How to Use (not abuse) Jargon, Slang and Idioms

This post, by Susan Bearman, originally appeared on Write It Sideways on 4/20/12.

I started my writing life as a business writer, compelled to try to improve the tortured, often incomprehensible language I found in operating manuals, annual reports, memoranda, and other formats that some bad writers tried to pass off as business “communication”. There seems to be a great misconception that passive voice, undefined acronyms and abbreviations, and loads of jargon make for good business writing.

Not true. All writers—whether writing for business, science, or academia, or those writing fiction and creative nonfiction—should strive for clarity.

But does that mean jargon, slang, and idioms are always taboo? Not if you do your job to make them serve your writing, rather confuse or bore your readers.


jargon (noun) — specialized technical terminology characteristic of a particular subject; a characteristic language of a particular group.

To use jargon effectively, you must know your audience. Almost all industries use jargon to some extent, and that’s OK, because most practitioners of a particular profession have a basic understanding of the material and its associated jargon. Business and sports writers are notorious jargon users, as those in medicine and education.

For most writers, the goal is clarity. Unless you have a specific reason to use jargon, it’s best to avoid it. If you must include jargon, be sure to define it or make it understandable within the context of your story.

Bad writing is often the result of too much jargon. While jargon can be helpful when communicating within a specific group, too much jargon, or jargon that is not clearly defined can lead to muddy, confusing writing. If you find yourself having to reread a sentence over and over again, it is often because it contains confusing jargon.

Well-placed jargon in a piece of fiction can lend the voice of authority or the face of authenticity to a particular character. If one of your characters is a pompous Wall Street trader, using some insider jargon will help readers hear his voice on your page. Genre fiction, such as crime fiction, often relies heavily on the use of jargon. Here again, know your audience.

One way to help define jargon in your writing is to spell out acronyms or abbreviations the first time you use them:

Fuzzy: SCBWI announced on June 19 both the winner and runner up of the Don Freeman Memorial Grant-in-Aid.

Better: On June 19, the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) announced this year’s recipients of the Don Freeman Memorial Grants for picture book illustrators.

See if you can translate the following jargon into language that could be understood by a general audience (note, I did not make these up). You may need your search engine to help you. How many clicks around the Internet did it take you to understand the original jargon?


Read the rest of the post on Write It Sideways.

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