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How to use professional jargon when writing fiction?

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The military, the medical professions, police, etc. - they have their professional jargon. One noteworthy characteristic of this jargon is the extensive use of abbreviations. Those abbreviations are associated with "being a professional" to such an extent that tv shows often use them as shorthand for marking out the professionals.

As far as the general picture goes, soldiers at least do indeed use a lot of abbreviations (personal experience here). So to that extent, the media got it right.

Now, when writing fiction in a military setting (or medical, or police, or similar), I see two opposing problems:

  • How is the audience supposed to understand a flood of professional jargon, if they are not previously familiar with it? (In fact, I remember struggling with this for my first couple of days in boot camp). Even if you introduce a "rookie" character who's learning the ropes, so you have an excuse to provide the meanings of the abbreviations once, how many can the reader remember, without getting confused and frustrated? Not to mention there are the procedure words in addition to the abbreviations...
  • If one chooses to write less abbreviations, that's not very realistic, is it? Not just in the "they should be saying this instead of that" way, but also in the more general way of the overall atmosphere - soldiers should be speaking a certain way. The language is an essential part of the military atmosphere.

How does one manage both issues, without falling into one or the other? How does one use jargon to maintain the desired atmosphere, without losing the reader in the process? How does one maintain at least some measure of realism?

(My own interest is from the military sci-fi angle, but the question should be applicable to multiple genres, and multiple professions that use a jargon.)

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Handling realistic jargon that your readers might not know is similar to the problem described in Using real words from a foreign culture feels like 'Calling a rabbit a "smeerp"', a question about fantasy language. In an answer there I pointed out that density is one problem; if every fifth word in your story is jargon, then readers without a similar background will feel lost. But that doesn't mean you have to eliminate the jargon; instead, try to supply some context, both in scene descriptions and in character actions and reactions. Some examples:

  • Go ahead and have your character sight in with his (insert high-powered rifle type here), and then show the effects of the recoil or bracing against it.

  • Have the sergeant give those jargon-filled orders, and then have a soldier wonder why we're going to all that trouble to (describe maneuver here) when (something else) seems much easier.

  • Have the radiologist talk about the scan using the expected jargon, and have the medical resident ask questions that don't use the same (or as much) jargon. Readers who don't know the medical terms can still pick up on emotional impact, severity, and uncertainty.

  • If your story supports it, have a character who either needs more explanation (for example, by being an outsider) or who naturally over-explains. A journalist embedded with a military unit or the spouse accompanying a partner to a professional social event can provide a way for you to explain things to the reader indirectly. Or you might have a know-it-all who often needs to be told to shut up.

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The audience will come to understand professional jargon the same way as they would understand, say, a fantasy-only term for a fictional universe; they'd infer from context, and only in the direst of circumstances would need to be sat down and told what's what.

For example, I've never needed to be told what 10-4 means; as long as you're exposed to the profession enough, even in a fictional context, you'll figure out the meaning with enough time. It's what we humans do best; learn from cues.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/38930. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Fiction is never "realistic".

Frodo doesn't go to the toilet even once during the months he's on the road. He must have had massive constipation at Mount Doom.

The purpose of fiction is to entertain, possibly educate, the reader. If your aim is to teach the reader military jargon, then incorporate a textbook approach into your novel, with definitions in text and a glossary in the back. I wouldn't want to read that, but I'm sure there are nerds who do.

If your aim is to provide an experience of miliatry life to the reader, then think about what you want this experience to entail. Is part of it being confused by the jargon? Then by all means confuse the reader. But make it clear to them that you are doing this on purpose! For example by having the viewpoint character think that the jargon is confusing them.

If on the other hand you find that your focus on military jargon is distracting you, your characters, or your (beta) readers from what you really want them to focus on, simply treat it like Frodo's bowel movements – remain silent about it.


The one single overriding advice to any writer at all times is:

Know what story you want to tell

and include everything that is relevant to it and nothing that is not relevant to it.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/38940. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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