s one you should know. Also, an acronym is really an abbreviation. Remember when you were learning Geometry, and the teacher would tell you that a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square? Well, it’s the same thing. When you think about an abbreviation, you are actually thinking about an initialism.
An acronym is a new word made my a longer one. Some examples are:
- NATO = North Atlantic Treaty Organization
- DNA = Deoxyribonucleic Acid
- AIDS = Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
You get the point of it.
An initialism is using the letters of the words to create a shortened version of it. Examples:
- LOL (I do tons of that) = Laugh Out Loud
- PMP = Project Management Professional
- ORCA = Online Representations and Certifications Application
Using Acronyms and Initialisms in Documentation
One thing that drives me nuts is when people are trigger happy with abbreviations. Every long word they encounter, they want to abbreviate it. No, it doesn’t work that way. If you are only going to use the word once, then just leave it in its long form. There is no point of abbreviating it because the reader is not going to encounter it again.
If you will be using the word more than twice, then yes, abbreviate it. The way to do this is by spelling out the long word and in parenthesis, having the abbreviation. For instance:
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
When the reader sees it again, then it will just be W3C. The spelled-out word should always be done the first time the user encounters it. Do not spell it out after you have abbreviate it four times and never defined it. This is something that you especially have to look out for if more than one person is collaborating on a document.
What Was That Abbreviation Again?
After you have written the document, you should have a section or appendix that lists all the abbreviations and their definitions. I usually create a table. One column is called Abbreviation, and the other is Definition. The list should be in alphabetical order.
Tip: Do it on a spreadsheet. When you are done with the abbreviation list, do a A->Z sort and voila!
Abbreviations can make your readers’ lives easier if you do it right.