Hacks / Literature

My Problem with Big, Fancy Words in Writing (They make you sound dumb)

Your big, fancy words don’t impress me.

I’m also quite sure they’re not impressing anybody else.

Displaying the words from the thesaurus you swallowed to try to sound smart only makes you sound dumb. This makes you look insecure and trying too hard to impress your readers, which in reality just pushes them away. It makes them yawn or cause their minds (or noses) to figuratively bleed.

Your readers probably don’t carry the unabridged version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary with them all the time. It would be pretty inconvenient and absurd if you come to think of it.

Of course, it’s okay to use big words, but only if you know them well and they fit right to the message you want to convey. If you think the word is most apt, then feel free to use it, especially when you’re writing a scientific paper.

You should keep in mind who’s reading and under what circumstances. Showing off your extensive vocabulary will only cost your readers. You don’t want to be that kind of a headache!

Well, I learned this the hard way in college when I was still part of our university’s official student publication. I will never forget that day as it was the day two college freshmen’s style and tone of writing completely changed.

Our editor-in-chief sat down with a fellow writer who, at that time, was a fresh recruit like me. They were next to my cubicle and let’s just say I overheard the most painful, yet most profound criticism of someone else’s work. I also came to understand why editors-in-chief are feared.

The Devil Wears Prada, much?

I tell you, he didn’t mince his words when he told my colleague to rewrite almost everything she wrote. The article the other writer wrote was filled with highfalutin words and riddled with verbosity. Needless to say, it was overwrought and needed some ruthless trimming and rewording.

If that article was written on a piece of paper, he would’ve burned it. At least that’s what I remember him saying.

The criticism might be harsh, but it contained the truth I wish most aspiring writers would hear.

Our editor didn’t leave it like that though. He matched his candidness with sincerity, explaining how good writers use simple words and only make a good impact with their great prose. He wanted to shift our focus to our writing style and how we should mostly attack the sentence structure to create a tone and remarkable turn of phrase regardless of our vocabulary.

For budding writers, best-selling horror author Stephen King recommends cutting down your text and be unforgiving about it.

“Any word you have to hunt down for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”

I get that you want to sound smart, but maybe it’s time to put the thesaurus down.

According to a Princeton University research, using big words in your writing makes you seem less intelligent. In a study entitled, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” (the irony and humor, right?), Daniel Oppenheimer proves that simple writing actually makes you sound smarter.

Participants in the study were shown samples of college admission essays with varying levels of linguistic complexity. They rated the intelligence of authors who wrote essays in simpler language as higher than those who penned more complex works.

So if you find yourself itching to brag about your pretentious words, STOP!

Think again.

What is your main goal as a writer?

Isn’t it to communicate?

You can only achieve that when you communicate with clarity and precision. Which means choosing short, simple words — every time.

The most powerful works out there were written with simpler, yet elegant use of the language. It neither feels heavy nor forced.

You can start this by writing as if you’re speaking to someone. Perhaps, your average reader. I’m aware not all of us can speak well in person but write as though you are articulate when speaking to a person. Part of good writing is how you extend your “voice” into your work. Sprinkle it with your attitude and you’re sure to captivate your audience.

Once you’re done, go over your writing and replace high-sounding words with something a layman can easily understand. If there’s a smaller word that means the same thing, use it. If a big word is a perfect word to describe something and placing it there will add to its aesthetic, make it a point to use it in a casual manner.

Make your writing economical. Pretend that you’re paying for every word or every letter you use. The fancier and the longer the word, the more it costs. Use the best words that offer great value for their space on the page. When you write for a newspaper or magazine, which oftentimes gives you limited space, you need to make every character on the page earn its place.

Put. Down. The. Thesaurus.

Cut your words to the meaning, so they stand a chance of being understood.

Writing well and succinctly is far more important than your fancy choice of words.

It’s a lot harder than you think. So practice, practice, practice.

Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.- Mark Twain



About Author

A writer by day, reader, diaper-changer, monster slayer at night. She's the wife of a rock star wedding photographer and the mother of Prym, the unicorn rider. She loathes writing in the third person and terribly misses the taste of coffee in her mouth.

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