The Stress of Sounding Smart When Writing

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By Marla Cunningham

Before joining PrepMatters, I worked in middle schools and high schools for a number of years as an English teacher. I know that in those settings, there are always bright straight-A students who desire to set themselves apart from their classmates. They do this by adding fancy vocabulary, lengthening sentences in their speech, and adding more writing to their paragraphs. This can certainly set them apart but not always in a positive way. Talking to students and colleagues alike, everyone acknowledged the pressure to sound smart when asked to write or present, a source of anxiety that can span middle school, college, and even professional life.

A number of successful adults in various fields shared memories of a time when a professor told them, “Just tell me.” Or when a teacher handed back a graded paper dripping in red ink and containing the critique, “Too verbose!” written in the margin.

If you are adding to your writing in an effort to sound more academic or if you are trying to reach the required page count, take note of some of the issues:

Problem #1: Your writing can sound unnatural. 

When a writer attempts to lengthen a sentence or paragraph to appear more intelligent, the reader will know. I know because it is obvious to me where a writer has attempted to add an additional clause or prepositional phrase.

Long: The protesters congregated in an area near the vicinity of the school.

Short: The protesters congregated near the school.

Sounds better, right? It is shorter and the meaning is exactly the same. The use of “near” and “vicinity” is repetitive. Conciseness should be the goal.

Problem #2: The word choice might be off.

Yes, I encourage my students to use a thesaurus and find a synonym to add variety and interest—then to use a dictionary, too! It is important, when you attempt to replace one word with another, that the synonym fits with the sentence and content.

Here is a sample of student writing from the University of Arizona’s webpage.

“In Martin Luther King’s text that he gave, he brings forth an extravagant amount of viewpoints…”

The first and most used definition for extravagant is wasteful, which I don’t think the student wants to convey here. I would ask the student what he or she means by that word. Maybe they mean to say Martin Luther King brings up a lot of viewpoints?

“In Martin Luther King’s text that he gave, he brings forth a number of viewpoints…”

Now, the meaning isn’t vague and it sounds better. Good job!

Problem #3: It looks like you are trying too hard.

The best athletes make catching an impossible pass look easy. The mark of good writing is very similar; it should flow and never distract the reader.

“It was brought to my attention that your company may be expanding its human capital in the near future. I have always admired your company and the progress it has encouraged among its constituents. It links with a number of my passions, and I would very much appreciate your considering my application if it is indeed the case that there is an available position.”

“I learned about your company’s expansion from the company blog. Are you hiring? I am curious to know.”

The second example is direct and asks a question. This makes it much easier to follow and more likely that the receiver will respond.

It is important to remember that the smartest person in the room is not trying to sound more intelligent. They are experts who have extensively studied their area and know it very well. So, how does my 30 years of study and expertise translate into tips for a high school students?

Solution #1: Have a good outline

The trick is to know your topic well. You do this by having a great outline. If you have a strong thesis and clear outline of the points you are going to make, you sound just as brilliant as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. When writing with clarity, your transitions will connect better and you won’t be scrambling to try and fill a page count.

Solution #2: Know your audience

Another way to sound brilliant is to know your audience. Be aware of the audience you are presenting to, but also be aware of their knowledge and needs. If you are presenting at a science conference, you probably do not have to review photosynthesis. However, if you have a speaking engagement at a middle school science fair, a review of that topic may be useful. Thinking about what your audience needs will make you a better communicator overall, which is a valuable asset in any field of study.

Solution #3: Edit, edit, edit

Lastly—and the one that causes my high school students to grumble is—there’s editing. If you are lucky enough to do a paper the night before, hand it in, and get an A, then congratulations. But, for a lot of the population, the act of editing is required to produce a polished product. Editing will even help those born with natural writing talent to hand in higher quality work. I recommend always reading portions of your paper out loud. You will find it easier to hear when words need to be cut or if a verb tense is incorrect.

When writing a college essay, I hope this article eases some of the pressure to sound smart. The reality is that lots of people are smart, and it shows in all kinds of different ways. The goal is to use the above tools so your expertise and knowledge show through. Good luck when writing a college essay and beyond!